May 28, 2011

Sexually Harassing Egypt's Revolution



Why is sexual harassment denialism so strong in Egypt? Is it not the right time to discuss it because we are having an unprecedented peaceful revolution? Or the patriarchy runs so deep to the point we ignore horrible incidents of mass sexual harassment?

During the revolution days, everyone was talking about how Tahrir Square was free from any sexual harassment. I wondered how anyone could really verify such a statement! We have rampant sexual harassment issues yes, but we still have the culture of silence and shame around it. How many girls and women would actually go and report sexual harassment?

During one of the famous 18 nights of Tahrir sit-in before toppling Mubarak, I was there with a friend of mine who told me she got groped by a guy selling balloons, we chased him and took him to the public committees’ guys that were organizing the flow into the square and they kicked him out of the square.

I don’t mean to say that Tahrir was full of sexual harassment and truly Tahrir witnessed a great state of harmony and positive interaction during those 18 days. I am thinking that denying the sexual harassment during those days may be because we are a conservative culture after all and we’re trying to prove that the mixing of men and women in Tahrir days and nights was innocent and “patriotic”.

Yesterday was an important day for the revolution. Protesters took Tahrir square again to assert revolution’s demands. Islamists groups decided not to participate yesterday so it was a test for liberal and secular groups to organize in the streets. It was considered a success given the thousands that showed up, but it was marred by a horrible incident of sexual harassment of the famous diva Sherihan.

Sherihan

Sherihan was an actress and performer loved by Egyptians particularly during the 80s and 90s. She suffered a severe car accident in mid-90s and it was rumored that it was a chapter of love and power saga that involved Alaa the elder son of Mubarak. She magically recovered and came back to the stage, only to suffer cancer a few years later and move away from the artistic scene. Sherihan was one of the few artists who participated in the revolution unlike many artists who withdrew from making a political stance.

My mother told me that this sad video was screened on TV that shows the horrible incident. The setting around her doesn’t look like Tahrir, some reported that this happened as she was leaving Tahrir yesterday.

What really angers me is the lack of attention such incident got and some of the horrible comments of victim-blame that I always hear when sexual harassment is brought up. Some wonder why she went out of her home! It makes me wonder how deep the denialism about gender inequality is in our country. Even activists refrain from mentioning the incident. Is it because they didn’t know? Or is it an attempt to maintain the silver-lining of the revolution? Is not really important to talk about now? Or is it deep-hidden patriarchy?

But the answer won’t be simple and many factors come at play here. What if this happened to one of the famous activists of the revolution? Does the revolution have an authoritarian system that controls who is important and who’s not? What if the victim of mass harassment was an unknown person? Would it get reported at all?

Lara Logan 
When Lara Logan was sexually assaulted in Tahrir right after Mubarak was toppled, Western media was all over covering her story. Western coverage was very uneven as well with some victim blaming and Islam bashing too. But Egyptian media failed to report on it. Is it because we deny sexual harassment? Is it because she’s a foreigner? Or we were simply overjoyed by Mubarak’s departure?

In gender battles, other factors interfere such as race, age, class, and power. I think we really need to think about these questions and recognize our prejudices. This is how we push the revolution forward.

26 comments:

  1. This is a very important topic. Add to this the mass harassment of women in Tahrir that ended their protest for equal rights in Tahrir on the international women's day.

    We are essentially biased. So don't forget we tend to play down events in order to highlight something we like in a positive light.

    I know female activists who don't wont to report their harassment incidents during the revolution because they think it's a minor thing compared to this grand event that is taking place or they feel the pressure not to report it because everyone is seeing the revolution in a positive light.

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  2. I was groped on the 28th of Jan on the 15th of May bridge..I was shocked & I froze for a minute in disbelief because we were really running for our lives only resting a couple of minutes b4 another tear gas bomb is thrown on our way..so I looked to the guy ..but he repeated it again, and then another time...b4 we started running again from the bombs..
    I didn't tell anyone..probably yes..not to spoil our "clean" revolution!!

    I generally find that guys are in denial of the fact that we have very high rates of sexual harassments..I was asked several times by my colleagues..whether its really true..they tend to think its an exaggeration..but yes its true..its terrible..a girl cannot walk a couple of meters in the streets without a male companion without being at least verbally harassed!

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  3. It really was quite stunning to encounter the lack of any response from the Egyptian revolutionary blogosphere to the Lara Logan story. What is even more surprising is that so many of them are young, highly educated females. I do give credit however to Zeinobia whose blog started out doubting the story but eventually pointed the finger at the Egyptian media for not covering the story. ( http://egyptianchronicles.blogspot.com/2011/05/lara-logan-speaks-out-will-egyptian.html )

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  4. So glad that you are raising this issue. SH is part of a woman/girl’s normal life in Egypt –more than in other places. I hate to say that but I travelled to so many countries rich and poor and walked in so many cities and was never touched (except once mugged in Harare but not SH). Sadly I face SH to me or to my daughter every time we are in Egypt despite modest dressing.

    We need to separate 2 questions: 1) why SH is more in Egypt than other countries, 2) why do we deny it? You offered many insights to both questions.

    We need to open debate about it in public but I am sure people would say it is not important. Let’s focus first on the priorities: the revolution or unemployment or economy or Israel or..etc. SH or women’s issues in general never make it to the top of our priorities. Therefore it needs really committed people to raise it. Yet if you raise it now, I bit you the majority would say: ..those girls deserve it going to Tahrir to be in a crowd of men what do they expect? …they are asking for it… they dress like…..

    The problem is that our society accepts: 1) women inferior place to men 2) violence against women -and children-is normal, 3) individual not collective problem and hence same way to address it

    Happy to discuss further. Let’s open a public debate about it but in Arabic so as to ensure wider audience.

    PS read Bab el Sa7a by Sa7ar Khalefe (Palestinian writer), which is about women’s issues in general at the time of intifada. Actually it is the last book of a wonderful trilogy which is also well worth reading

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  5. Mostafa: Thanks a lot for stopping by and voicing your opinion. I'm glad you agree on the importance of this issue.

    Anon 1: I am really sorry for what you had to go through in silence. I salute you for speaking up about it now. It helps.

    Anon 2: Yes, even the Egyptian blogosphere ignored Lara Logan's assault which is outrageous.

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  6. Muna: Thanks a lot for your feedback. We're always encountered by "it's not the right time" argument and I don't know when it is going to be the right time.

    Thanks for the book recommendation. :)

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  7. Thanks for raising this issue. Doing so not only yields more data to confirm Egypt's sexual harassment problem -- well documented by the Western media and by the 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights -- but it also helps clarify to everyone that that problem is NOT just thugs targeting reporters or foreigners, but is very much one of targeting Egyptian citizens, too. My heart goes out to Sherihan, Logan and all others who have suffered simply because they're women who happen to be IN Egypt....

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  8. Do we teach men that it is okay to act like a wolf towards women? Or do we teach women that men are wolf's and therefore saying that is okay to men to do so?

    Either way, it has somehow given some the idea that it is okay to act like one. Isn't this actually bringing those very same men down lower then who they really are, or could be? Men can be better then this (the ones who do behave this way). By men and women allowing this to happen, they are legitimizing it has okay behavior - and it spreads. It says that it is okay to act like a wolf - even as a person. It says that men can't control themselves and be respectful. Is this how some men wish to be presented?

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  9. as an Egyptian female I appreciate ur initiative to address this topic. but ur blog post dsnt really say much of anything. it dsnt challenge thkng, offer solutions, expose a diff side of the argument, or in the least mk a minor point. I suggest u dig deeper in ur writing & offer a more critical outlook. just some constructive criticism...

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  10. "What if this happened to one of the famous activists of the revolution? Does the revolution have an authoritarian system that controls who is important and who’s not? What if the victim of mass harassment was an unknown person? Would it get reported at all?".
    You are totally right about this. And not only in sexual harassment, but in the level of concern and alert normally that happens when an activist/ public figure is harassed/detained/injured , etc. You described it wonderfully: the revolution has an authoritarian system..
    Great post, Thanks.

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  11. Excellent piece! I agree with the comment above "We did not want to spoil the 'clean revolution'"

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  12. It is a very important topic and it will remain a taboo until we, as a society, decide to tackle it and eliminate its causes. This issue has been discussed by some famous Egyptian women but in vain. I think it will not be really reduced/eliminated unless men take the initiative and decide to reveal and eliminate, not deny it.

    It is a shame really that a conservative (and religious) country like Egypt is described as "sexual harassment is common in Egypt" in foreign media and we just ignore it. Anyway, this should be one of the issues we need to fix in the Egyptian personality after the revolution.

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  13. To Anonymous Mai 28, 2011 4:03 PM

    Why do we (women) still think that men have to solve our problems? Why should the one bringing up the issue offer solutions?
    Where are our points, our ideas, our suggestions? Let's try to find the way out of silent suffering to powerful new thinking. NOW is the right time.

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  14. It´s a very interesting topic: a possible explanation could be that egypt was and IS going through something like a "rite of passage". When old order dies or seemlingly dies and a new situation is not yet established a whole society undergoes a kind of "crisis", a liminality. Merging with "initiation rites" every young male must go through to leave childhood it could lead to a threshold phase. In a threshold phase young men even those that do not normally behave thus act in a disorderly, violent, no-rules way. The phenomen iam speaking of are as old as the stone age and found in many cultures.
    It could be that the LACK of some leader in the egypt revolution didn´t structure the liminal phase properly, meaning that the lawlessness and violence had no check and no balance and no ending. One interesting bit about these passage-phases is that it´s centered around the lack of optionality, meaning that saying no is not accepted. Rape, trespasses, groping and the like would not be stoppable alone by the uttering of the words: no, i don´t want to. Remember: we are talking about massive psycho-social upheavals here.

    Check for literature: Arnold van Gennep, Rites de passages
    Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre
    Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology

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  15. It´s also important to note that with Lara Logan and Sherihan two very established, "powerful" women were attacked. That corresponds with the liminal phase in which established order is mocked,turend upside down, and reformed in new and bizarre ways. Remember iam talking about unconscious behaviour, meaning that the young men don´t think about it, they just do it. The elements of these rites de passages are: Seperation (from the old), liminality (transition phase), Aggregation (new status of people or society as a whole).

    Egypt is in the transition phase. There is a different kind of order: not yet new no more old order.

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  16. Initiation rites: young man is seperated from his mother, introduced in the liminal phase. Liminal phase is conduct very different from "normal" behaviour. Then Aggregation of young male into the world of the men: The hunters. The fighters. The defenders of the tribe/society.

    Young males NEED the elder men to show them the way. Without them there is no structuring of the transition. The protests in egypt - as i have understood - where originated by the facebook generation. ONLY Younger people. And that precisely is the danger.

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  17. Sexual harassment is an epidemic in Cairo. unfortunately you have fell into the same mistake most Western journalists make,that misconception that Cairo=Egypt. I suggest you do more research about sexual harassment in other major cities like Alexandria, Port Said, Suez, Luxor and Mansoura and rural areas of the country(I was once in a market in Port Said and a teenager said something to a woman which I didn't catch but apparently sexual, the kid was beaten so bad I felt sorry for him, almost all the men in the market gathered and pushed him out to the main street). You will be surprised that sexual harassment is almost non-existent in other parts of the country, I have travelled all over Egypt as far as Saloum in the west and Arish in the East and Aswan to the south and I know for a fact that people's behaviour towards women outside Cairo differs profoundly. In Cairo, it's becoming more and more less safe for a woman to walk alone unless you wear a Niqab(which might explain why more women in that city are opting for this attire). I am no social scientist so I can't tell you why sexual harrasment has reached shocking levels in Cairo but it's crucial for activists/woman rights advocates to understand that Cairo does not necessarily represent the entire country and what happened to (most)young men in this metropolis so you can pinpoint the problem and work on an educational programme.

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  18. Thanks all for your comments.

    To Anonymous May 29, 2011 5:52 AM

    Yes, Cairo is plagued by a harrowing extent of sexual harassment, however I do not believe it is limited to Cairo. I have female friends who live elsewhere who also have incidents of sexual harassment, even in Upper Egypt.

    Of course the intensity is much worse in Cairo and it's less likely to have mass harassment outside Cairo too.

    I believe the problem goes back to lack of respect to women and their choices basically and to improve that we do need some sort of national program, I believe.

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  19. I suspect it has less to do with any "right of passage" than pro-mubarek supporters hoping to intimidate or gangs of looters and bandits taking advantage of the riots to cause trouble. The public will never hear about the majority of sexual assaults and rapes that took place throughout these riots. Some witness accounts:

    http://coronadelmar.patch.com/articles/wholesale-rape-and-looting-in-egypt-sc-journalist-reports

    http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=214_1296426144

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  20. Responding to one of the comments, I don't know about an "educational programme" to stop sexual harrassment. It sounds rather like the example in Port Said of beating the kid up in public works best. Do people really sexually harrass more in the CITY because they are less educated?

    That said, I won't believe that there is little to no harassment outside Cairo having heard stories about (non-promiscuous) Western women on the Sinai and how some single Christian girls are taunted in Muslim neighbourhoods of Alexandria.

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  21. Thank you for raising this issue- it is not an issue only in Egypt but also in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. As a black female tourist who has visited Egypt before, I have had men come up to me in countries as diverse as Egypt, Spain, Italy Nigeria and Brazil- before you ask, I never expose my flesh! We as a society need to teach men to change their attitudes towards women, particularly towards black women- we are not sex objects but human beings!

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  22. Where is the video of the Lara Logan attack?

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  23. Here it is.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BesZaq5xVgY&feature=player_embedded

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  24. Very good read and very interesting article. However reading through comments, I find that the understanding of sexual harassment and violating a human right is not quite there yet. Why do we need to mention we dress modestly or how we dress? Why do we insist that the people being harassed are "non-promiscuous"? A victim of harassment/rape is a victim of harassment/rape, period. His or her sexual life should have nothing to do with the fact that they were harassed. this is the essential point: criminal violence is caused against an individual. We shouldn't be making comparisons with how we dress and how others dress. For me it's the same as saying "well what were you doing there in the first place" to respond to an account of harassment. What were you doing there, why, why weren't you covered... khalas. Why doesn't anyone ask the man why he is a pervert? Why won't he cover his eyes if the sight is too much for him to take? I think that until we condemn this violence as such, without emphasizing that these are "respectable" women being attacked, nothing has changed.

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  25. It seems to me that the sexual harassment is getting worse, revolution or no revolution. Pple tell me in the 70's it was not that bad as nowadays. I, a European woman,live in South Sinai. I am sorry to say that, even though I am very modestly clothed, Egyptian men harass me often. Bedouins do not, as a matter of fact.
    Why Egyptian men act thus is a complete riddle to me. Because it is not 'because of Islam.'Nor 'because they are Arabs.' Maybe it happens because of for decades Egyptian men never took their responsibility (could not because of dictatorship) and now just blame the victim, blame the woman, blame the other for all that they are frustrated about. Maryam Alyan

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