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Egyptian Women — “Sexual Harassment is A Universal Issue”

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Amenah. Artwork by Deena Mohamed

Usually, Farah opts to wear conservative clothing when going out; but today she felt confident and wanted her clothes to express that. She and her cousin had decided that they were going to go hang out at the mall as they usually do. As Farah and her cousin passed through the mall they noticed a man with his face slightly covered looking at them oddly. Still, they shook it off and walked past the shops. A chill crept up on Farah, a feeling she just couldn’t shake. She decided to look behind her and she noticed the strange man following them. Her cousin and she decided to head into the nearby shop to lose him, although he didn’t go inside, he was still outside when they walked out. Out of panic, Farah decided to tell her third cousin so they could drive them back home. The man still continued to follow Farah and her cousin as they approached the car. She remembers that day vividly, she can still see the disgusting smirk on his face as he harassed her and her cousin persistently.

“It’s late, he follows her home, rapes her and beats her, or she’s rejected him and he won’t have it, or he got drunk and raped her.The rape stories aren’t what frighten you, it’s how it’s dealt with,” says Seventeen-year-old Malak

Egypt is fighting a major crisis not known by many, but all too familiar to the women. During conversations with local Egyptian women, they told me of the horrors of sexual harassment. To women in Egypt, sexual harassment is more than just dehumanizing and intimidating, at times it is deadly.

“We couldn’t speak up and ask for help because we knew we wouldn’t have been taken seriously and we would’ve just been brushed off as girls wanting attention in a country already facing “much bigger problems” says eighteen year-old Farah,“I’ve heard numerous stories of gang rapes and murders involving sexual harassment on the media. I never hear enough stories about the “smaller scale” issues, though they scar a woman and hurt her as well and shouldn’t be neglected. I think the reason I haven’t heard about smaller issues is because women are not encouraged to speak up and because Egypt is such a patriarchal society that unless you can physically prove that you have been damaged then you should just move on.”

Farah isn’t the only woman who has faced sexual harassment in a country reeling from political disarray and sexist ideals.

In a 2013 study conducted by The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, it’s reporting founded found that 99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. “Until I started work at the beginning of this year, sexual harassment was just a nuisance. Now that I’m in the streets more often on my way to work, I’m harassed on a daily basis.”,said twenty-three year old Amenah.

Sexual harassment and the degrading of women has been ingrained in the Egyptian society. At a very young age, women learn to become accustomed to sexual harassment and control their sexuality so it doesn’t attract men negatively,“Rape and catcalling happen on a daily basis, and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or how you react. I have never stepped foot outside the house without getting whistled at or had an extremely sexual comment thrown at me. They think it’s flattering, they think it’s what we want to hear, but it’s not.” Says Malak

Sexual harassment is more than just humiliating, it can leave such an emotional toll on you; collectively all the women agree that it puts a toll on your daily lives; they fear to do ordinary activities such as walking outside the door and even going to work. It’s a constant uphill battle of wondering when will they be harassed? Will it be as soon as I step outside the house? Walk down the street, walk into town or when they walk back home. “Just last week I was literally reduced to tears because of it. It’s so emotionally draining, even terrifying in some cases. I’ve considered quitting my job more than once just to avoid being harassed on my way to the office.” Says Amenah.

Malak says that even her mother fears for her every time she leaves the house, this many times leaves them fighting on what she should wear. “Honestly, it can get to a point where it affects you emotionally. And it’s not just us who are affected, it’s our parents as well.” Says Malak “The fear and worry I see in my mother’s eyes as I leave the house is honestly heartbreaking; her begging me to call her the minute I get to wherever I’m going to make her sure I’m okay, and the fights we have almost every time I’m about to leave the house about what I’m wearing have become more of a routine.”

Are women allowed to reject the advances of men? Yes, but rejecting may result in some women being dealt with severely,“We’re taught to ignore them, so mostly that’s what I do. It’s what I told my younger sister to do as well, out of fear of her safety, but I’m not proud of it.” Says Amenah.

Although many women try to ignore then advances, some men don’t accept no as an answer; rape is one of the results of rejection, and at times murder. “Some of them yell, some of them won’t go away, and some of them get so pushy to the point where they can actually rape you. But I mean personally, I avoid it, or like I don’t answer. But some of my friends are a lot braver than I am, and they actually do cuss back at the men which end up turning into a full on fight in the street.” Said Malak.

Egyptian woman live in a society where they aren’t left with many choices on how to handle sexual harassment, reactions could be deadly or degrading. They don’t have many options in terms of reporting it, sexual harassment is so normalized that the police don’t react or care at times. A woman like Amenah doesn’t even consider going to the police because it’s a lost cause, “By victim-blaming. I’ve never actually even considered going to the police about this. In fact, in some cases, it’s the police officers stationed on corners (or even soldiers with machine guns slung over their shoulders) who harass you. How can I expect help from men who have most likely participated in sexual harassment?” Says Amenah

Cases of sexual harassment become stories of the past when made public“I know that the police will only care if a woman faces the most serious forms of sexual such as gang rape or murder if she rejected a man. And even then, it becomes one of their least priorities and makes the headlines for a day and then it’s forgotten about forever.” Says Farrah

Generally, all women agree that the police do nothing majority of the time, “It depends on whether you get someone who actually cares and makes an effort to help you or if you get someone who couldn’t care less and just tells you to “be careful next time” and “be thankful nothing actually happened”. So it really comes down to luck at this point” says Malak.

Many women hope for a change one day, but the hope seems dismal, as Farah noted, Egypt is a patriarchal society, that will always favor men. How can the country combat sexual harassment? The women have some ideas. “The issue requires a change of mentality in the whole country. It requires for the woman to be viewed as so much more than they are currently, to be treated equally. It requires for changes in law and task forces and a majority of the government. Therefore, to say the least, it requires a great amount of time, effort and even money for the issue to be bettered and maybe eventually resolved.” Says Farah. Combatting the issue begins with changing the way society views women; “I think it can be if men just get it through their head that we need a better way of communicating with each other. We have expressed annoyance, so the natural reaction should be to work on a solution, and not argue why we shouldn’t” says Malak.

It’s going to be a daunting task, but beneficial. “Yes, but not easily and definitely not quickly. We’re an impossibly large population. Trying to get 90+ million people to unlearn sexist and misogynistic behavior needs incredible support and funding that simply aren’t afforded to women’s issues right now. That being said, I see it happening in the future, but I’m not sure if it’s because I’m optimistic or because I’m desperate for it to happen.” Says Amenah

The plight of the Egyptian women is one all women can relate to, whether they live in Egypt, or not. All women know the difficulty and anxiety of walking past a group of men. As you slowly walk by you anticipate the cat calls and overly zealous “compliments” that seem more like insults. You just pray they will eventually stop and find a new target. Cat calls reaffirm just how lowly society views women as just pieces of meat, here for the pleasure of men. Collectively, we need to change this internalized way of thinking and value women for what they offer rather than their assets.

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