When Sexual Harassment Becomes an Everyday Occurrence
The prominent Egyptian women rights activist Nihad Abu al-Qumsan, director of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights, is fighting for the passage of a law that would make sexual harassment a criminal offence. Harassment on the streets of Egypt is now occurring at an alarming rate. Nelly Youssouf spoke with Nihad Abu al-Qumsan in Cairo
Opinion surveys show that Egyptian women now have to reckon on a daily basis with sexual assaults on the streets, in public transport, and at work. What do you think are the reasons for this massive increase in such incidents?
Nihad Abu al-Qumsan: Incidents of sexual assault by individuals as well as by whole groups of men have recently risen dramatically. This main reason for this is that the state and the system are protected on the streets, but not people. And some think they can get away with anything, according to the principle: It won't bother anybody!
Tremendous economic pressure, the stress of living in crowded quarters, and the religious fundamentalist discourse is creating a lot of frustration that is being vented on women. Many perpetrators believe that they are acting according to an "old Eastern custom". But this kind of mistaken reduction of women to their bodies as objects has nothing to do with "good old traditions" nor with a solid understanding of Islam.
Furthermore, the unemployment rate is rising so that fewer men can afford to marry – which in a society such as ours means they must suppress their sexual needs. Prevalent on the streets already is arbitrariness, carelessness, and disinterest, which intensifies the problem even more.
What initiatives is the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights resorting to in its campaign against sexual harassment?
Abu al-Qumsan: We repeatedly receive complaints from women about diverse forms of sexual harassment. The spectrum ranges from lewd remarks to salacious gestures and groping to impertinent compliments and outright chases on public streets.
Subsequently, we have conducted several studies that have proven one thing above all else: Sexual harassment occurs regardless of age, dress, or time of day. Women are victims simply because they are women. Moreover, our studies show that a higher than average number of female tourists are affected. In view of the worldwide financial crisis this is a dangerous trend that threatens tourism, an important business sector in Egypt. Foreign embassies are already warning female tourists about the danger of assault.
In our campaign against sexual harassment we have started numerous initiatives, such as the initiative "Secure Streets for Everyone". We have held many diverse events in youth clubs and cultural centres to educate people about the problem and to create awareness that this is a taboo that needs to be broken.
We have encouraged girls and women not to endure harassment silently, but to defend themselves loudly and even to file complaints, although it is often difficult enough to prove an incident with the police. This requires the willingness to expose oneself to a public that has always given the blame to the woman, that is, the victim.
Nuha Rushdi, a young Egyptian, was the first who dared to press charges against a man who harassed her. He was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison – a precedent in Egypt. Is there reason to hope that young women will now defend themselves openly against this phenomenon?
Abu al-Qumsan: I certainly hope so, and we must encourage women to defend themselves as Nuha Rushdie did. Also, we from the Centre have also taken part in a campaign with the theme "Show the good in you – There are still real men in Egypt!"
This advertising campaign on streets, schools, and on Facebook calls on young men to not harass women and to protect them when others harass them. We want to revive traditional male values, such as chivalry and civil courage, and set an example against the current prevailing culture of looking away.
You repeatedly emphasise that such initiatives alone are not enough, but that a new, unequivocal and effective law against such offences is needed. Why has there not been such a law to date?
Abu al-Qumsan: Things move slowly in Egypt. But we will stay on the ball and do what we can to make sure that a separate law against sexual harassment is enacted.
Also indispensable are punishments to fill the legal loopholes that still exist in the Egyptian penal code. At present sexual harassment is only punishable by a sentence of one month to a maximum of three years and a fine of 200 to 300 Egyptian pounds. This is a ridiculously small amount.
Two recent court decisions, however, give us reason for hope. In the first case a man was sentenced to three years in prison for sexual harassment. A few weeks later another man was sentenced to one year for his complicity in a collective harassment case in the Mohandessin district in the centre of Cairo during the month of Ramadan. We hope that an appropriate bill can be presented to parliament in the upcoming legislative period.
This bill will be drafted by lawyers and social scientists in cooperation with the National Women's Council after intensive study of similar laws in other Arabic countries, such as Qatar and the Emirates, and will demand on the one hand a sentence of up to ten years as well as a fine. Such acts should also be considered a criminal offence. A conviction would thus appear in the individual's police record.
Recently the media reported that 500 Egyptian women have already obtained a gun licence. Other women prefer to rely on a defence spray when travelling with public transport. Do women have to defend themselves with violence because nobody else will protect them?
Abu al-Qumsan: Some women, for example, are learning karate. I welcome this trend because Egyptian women must be in the position to defend themselves in as many ways as possible. People on the street take the side of the attacker and not the victim, whom they accuse of having provoked the "poor man" with salacious manners or dress. And this although our studies show that women from all walks of life become victims of harassment, even those who wear a headscarf or veil.
Egyptian society in its present form forces women to defend themselves with violence, because it is characterised by macho behaviour as well as religious extremist thinking that vehemently rejects sex education in schools that we in our campaigns see as urgently necessary.
Interview: Nelly Youssouf
© Qantara 2009
Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce