Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Unsafe streets

The Eid was once again marred by attacks against women in the streets of Mohandessin. Reem Leila reports on the growing problem of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment of women on Egypt's streets once again hit the headlines during Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan. On 2 October roving gangs -- up to 100 young men are thought to have been involved -- randomly targeted women in the streets of Mohandessin. Eyewitnesses report women being violently molested. Some, wearing the veil and niqab (face veil), had their clothes torn. Details of the incident are still emerging, reminding the public of similar assaults that took place in 2006, also during the Eid.

This time, though, officials responded. After being informed of the violence by a reporter from the opposition Al-Wafd newspaper, police rushed to Mohandessin and arrested 38 people. Only two remain in custody -- there was insufficient evidence, say the police, to press charges against the other 36 -- and they are both expected to appear in court soon.

"The police actually arrested people this time," says Ingy Ghozlan, a member of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR). "It's the first time the government has admitted that there is a problem on Egypt's streets."

It is a positive sign, Ghozlan believes, arguing that as long as police do not enforce order in the streets and people know they can act with impunity the chaos will continue.

During the Eid in 2006 gangs of men rampaged in Downtown Cairo, sexually assaulting any woman they came across as police watched and did nothing. Last year similar incidents were reported. Officials then blamed the disorder on belly dancer Dina. Whilst attending the premiere of her film at a Downtown cinema, they said, she had incited the crowds.

The 2006 attacks led some activists to speak out against the deteriorating situation in Cairo's streets. They now believe their two years of lobbying is beginning to show results.

"Sexual harassment is at the forefront of the issues we deal with," says Nihad Abul- Qomsan, head of ECWR. Sexual harassment in public areas is not limited to a specific age category or social class but is a "social cancer".

"Unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature," she adds, "makes all women feel uncomfortable and unsafe."

The National Centre for Sociological and Criminological Research (NCSCR) reports that sexual crimes are rising but provides no detailed statistics. The ECWR claims that two women are raped every hour in Egypt and that the vast majority of offenders are jobless men.

"The huge cost of marriage and the fact that sex outside marriage is forbidden helps explain such behaviour. Men take out their frustrations, not just sexual, against women," says Abul-Qomsan.

A study released by the ECWR in July 2007 found that 62 per cent of Egyptian men admitted to sexually harassing women. Of respondents, 83 per cent of Egyptian women and 98 per cent of foreign women reported being harassed, of which half said harassment was a daily occurrence. Fifty three per cent of the men questioned blamed women for inciting such harassment.

"Harassment is a real issue here, and it has got worse over the last 10 years," says Abul-Qomsan. "A lot of people say that up until the 1970s there was very little harassment in Egypt. Things are very different now."

Foreign embassies in Egypt, she points out, are increasingly concerned for the safety of their female nationals, with embassy staff recording increases in the number of complaints they receive. Many embassies now urge women to be extremely cautious in public places, especially when alone.

Sameh Sayed, 29 years old, who works as an assistant hairdresser, typified a widely held attitude when he told Al-Ahram Weekly that "when a woman walks out into the street in tight trousers and tight belts she deserves what she gets".

"The women here are different from the ones in my village," he says. Sayed was brought up in a village in Menoufiya. "My female relatives would never be seen swaying in the street like that."

Nahed Ramzy, a psychologist at the NCSCR, says the state itself taught young men a spectacular lesson in institutionalised patriarchy when security forces and government-hired thugs assaulted women demonstrators during an anti-regime protest in 2005.

Ramzy also believes that in some cases young men are using such incidents to intentionally defy the state, and its authority as represented by the police, because none of their basic needs are fulfilled.

"They feel they are not treated as humans. Events such as the Dweiqa landslide, where hundreds of people were left to die under the rocks, amplify their feelings of alienation. Young men believe the government is helpless, careless and can't do anything for them."

The average age at which Egyptians marry has been rising steadily. It is now normal for men in their mid-30s to remain single as they struggle to meet the costs of securing a bride. Boys reach puberty at the age of 13 or 14, meaning that they face a 20-year emotional and physical deficit. As Hanaa El-Gohari, sociologist at Cairo University, stresses, whenever economic, social, cultural or legal systems fail to deliver basic needs nature steps in. "The government is absent, the regime is lax and the police don't care. The result is inevitable. It is what we see on the streets."

El-Gohari blames economic deprivation and an increasingly conservative religious trend that promotes more restricted social roles for women and rebukes those who step outside it.

"Religion itself is not the problem. The issue here is the conservatism influenced by the Wahhabi trend in Saudi Arabia," says El-Gohari.

The People's Assembly is widely expected to debate measures in its coming session that will increase penalties for those convicted of sexual harassment and make it easier for women to report such incidents to the police.

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