Sexual Harassment

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Walking down the street in Cairo can sometimes make you feel like a celebrity. ‘Welcome to Egypt’ is shouted from passing motorbikes, politely spoken from car windows, said with a winning smile from little boys. The warmth this greeting generates matches the smiles, the interest everyone takes in you, the women who hold your bag on the metro, the offers of tea from strangers, the drink of water at the demo, the general feeling of togetherness. But go to Tahrir Square in the throb of a male-dominated crowd and horrific accounts like Natasha Smith’s (read it here) make you tense, aggressive and wary. It’s like there is an undercurrent of malice just waiting to get you as soon as you let your guard down. On the two occasions I was working in Tahrir Square (shooting the election results and waiting for Mohammed Morsy to arrive), I had my backside groped a total of 8 times. 5 as dusk fell and celebrations truly began (and as I began to make my way out of the square, fully aware that I wasn’t safe alone) and 3 when Morsy’s car brought him to give his pre-inaugural speech. I’m still bemused as to how a man edging towards his 70s, wearing a floor length jalabiya and white muslim cap, had time to pound on the top of Morsy’s Merc and still grab my behind. Maybe he wanted to grab Morsy’s but knew he wouldn’t make it.

As a European blonde woman in Cairo I stick out like a sore thumb, even though I tone down my loud colours and I show hardly any flesh. Malicious comments towards Egyptian and foreign women on the street have increased as recently, some say, as when it was first thought that Muslim Brotherhood representative Morsy would be winning the presidency. Two female professional news photographers were attacked in Tahrir Square by Sawfat Hegazy, the pro-Muslim Brotherhood preacher, just before Morsy gave his speech. Bel Trew writes about the rise in aggression since Lara Logan’s brutal attack on the night Mubarak was ousted, and suggests that state or police-led attempts to quash public mobilisation might be behind them.

I went to a ‘human chain’ event yesterday organised by community workers and the UN Women’s department in Cairo. It was a polite and peaceful protest against sexual harassment which involved participants standing in the central reservation at rush hour with posters saying ‘I wish to ride a bike without hearing lewd comments’ or ‘I aspire to walk freely without being scrutinised,’ or ‘It doesn’t matter what she’s wearing, the man is always wrong.’ When I asked participants about the responses they were getting, they said that most people were supportive, but they were still getting negative comments – mostly, that women should dress more conservatively if they don’t want to be harassed. Although there is a clear difference between wolf-whistling in the street and the public rape of an individual by a gang, the general public’s response often is the same – that the woman was ‘asking for it.’

I’ve been told a couple of times that in the 1960s a man who harassed a woman would be chased down the street and beaten up. Mini-skirts then were acceptable day-wear in cosmopolitan Cairo. Then women started coming back from the Gulf with money and the full burkha. Religion combined with economic success are powerful taste-makers, but then when those tastes prop up the belief that a woman deserves to be physically or emotionally attacked because of her sartorial choices, then something has gone awry. Celebrating the victory of a non-secular presidency whilst simultaneously ‘copping a feel’ could be construed as hypocritical, and definitely confusing to an already sceptical western world.

Another bigger protest against sexual harassment is planned for tomorrow in Tahrir Square, and another for the following week. A ‘safe zone’ is to be created, with security at entrances to the square to protect those coming and going. After the intense fervour of the last two weeks, and now that the Muslim Brotherhood has removed Morsy’s stage, and the tents are gone, it will be interesting to see how many people turn up. An encouraging aspect about yesterday’s campaigning in Nasr City is that there were just as many men participating as women – hopefully an indication that for every male sexual aggressor, there are likely to be many more who will help you fight your corner.