Egypt's Sexual Harassment Epidemic

Apparently, the word 'sex' is googled more in Egypt than in any other country in the world.

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

The problem with having a country in political turmoil is that all their other equally dangerous social issues get pushed to the back of the pile, like the forgotten older child on the morning of his younger sibling's birth. Last year, anti-government groups in Egypt fought for their freedom and the media went crazy over it. However, that didn't change the fact that 49 percent of the population remain oppressed because of their gender. Guess who they might be.

In 2008, the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights released statistics claiming that 83 percent of Egyptian woman and 98 percent of female tourists visiting Egypt had experienced street harassment, and that nearly half of the Egyptian women who experienced this harassment had to deal with it on a daily basis. It’s totally backward, but in the aftermath of the revolution, women in Egypt seem to be having an even shittier time.

The Girl in the Blue Bra video and the virginity tests carried out on female protestors by the Egyptian military in 2011 have attracted some media coverage recently, but only owing to the fact that they were both the most heinous, grotesque examples of harassment imaginable. What that coverage failed to mention was the the daily harassment most Egyptian women have had to face since childhood.

I spoke to Nehal, a 40-year-old student of Gender Studies from Cairo, to get a better understanding of what it's like to grow up in an environment where it's totally OK for men to openly grope women in the street.

VICE: Hey Nehal. Tell me about your experience of sexual prejudice in Egypt.
Nehal: I’ve been harassed since I was 13 or 14. It's annoying and makes me feel insecure, unwelcome and repressed, but we have to live with that if we want to survive. Mass harassment of women in the street at festivals particularly has started to become very common. Stalking them, running after them, touching their bodies and encircling them.

Is it getting more severe?
Yes, I think so. When people become more conservative, they get more fanatical about sexual things. Egypt has been tagged recently as the highest country for Googling the word "sex". There's a lot of sexual frustration, but it's always underground – never explicit.

So Conservatism makes it worse?
Not necessarily. I think people are mixing this newfound idea of revolution and freedom with a more general freedom, or relaxation of morals, at least. There are teenagers with little hope and lots of frustration, not to mention lots of sexually-fuelled fantasies because of the internet. 

The BBC has branded the situation an epidemic, and it certainly bears the characteristics of a social illness. Women are frequently assaulted by gangs of men in broad daylight, surrounded by undisturbed onlookers. France 24 recently interviewed Mahmoud, a bus driver in Cairo, whose encouraging input was: “Harassment? Personally, I do it! I do it every day on this bus! And between you and I, what does a girl expect when she goes out in the street dressed in tight clothing?” Exactly right, Mahmoud! What girl doesn't expect to have her arse smacked by a stranger for wearing jeans? 

Maia, a 22-year-old British student who lived in Cairo until June, remembers the little things, like "men asking you if you’re from Russia, which is kind of their way of asking whether you’re a prostitute” and the other, slightly larger things, like “a couple of people getting their dicks out in the street, which was not very nice”. Perpetrators generally stick to the archaic defence that their victims are "asking for it", though first-hand reports from Egyptian women show that fully veiled women are just as likely to be harassed as woman in a Western get up.

There's been global speculation about why and how harassment and assault on the streets of Egypt has spiralled so out of control, and conclusions range from it being a symptom of the general backlash against Mubarak’s pro-Western rule, to understanding it as a direct upshot of an increasingly immediate access to pornography. Trying to find a definite answer in the mess of uncertainty and insecurity that a revolution drags in its wake is probably impossible and almost definitely less important than figuring out how to solve the problem itself.

However, people are beginning to find a voice, and activists declared September a month of international blogging and tweeting as part of a campaign against the sexual harassment of women in Egypt. And, last Tuesday, Egypt’s National Council for Women opened a new hotline for those who had been assaulted. Awareness is certainly being raised, but whether it can make a change where it most needs to – namely, in the crusty recesses of a mind like Mahmoud’s – remains to be seen.

Follow Rebecca on Twitter: @RebeccaCFitz

Some coverage of that fighting in Cairo that made people ignore all the lecherous creeps harassing Egypt's women: 

I Spent the Weekend Getting Attacked by Soldiers in Cairo

Fighting Dirty With the Mobs in Cairo

Another Sleepless Night in Cairo