Yep, I’m going to write about this.
It’s been ruminating in my head now for a while as a topic I should probably cover in this blog because it has certainly become a topic of conversation here in Egypt in recent weeks. Before I begin though, I want to make it really clear that this is by no means a critique of the male species as much as it is a description and commentary on the anti-sexual harassment movements that have been started in Egypt. I have been blessed with fantastic men in my life, men who deserve all of my respect and honor. So it is my hope that you will not mistake my contempt of sexual harassment with a contempt of men in general.
That being said, the topic of sexual harassment is one that unfortunately, I am quite familiar with. I can remember vividly the first time a man backed me into a corner and asked me for a kiss. I was six years old. I remember the smell of alcohol on his breath as he bent down and reached his arm around me, and I compliantly planted a kiss on his scruffy cheek. Kisses were something a child is expected to give liberally in Morocco so I honestly didn’t think too much of it at the time. But at just that moment, our neighbor and dear friend, Mrs. Reid, came walking past, and became very angry by what she saw. She forcefully told the man to go away and told me that if that man ever came near me again, I was to run away. This made no sense to me at the time—in my childish innocence, I did not see anyone as a threat, not even this scruffy, drunkard—but I now look back on that moment as my first exposure to sexual harassment.
And sadly, it was far from the last. While all women in Morocco are subjected to verbal and physical harassment, my blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes made me even more of a target. It was impossible for me to fly under the radar, and the rampant promiscuity of American women as portrayed in the media did not help my case. I soon found that it didn’t matter how conservatively I dressed or how I carried myself; my blond hair alone sent the message that I was game for a good time and looking to be pursued. It was largely outside of my control. I could, and did, choose to make wise decisions about where I traveled and how I got around, but in the end, I couldn’t avoid the whistles, cat-calls, followers and occasional grabs that came with being a young foreign women in an Arab country.
So I accepted it.
Whenever I passed a man on the street, I put my head down, quickened my pace and did my best to ignore whatever happened next. I rarely responded or stood up for myself, even though I was plenty capable of doing so in Arabic. I figured putting up any sort of fight was likely to just aggravate the situation and the best thing for me to do was to just put up with it. For as long as I can remember really, harassment has been the norm. I didn’t enjoy it, but I just accepted as a fact of life that I would always be harassed by men and nothing could be done about it.
But my Egyptian sisters haven’t.
From what I am told, the sexual harassment in Egypt has grown progressively worse over the last few decades. One common line of reasoning behind this phenomenon is tied to the economic situation of all things: as the economy has declined, Egyptian men have struggled to save enough money to be able to get married, leading to a great deal of pent up sexual frustration which comes out in the form of harassment. Along with this, harassment has come to be seen as a validation of one’s masculinity and young men are often encouraged by older men to harass women as a part of achieving their manhood. Rising unemployment not only makes it difficult for men to marry, it challenges their masculinity, making it all the more necessary for them to harass women. And on and on the cycle goes. From my analysis, sexual harassment is just as much a symptom of an attack on masculinity as an attack on femininity. In recent months, there have been conspiracy theories circling that the atrocious acts committed towards women in the revolution have been attempts by the government to keep them from participating (thereby dealing with 50% of the threat). And for many women, this has worked. I know the things I’ve heard have certainly been enough to keep any of my desires to go to protests at bay!
But an increasing number of Egyptian women have had enough. They are done complying, done putting their heads down and dealing with it. They are taking a stand and demanding to be treated with honor and respect. And they are calling their brothers to join with them in this fight. Anti-sexual harassment movements have begun springing up all across Egypt. Tahrir Bodyguard is a movement of men who have pledged to watch out for women at protests. Harassmap is a website that charts instances of reported harassment and offers help to women being harassed via a hotline. The Street is Ours is a movement of women who have pledged to hold men accountable for their actions by taking physical action against them: spray-painting the hair of harassers, threatening them with knives if need be… And these movements have gathered support not only in Egypt but around the world as well. Last week, 34 countries organized marches in solidarity for the women of Egypt.
There is beginning to be a shift in the way sexual harassment is seen in Egypt, both at the legislative and political level, and at the societal level. There is now a process by which a woman can press charges for sexual harassment in court (though it is nearly impossible to provide enough evidence to convict someone, and the sentence is fairly mild). But the true victories, the really exciting stuff is happening on the societal level. Both women and men are beginning to change the way that women are seen and treated. But it has begun with Egyptian women deciding on their worth and demanding to be treated commensurately. Such action is bold—much bolder than anything I would have dared to do. They are challenging a deeply-embedded social structure.
I am here to witness the very beginnings of social change; the sort of thing that thrills me as an Anthropologist, fills me with pride and admiration as a woman, and inspires me as a human.