In a country long infamous for rife sexual harassment, it is revealed that abuse has been used as a tool of intimidation and repression by the authorities and that the majority of the public, women included, believe that women invite this behaviour.
Cairo – Egyptians continue to amaze people around the world. One of the most conservative peoples on the planet - according to the US-based Gallup center - engage in sexual harassment, publicly and sometimes even collectively. This practice has gotten so bad, that sexual harassment has now become a prominent feature of religious festivals, no less.
In a society where Muslims are the overwhelming majority, even Eid al-Fitr [the Muslim holiday at the end of Ramadan] saw NGOs launching preemptive efforts against sexual harassment, which was rife last Eid. These included the Fouada Watch initiative, which established a hotline “operating around the clock for men and women to report incidents of sexual harassment, verbal abuse or assaults against women during the religious festival.”
But the earliest reported incidents of collective sexual harassment were back in Eid al-Fitr of 2006. In downtown Cairo, large groups of adolescents and youths would charge at isolated women, all looking for intimate parts of their bodies to grope. Similar assaults took place in the upscale neighborhood of Muhandiseen.
One explanation of these incidents is that “the impoverished youths involved in the assault used sexual harassment to attract attention to themselves,” according to Suhair Abdul-Moneim, a criminal policy expert at the National Center for Social and Criminological Research, affiliated to the Ministry of Social Solidarity, who spoke to Al-Akhbar.Large groups of adolescents and youths would charge at isolated women, all looking for intimate parts of their bodies to grope.
Yet there are indications that the practice of sexual harassment originated from the authorities themselves, nearly a year before these incidents. In May 2005, the police recruited paid gangs to sexually harass women taking part in marches in downtown Cairo. The protests were called by the opposition to encourage people to boycott a referendum on constitutional amendments.
Back then, five human rights groups said that the testimonies they took directly from victims and eyewitnesses had established that “the assaults perpetrated by the security personnel and the gangs of the National Democratic Party (the ruling party at the time), were not random incidents, but were carried out on specific orders aimed at humiliating women.”
The human rights groups asserted that “the assaults against women in the demonstrations happened under the watchful eyes of uniformed security officers, and often on their direct orders.” After this incident, sexual harassment spread across the country like wildfire.
Shaima, a twenty-something woman, spoke to Al-Akhbar about sexual harassment she experienced about five years ago. She said, “It was on a bus on my way home. There were three young men who tried to harass me, taking advantage of the crowded bus. I had to get off, but the men followed me and I soon found them surrounding me in the street. One of them pulled me by my hair. When I finally got home, I was hysterical, and decided to start wearing the headscarf from then on just so no one can pull me by my hair again.”
Sexual harassment as a weapon used by the authorities in trying to break up protests became a model to be followed, it seems. Organized groups targeted women participating in a demonstration organized by activists to protest the incidents of sexual harassment last June – which in turn had taken place during protests in Tahrir Square, following the acquittal of aides to the former interior minister of killing revolutionary protesters.