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Opinion: Caressers in Cairo

Egypt’s climate of sexual harassment persists, and police don't seem to care.

Egyptian woman
An Egyptian resident in Manshiyet Nasser shanty town in eastern Cairo, Sept. 13, 2008. (Nasser Nuri/Reuters)

CAIRO, Egypt — Women must be allowed to hold up “half the sky” for poverty to be challenged, wrote Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their powerful 2009 book of the same name. But when many women in Egypt try to hold up their part of the sky, men lunge at their unguarded breasts.

Egypt is a regional leader in a number of areas, such as tourism, cinematic production and Islamic scholarship. It’s also a Middle East leader in sexual harassment.

Women in Egypt — young and old, native and visiting, secular and veiled, wealthy and poor — frequently despair about harassment from Egyptian men on a daily basis.

One damning, if over-cited, survey in 2008 reported that 98 percent of foreign and 83 percent of Egyptian women experienced some form of sexual harassment. Nearly two-thirds of men in the same survey admitted that they sexually harassed women either regularly or episodically, and 53 percent of men insisted that women bring harassment on themselves.

Egypt is the world’s largest Arab country and hosts more than 11 million tourists a year.

A crowded Cairo thoroughfare.
(Noura Mahmoud Abdel Ghany/GlobalPost)

Some observers have labeled poverty the culprit, but this doesn’t hold Nile water. Women living in Cairo’s wealthiest neighborhoods complain about heckling and groping, and harassers represent all pay scales.

A woman I know was once walking in an upscale Cairo suburb when a sharply dressed Egyptian man in a shiny car pulled up and, rolling slowly along beside her, began masturbating, his penis fully exposed. The same woman is continuously surprised by how many middle- or upper-class Egyptian men catcall her — or worse.

My wife was recently walking in our neighborhood when a wealthy Egyptian man in a new SUV followed her for four blocks, trying to persuade her to get in his car. He refused to leave until she ran up to a security guard at a nearby shopping center, at which point her stalker peeled out down the street. Poverty doesn’t explain these threats.

There are two things I think do explain them, at least partly: Urban overcrowding and lack of interest among Egyptian police.

To be fair, I don’t doubt that poor cities of sizes similar to Cairo also feature harassment as a unifying ethos, and I’ve heard plenty of stories about abuse of women in Mexico City and Mumbai. Hyper-crowded living is known for eroding the rule of law.

The less organic and more fixable contributor to sexual harassment in Egypt, however, is a shortage of concern among Egyptian police. Police in Egypt aren’t known for seriously prosecuting the claims of harassed or assaulted women. (According to new data from the Population Council, 82 percent of Egyptian women between the ages of 10 and 29 are subjected to female genital mutilation, or FGM. The ritual, which often involves no anesthesia, was categorically banned in Egypt only as of 2007 and is still performed on more than four-fifths of Egyptian women. FGM is meant to “cleanse” a woman of lurid sexual desires prior to marriage, but it seems to me Egyptian men are often the ones that could use cleansing.)