Opinion: Caressers in Cairo

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.)

A 21-year-old Egyptian woman named Reem recently interviewed by Bikya Masr, an online Egyptian news upstart, recounted being groped by a man on a Cairo bus, only to have police yawn and discourage her from filing a report. The shopping center security guard to whom my wife ran when she was being followed literally laughed at her.

Our Sudanese housekeeper was mugged and badly beaten by a young gang of Egyptian men in our neighborhood. When she limped to the police station for help, she was flatly ignored.

Egyptian police are often more eager to club peaceful demonstrators than impede or punish sexual assailants.

Critics of my harsh tone will point out that Egyptian women are active societal contributors, which is certainly true. Many Egyptian women are attorneys and physicians, go to Egyptian universities, own their own businesses and often bravely protest the abuses of the Egyptian regime. Others may note that there are plenty of places in the Muslim world where women are worse off than Egypt, also true. Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are the standard bearers of female subjugation. But most women in Egypt aren’t soothed by such relativist apologia. They’re absolutists who want absolute change.

And they’re trying to fight back. Many Egyptian women are taking self-defense classes or carrying irritants to spray in men’s eyes, and this year, a Cairo cab company is launching a fleet of pink taxis which will be driven by women and serve only female riders, in order to reduce common incidents of sexual abuse in hired transportation.

As with any sweeping generalization, it would be wrong to label all Egyptian men harassers. For nearly every Egyptian predator there’s a gentle Egyptian man who wants nothing more than to spend time with his family and make ends meet in an unrewarding economy. I know hundreds of them. Still, female sexual harassment in Egypt is nothing short of a public health crisis that too often is governmentally unchallenged.

As a man, I’m not credentialed to fully grasp the horror of rampant sexual harassment, but you don’t always have to be a physician to acknowledge an epidemic. I know abuse when I see it, even if the Egyptian government often doesn’t.

Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo. Contact him at martin@aucegypt.edu.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the credit on the Cairo street photo.