Sexual harassment: A pan-Arab ‘nightmare’

On the second day of the sexual harassment conference in Cairo, in the midst of discussions comparing legislation and government roles in combating harassment, female participants were mostly concerned with what it is like to be seen as a "sexual object"–as opposed to an equal with men–in the Arab world.

Those attending the two-day "Regional Conference on Sexual Harassment as Social Violence and its Impact on Women" responded more visibly to accounts of personal experience than to blunt statistics. Some seemed shocked by real-life stories recounted by panel speakers, including accounts of women who shut themselves away from the world after experiencing harassment.

Female lawyers, psychologists, activists and journalists from Lebanon, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Morocco and the Palestinian territories gathered to talk about harassment –which can range from being hissed at, cat-called, touched or groped, to being molested and raped–on the street and in the work place, and, as in the case of Egypt, during protests and large street gatherings. There seemed to be agreement that the problem is not exclusive to any one country, but is rampant across the Arab world, intimately connected to the paternal culture and religious approach of its people.

In Egypt, women are often the victims of harassment despite the rise of religiosity and visible signs of conservatism. "If you google ‘sexual harassment’, you’ll find that Egypt tops the list," said Nehad Abul Qumsan, director of the Egypt Center for Women’s Rights.

In 2008 an Egyptian court–following an unprecedented and sensational two-month legal battle– handed out a three-year prison sentence and LE5,000 fine to a man who groped a woman on the street. The case was rare, since many women are reluctant to bring their harassers to justice for fear of being shamed, or for fear of reprisal.

Many women have also reported being ridiculed by the police when they went to report street harassment.

Abul Qumsan told the audience that one of the major challenges is to bring the security apparatus out of its "denial," and make them realize that harassment is a serious crime. "In some instances policemen don’t take sexual harassment complaints seriously because they’re so trivial in comparison to other issues, like security and dissidence. At other times, the policeman doesn’t know what to do since he’s not backed up by any rule instructing him on what procedures to follow in the case of minor sexual offenses. You’ll find a policeman suggesting to a girl that he beats her harasser, just because he doesn’t know what else to do," said Qumsan.

The increase in sexual harassment in Egypt was first highlighted in 2006 when women celebrating Eid el-Fitr in downtown Cairo were manhandled, had their scarves pulled off their heads, their hair pulled, and were pushed around and groped as they fought back. And it only became worse when women protesting against street harassment in a subsequent large downtown demonstration were similarly sexually assaulted–a problem which delegates from Lebanon and Libya said existed in their own countries as well.

Mary-Rose Zalzal, a Lebanese women’s rights activist and lawyer, criticized some Arab regimes for using sexual molestation as a weapon to crack down on political dissidents during political demonstrations.

"In some instances harassment is committed by policemen and security on the streets, people who should protect you," added Fayza Younis, a law professor from Libya. She advocated the creation of laws to criminalize harassment and hand down more severe punishments to harassers such as policemen, whose job it is to protect citizens.

However, according to Younis, even if laws deterring sexual harassment exist, women are usually reluctant to report incidents to the authorities. "The psychology of the society is closely linked to the enforcement of the law, because many women know that they’re seen as playing a part in attracting the attention of men. When will we move past this?" she asked.

Despite extended discussions on the "degree of guilt"–or the lack thereof–of a woman who has been assaulted or the victim of unwanted attention from men, at one point during the conference a male journalist insisted from the floor that women should be held responsible when harassed if they were dressing provocatively or clearly seeking attention–a comment that was met with loud murmurs and surprise by audience members and the delegates, who were mostly women of different ages and backgrounds.

"There are incidents of women who enjoy and encourage male attention. But there are also women who regard walking on the street afus-ha [as a leisure outing] so what can these women do?" asked Abier el-Barbary, Egyptian-Canadian psychologist and specialist in young adulthood and women issues.

Some of the most eye-opening remarks came from el-Barbary, who testified, through surveys and studies she had conducted, as to how horrifying the experience can be for women, especially foreigners living in Egypt who see sexual harassment as reflecting a feeling of rejection of females. She gave the example of one student, who had come to Egypt to study at the American University in Cairo, who warned her friends outside Egypt that "Western women are perceived as whores here."

El-Barbary also said that the impact of social harassment as a life stressor varies according to educational level, social class, salary and neighbourhood. She said that women from higher social classes are impacted more by the experience, while women from lower-income classes see harassment "as a reality that will never go away," showing compliance and a greater reluctance to report harassment to others. "They are usually passive recipients."

Abul Qumsan also said that the feelings of oppression and insecurity of victims of harassment are magnified if justice is not carried out, and in some cases women avoid public life and refuse to walk on the street after incidents of touching or groping.

According to el-Barbary, the solutions lie in destroying sexual fallacies that depict women as an object created "for male sexual gratification," through long-term education as opposed to brief crash courses in sexual awareness. In her opinion acting as ‘gate-keeper’ to the phenomenon, through personal and behavioral efforts, is possible.

Her suggestions? "Walk with big, long, sure steps. Don’t use eye contact, or instead cover your eyes with sunglasses. Walk like a man on a mission."

She also advised that "Social behavior and behavioral change is a whole science and we have to look at consequences [of harassment]. Make the consequences negative so that the harrasor will think twice before acting."

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