Trying to Lift the Veil of Silence

The number of sexual assaults in Egypt has shot up in recent times, especially in Cairo. Women's organisations are taking defensive measures, but the problem is deep-seated. Katharina Goetze reports from Cairo

​​Being a woman in Egypt, Nihad Abul Qumsan had been used to daily sexual harassment, but she never expected that anyone would pester a nine-months-pregnant woman. Yet as she was walking through her neighbourhood, the leafy Cairo suburb of Maadi, a stranger approached her, muttering obscenities and inviting her to take a ride in her car.

It is hard to try and blame her for provoking attention – Miss Abul Qumsan is a respectable woman by anyone's standards. A prominent spokesperson of the Egyptian women's movement, the successful lawyer and mother of three dresses modestly and veils her hair in public.

But, as the 36-year-old now knows, no one is safe when it comes to sexual harassment. In fact it has become an ever-present nuisance on Egypt's streets, reaching from cat-calling and vulgar remarks to groping and even rape. But in a society where sex is a taboo topic, more often than not women themselves are blamed for inviting the attention of men.

Egypt's first survey on sexual harassment

Now the non-governmental Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR) under the chairmanship of Miss Abul Qumsan has launched a ground-breaking campaign to lift the veil of silence that has nurtured a "culture of harassment". Action Days to raise awareness and an educational video to be broadcast in schools are part of the initiative.

In addition to this volunteers up and down the country have collected the stories of 2,500 women and used their experiences to conduct Egypt's first survey on sexual harassment.

Its conclusions should serve as a wake-up call to many who still believe that wearing the right clothes is the key to moving in public untouched.

"The truth is it happens to absolutely everyone. It is not an issue of where or who you are, not even how you dress. Women wearing the Hijab or the Neqob (full facial veil) get harassed just as much as unveiled women or foreigners", said Angie Ghozlan, a graduate from Cairo University that has just been appointed as Campaign Manager.

The 22-year-old has grown up in Cairo and had been groped countless times in the street or on public transport. She doesn't even feel safe in her own car, she says, because men stare when she stops at traffic lights.

Tearing down headscarves and clothes

Yet it hadn't been her own experiences, but the events surrounding last year's Eid that led her to take action and become an ECWR volunteer.

image: ECWR
Founded in 1996, the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights issues publications, fosters awareness, supports victims. The institution is also engaged in research

​​As Egyptians celebrated the breaking of the Ramadan fast, hordes of men in Downtown Cairo began hassling any female in their vicinity, tearing down women's headscarves and clothes. Although the state media denied that the incidents constituted sexual harassment, it was hard to disprove the women's accounts as bloggers had taken pictures of the scenes and published the photos on their websites.

The story sent shockwaves through the conservative Egyptian society. "When I saw those pictures online I cried", Miss Ghozlan said. "I felt like something inside me is exploding. I thought we have no value and that I can't take it no more."

Now she wants to raise awareness among Egyptians, and work to give women the confidence not to feel guilty or ashamed.

Sexual frustration mounts

Economical problems and family pressures are part of what causes Egyptian men to take to the streets and go wild on women. As a growing number faces unemployment and financial difficulties, the chances of marrying young fade and sexual frustration mounts. An important role is also attributed to satellite television which widens the gap between what men see and how they live.

And the offenders get younger and younger: Several women reported that even primary school children now run around slapping women's buttocks.

"There are lots of theories as to why men pester women but we don't want to blame anyone. When we talk to men about what we do, they usually want to help us", said Rebecca Chiao from the ECWR.

"Women don't trust the system"

Although even verbal harassment carries a one-year-prison sentence in Egypt, only a tiny number of men ever go on trial. "Not more than two percent of women report harassment to the authorities. They don't trust the system and fear that taking the matter to court will only make matters worse", said Miss Abul Qumsan.

A change in law, Ahmed Samih thinks, could be part of the answer – but what if those who should enforce it are themselves the worst offenders?

"The uniform gives soldiers and policemen power and makes them untouchables, so they think they can harass any woman and get away with it", the 28-year-old said. More worryingly though sexual harassment has become a popular weapon against political activists, he added. Activists like the blogger Muhammad al-Sharqawi who was detained by the police claim to have been sexually abused by officers.

"On the one hand we always speak about morality in religion, on the other hand people constantly harass others. It has become incredibly bothering," Abul Qumsan said. "This double standard is unbearable."

Katharina Götze

© 2007

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Website Egyptian Center for Women's Rights
(in Arabic and English)