Thursday, September 4, 2008

Middle Eastern Times - Egyptian women fight back against sexual harassment

By Joseph Mayton

CAIRO – Egyptian women are galvanizing themselves to fight back against sexual harassment after failing to convince their government to act. A movement to eradicate one of Egypt's most enduring social problems has begun following a shocking mob style attack against dozens of women around a cinema in downtown Cairo in 2006.

Clearly, a change has occurred in the attitudes of women -- both Egyptian and foreign. No longer accepting to take the abuse quietly, they have begun to speak out about their own daily experiences of harassment.

Verbal sexual abuse, inappropriate staring, groping, and even violence, are becoming commonplace on Egypt's busy streets, as reported by nearly all women.

"Women have finally begun to speak out and understand that they are not alone, especially after what happened in 2006," said Nehad Abu Komsan, chairwoman of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR).

In October 2006, during the Eid celebrations that follow the holy month of Ramadan, what seemed to have started as one or two incidents spontaneously erupted into a riot where dozens of unrelated young men and boys rampaged the area attacking woman, groping and ripping at them. Shopkeepers were forced to open their doors and allow the victims to escape the terror. A number of injuries were reported to the media, including to the Middle East Times.

When latest asked for a response to the violence, the Egyptian government denied an instance had occurred, arguing that "if something had occurred, people would have filed charges."
In the two years since the downtown Cairo attacks, government officials often say that women are central to the problem.

Mohsen Reda, an Egyptian Member of Parliament, argued that women should be dressed more modestly as "a lot of our youth can't afford marriage, so it is only normal for some harassment to take place."

Women in the country strongly disagree.

"That is strange," began Ola, a 65-year-old retired mother of two women when asked about modesty in Egypt's busy streets.

"Of course he is talking about another nation. If you walk down the street you will see the truth: women are modest," she said. "Sure, you may see a small percentage of young college girls who like to dress in fashion, but that is it."

"Women with headscarves are harassed all the time too," she added.

Another woman blames the government which, says Asma Abdel Khalek, 30, is part of the problem. She says that the inaction by the authorities implicitly allows harassment to continue.
"I think that our government has a hand in this, not direct, but by not cracking down on the perpetrators they abet in this [harassment]," she said.

Despite perceived government lethargy over the issue, new state campaigns have recently emerged, including one aimed largely at men. It called on Egyptian men to think before they participated in harassment.

Using phrases like "your mother" or "your sister" they were an attempt by locally based activists to force men to think about their family members before committing abuses against women.

But they fizzled out after men made fun of the slogans, dirtying the attempts.

The most successful campaign to date has been the ECWR's "Keeping Our Streets Safe" campaign of almost two years. It aims at getting to the heart of the problem through research and workshops that engage society.

A statement from the NGO explained its strategy: "We find that by creating an understanding with facts helps people understand what is going on here. This is a real problem that needs to be faced by all Egyptians, not just women."

Abu Komsan believes that while campaigns and activism are important in combating the persistent problem, she feels that ordinary women can play a role.

"It is not important to be a female figure or a woman's defender; women are an essential part of society, so as long as they are active in different sectors they will defend their rights and other peoples' rights," she argued.

"The problem was that women had no ability to talk, and they felt shame and were afraid of being blamed by society. Now they are less afraid to speak out and know that they are not alone and that harassment is not their. This, in turn, is encouraging Egyptian society to understand what is happening and is helping to solve it," the ECWR chief said.

She referred to the Islamic world's first female notary, Amal Soliman, who is of issuing marriage and divorce certificates in Egypt. Her appointment has created a stir among the male-dominated profession, but Abu Komsan believes it is women like this, who break new ground in society, that will eventually help tear down the stigma surrounding women.

The ECWR head is fully confident that things are going the right way: "I am optimistic about the future," she says.

But whether males will take this problem seriously and begin to change their ways or not is a daily debate among analysts and ordinary Egyptians. One thing is certain, however; women across the country are fed up with being afraid to leave their homes, and they don't want their daughters and future generations of women in Egypt to have to endure such discrimination.

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