Time for a Some Equality and Respect

While I was in Cairo in November 2008, an opinion column I read in Al-Ahram, a local English newspaper caught my attention. The writer was commenting on the significant rise of sexual harassment of women in Egypt over the course of the past few years. He blamed it on a multitude of factors including the delay in marriage, poverty, unemployment, repression but more significantly, he cited the changing views of women within Egyptian society as the main cause of this horrendous surge. The shift in perspective, he blamed on the increasing of influence of Wahhabism or Salafism in Egypt (Saudi Arabia's unique brand of ultra conservative Islam that is also practiced by the Taliban in Afghanistan). Through Wahabism he claimed, women are not more than bodies that need to be veiled.

The article I found intriguing, because while I had never given it much thought, I had never equated Wahhabism with turning women into nothing but sex objects. However, there is definitely validity to this analysis when women are silenced and hidden from the public arena and when you do see a woman she is nothing but a black blur without identity or personality. Her face, her body is so controversial and shameful that it needs to be completely hidden. So I saved the article and was going to blog about it when I came home. When doing my research the other day, I learned that sexual harassment in Egypt is in fact reaching epidemic proportions. A recent study by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights said that 83% of Egyptian women regardless of how they were dressed (even with a burqa) stated that they were harassed on a regular basis. And over 62.4% of men admitted to harassing women. (Sexual harassment in this case ranged from cat calls to the physical attacks).

And yet the government of Egypt is slow to react and instead more willing to deny such occurrences. In the attacks of October 2006 on the religious holiday of Eid al-Fitr no less, dozens of policemen stood idly by and watched as hundreds of men attacked a handful of women in downtown Cairo. And since no charges were brought to the courts, the government denied that such a thing every happened - despite the fact that videos of the attack circulated online throughout the entire Arab world to the horror of many. In the press there are increasing numbers of stories of brave women who confronted their attackers by hauling them to the police station only to receive no assistance from the police and instead harassed by the police in turn.

Legislation to outlaw harassment are up for review by the parliament - but few people think it will be passed anytime soon. Meanwhile more and more protests and campaigns are ensuing online and in the media and on the university campuses. Egyptian women are also learning self-defence as their only means of protection (which apparently is unusual in the Arab world). Thankfully, there have been some small improvements recently. A judge gave a truck driver who reached out of his car to grab a woman's breasts as she walked by, a three years jail sentence. More arrests have also been made.

After reading these news items, I was tremendously saddened yet grateful that this was not the Egypt I experienced. A society wide denigration of women should never be acceptable. And yet I seem to be reading more and more articles about the violent harassment and oppression of women from India to Saudi Arabia, to Iran, to Afghanistan and Pakistan to Egypt to China to Mexico to Japan to Sudan, the Congo.... The list is endless. Why has this been allowed to continue? Why is this acceptable? When a society practices racism or any other form of discrimination whether it be against age, sexual orientation, religion, etc., they are called out on it. And more often then not, governments scramble to make some attempt to rectify the situation - successful or not. But when women are oppressed, abused, harassed, denied their basic humanity- it is chalked up to inevitable aspects of local culture, tradition or religious beliefs and demanding any changes would be an imposition. It is unacceptable that women anywhere have to endure daily harassment as they go about their day. Religion, culture or tradition should never be used to excuse such behavior. Not in this day and age when there is no justification for such ignorance.

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