Why you should care
It turns out a lot of women are just fine parroting the patriarchal norms about sexual harassment in Egypt.
Samah El Saghier was 16 the first time she experienced sexual harassment. The perpetrator was in his 70s.
While El Saghier was walking with her sister and cousin to her uncle’s house in Port Said, a northern Egyptian town close to the Suez Canal, an elderly man cycled up next to them and said “the most disgusting words you can ever imagine,” she says. Shortly afterward, the man chased the girls into their relatives’ apartment building, stripping off his clothes as he did so. “We were there frantically knocking, and by this time he’s completely naked,” El Saghier says. Her aunt opened the door just in time.
“The moment I got into the apartment, I called my dad, who was in Cairo, and I burst into tears. … It made me uptight and nervous [to] walk around people I don’t know and around places I don’t know,” she says. El Saghier admits that she walked with her fists tightly clenched after that.
Eleven years later, while en route to a Cairo restaurant with a friend, a male passerby fondled her rear end. This time she exploded, repeatedly hitting her attacker in the face with a thermos she was carrying. “I was hysterical, you know: ‘Why do you touch me? Why do you touch me?’” she recalls asking. A few days later, she told her female boss what had happened. It was then that the questions so familiar to Egyptian victims of sexual harassment began. “What were you wearing?” her boss asked. “Maybe you tempted him.” While El Saghier might have expected another woman to understand, the statistics don’t back that up. In fact …
In Egypt, 84 percent of women agreed with the statement “Women who dress provocatively deserve to be harassed,” compared to just 70 percent of men.
That data was collected in 2017 by U.N. Women and Promundo, and of the three countries where this question was asked in the report, Egyptian women were the most likely to hold such views — 65 percent agreed in Palestine and 78 percent in Morocco. By comparison, a 2016 study of 8,000 British men and women found that 34 percent of women and 38 percent of men would say a sexual assault victim who got drunk and wore a short skirt was either totally or partly to blame for the incident. Meanwhile, more than 99 percent of women in Egypt have been sexually harassed, according to a 2013 United Nations survey.
Helen Rizzo, an associate professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, says that women’s tolerance of sexual harassment can partly be explained as an attempt to regain some control of the situation, a concept known as strategic conformity. “The idea [is] that you have limited options to end the problem, so one way to try to deal with it is try to impose the idea that you have some control over it,” says Rizzo. “So women will say: ‘Well, if women just dress appropriately … they won’t get harassed.’”
Recent history also plays its part. In the 1960s, Egyptian women would regularly wear miniskirts and high heels. But soon after, there was a shift in regional attitudes, which some link to the Iranian revolution of the late ’70s. Recent generations of Egyptians have grown up under the shadow of Islamic conservatism, which serves to restrict the ways women can dress and behave.
The agreement that certain women deserve to be harassed isn’t an outlier — in fact, that view of gender roles informs other attitudes displayed by Egyptian women in the survey. “That statement … is actually completely consistent with the responses we were seeing elsewhere,” says Shereen El Feki, a principal investigator for the report. Close to a third of Egyptian women agreed that “there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten,” and 71 percent agreed that “a woman should tolerate violence to keep her family together.” In other words, extreme gender inequality is the rule in many different situations. “I think the way we need to look at sexual harassment,” explains El Feki, “is to not see it in isolation.”
This is a country where men are defined first and foremost as economic providers, but times are tough and opportunities limited, making it very difficult for them to realize that role. El Feki says solutions have to also acknowledge that the patriarchal context of Egyptian society oppresses both men and women, and that both accept the unfair norms.
“The patriarchy is bad, no doubt, but it’s bad for everyone,” she says. “It’s very bad for women, although women do buy into it to a certain level — not because they’re stupid but because … at some level they do find ways to benefit from it. But the patriarchy is also really bad for men. Because unless you’re the one at the top of the pyramid, life is pretty bad, and most men are not there.”
Although a fraught political climate makes life exceedingly difficult for many nongovernmental organizations in Egypt, HarassMap is one that has made strides on the issue of street-based harassment here. The organization encourages members of the public to report incidents of harassment and intervention; it also provides tips, resources and outreach to “engage all of Egyptian society” in creating an atmosphere in which sexual harassment is no longer tolerated.
“It’s the economy, culture, religion; it’s all bundled up and it’s creating an environment where there is a lot of tension,” says El Feki. “It’s a bit like a pressure cooker, and some of that pressure blew off during the Arab Spring, but the lid is now well and truly back on.”