Egypt's sexist anti-sexual-harassment campaigns are absurd

Egypt's sexist anti-sexual-harassment campaigns are absurd
Comment: Nada Ramadan asks how to fight the spread of sexual harassment in a society where victims do not report crimes for fear of social stigma.
5 min read
03 Sep, 2015
The majority of women in Egypt are subjected to sexual harassment [Anadolu/Getty]

Egypt is known around the world for its pyramids, its locking up journalists - and its extremely high rates of sexual harassment.

But campaigns to fight the phenomenon continue to miss the mark.

"Don't pay attention to her", "man-up and don't allow your daughters to wear tight clothes", and "wear a dress and restore your femininity" are some of the dozens of individual and institutional drives to reduce street harassment.

The debate on sexual harassment, in Egypt and in other Arab countries, has been going on for years. But in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, when oppressive regimes resorted to systematic sexual violence to fight and intimidate protesters, the fight has once again come into the spotlight.

A 2013 UN report said that 99.3 percent of women in Egypt had been subjected to one form of sexual harassment or another.

Blaming the victim

On Monday, an episode of a popular talk on Egyptian channel Dream TV went viral on social media after hosting a number of campaigners against sexual harassment in Egypt.

One of them, Ahmed Hatem, the founder of a campaign snappily named Man-up and don't allow your daughters to wear tight clothes, used the infamous analogy of "exposed meat" to make a point on how women were to blame for the sexual harassment they received.

"If you leave a container full of meat out in the open, stray dogs will devour this meat," he explained. "But if you cover the container, the dogs will simply pass by."

Many agree with him. One caller shared his point of view as he made a series of sexist remarks.

[Revealing] clothes do not justify sexual harassment, but they cause it
- Hisham Sayyed

"When a woman wants something from her husband, this is how she dresses, because she wants a certain thing," the caller said.

"So what do you expect from men when you dress this way in the street?

"You are the one who harasses me first as I walk in the street minding my own business, and then you blame me for my reaction."

Hisham Sayyed, who founded another sexist anti-harassment campaign named Don't pay attention to her, told TV channel Ten that his campaign was "to call men not to pay attention to any female attempting to provoke them".

"[Revealing] clothes do not justify sexual harassment, but they cause it," said Sayyed.

A poem posted on the campaign's Facebook page on Monday features dialogue where a woman responds to a man who asks her "isn't your flesh cheap?"

"My clothes may be a bit tight, but that is because I have grown up and I am trying to catch a husband," the woman responds in the poem. "As you know, once I hit 20, I will catch the 'spinster' disease."

The man responds: "With these clothes, you write on your body: open invitation for everyone to stare, harass, and grope... Eventually a real man would not accept to marry a woman whose body is nothing but a few kilogrammes of cheap flesh."

Surprisingly - or perhaps not - the poem was well-received, with many supportive comments below.

Sexist public opinion

Now if a police officer happens to share such views - and many do - can we even expect a report of abuse, harassment or attack to be processed?

The examples mentioned are not the only anti-sexual-harassment campaigns that use sexist discourse - blaming women for harassment, and claiming that women bring it upon themselves with their tight clothes and provocative behaviour.

Now if a police officer happens to share such views - and many do - can we even expect a report of abuse, harassment or attack to be processed?

There are many similar - but this is not to say that all anti-sexual-harassment campaigns are sexist.

On the contrary, some have done admirable work monitoring, documenting, and combating sexual harassment - as well as raising awareness about the increasing rates of attack.

"I saw harassment", "HarassMap", "operation anti-sexual harassment/assault" and "Tahrir bodyguard" have paved the way for good, empowering campaigns in the future.

However, 40 or 50 years ago, sexual harassment was practically non-existent in Egypt - even though women used to wear dresses and miniskirts in the streets and at work. The same applies to Western countries nowadays.

So what seems to be the problem?

The law is not enough

In 2014, Egypt passed a law criminalising sexual harassment, with a fine of LE3,000 to LE5,000 ($420 to $700) and/or a jail sentence of no less than six months.

The law is rarely enforced, with a lack of specialised police or proper law enforcement mechanisms. However, this may not be the only reason why Egypt continues to have some of the world's highest rates of sexual harassment.

In a society where victims of sexual harassment and related violence - mostly women - do not report the crimes committed against them for fear of the associated social stigma, how will the authorities enforce the law?

Even in cases when victims actually attempt to file a police report, they are usually advised to drop their charges to avoid "scandals" or "a bad reputation".

Moreover, victims of sexual harassment often complain that no one does anything to help them during the assault, including witnesses and passersby, who ignore the crime being committed before their eyes - either because they have become accustomed to it, or because they think the victim deserved it.

Some do not even find sexual harassment "a big deal".

The problem, therefore, is not with the lack of law enforcement alone. There is a serious problem with the public's position on sexual harassment and the discourse used to describe it, whether in religious circles or in the media.

Until society rids itself of its victim-blaming approach, there is very little that can be done.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.