The relentless sun is casting familiar shadows on Cairo streets. Brothers fighting brothers; police helmets butting against taqiyahs; and the figures of women resisting the assaults which have become so commonplace in today’s Egypt. A dense and fog-like denial has been settling on the ground for some time, obscuring the daily realities of the marginalised peoples of Egypt. A deadly combination of national pride and victim blaming is robbing women of their rights, of their safety, of their liberty. Avoidance and denial are killing women.
Statistics show that Egypt is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. UN Women reported earlier this year that 99.3% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed, and 91.5% have experienced unwanted physical contact. Despite what the statistics show, many Egyptians deny that there is a problem with sexual harassment, referring to whistles and comments as ‘compliments’. When shown evidence that sexual harassment is reaching epidemic levels, some will admit to the problem but claim that it is only a new phenomenon; due, in part, to the revolution of 2011 and its aftermath.
Why has each government; undemocratic, interim, democratic, military, denied the problem or resorted to victim blaming? Why do the Mosques?
Egyptians are fiercely proud people. Epidemic levels of harassment, assault, rape, of packs and mobs, of government sponsored terrorisation and brutalisation of women, interferes with national sentiments and the narrative of Egypt as a great nation. Rather than address the problem, it has been easier, perhaps, to deny its existence. And where denial is impossible, to blame and/or neglect the victim; to allow the perpetrator to walk. Additionally, there are those who simply do not see sexual harassment as a problem: the perpetrators and the women haters. A report by the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments, titled ‘Sexual Harassment: Causes and Solutions’, for example, places the blame firmly on the victim.
The discussion the country needs to be having in its communities, police stations, and government offices is happening online. Journalists, bloggers, and tweeters are recounting in their masses scenes of women being harassed on the streets and then further harassed by passers-by for trying to stand up to her perpetrator or for calling the police. Often the passers-by will claim that the woman is making trouble, or that the punishment the perpetrator faces from the authorities will be too harsh. In one case, a woman was berated because the young man could ‘lose his future’ if she went ahead and called the police. The trouble she could cause him was, for these Egyptians, more important. Yet the trouble he caused her; the assault on her right to walk without fear, her freedom, the assault on her right not to be touched, was perfectly tolerable. Her wanting to resist, and the trouble it would cause the criminal, was intolerable. This is how Egypt convinces itself that it is the great nation it so desperately want to be. It only accepts the solution that cleans up the mess the quickest. When sweeping the problem under the rug is not effective, it simply looks away.
Egypt is changing, and yet, sadly, the situation for women has remained, and will remain, the same for as long as sexual crimes are considered non-crimes (against non-people, I might add); or worse, as long as they are not considered at all.
By Sawsan Bastawy