Before I came to Egypt I was warned several times to be prepared to face sexual harassment. However the warnings had not prepared me for the reality that I have had to live with, in the past 6 months. Sexual harassment in Egypt is chronic and it has to stop. It does not matter whether you are black, white or everything else in between, just being a woman makes you a victim.
The first one slid his hands onto my lap, groping at my thighs and touching my breasts. Lesson Number one- never sit in the front seat of a taxi in Egypt unless you have other people you know with you in the same car. He was a taxi driver. I had not given him permission to touch me. I walked out of a moving taxi. My body is my sanctuary and if I cannot have total control over it then what am I-A tree that bears fruit but cannot eat of it?
The second one stalked me. I remember he was smartly dressed in khaki pants and a sky blue shirt, but beneath his neat exterior lay a rotten mind and rotten intentions- to harass me because I am a woman.
The third one grabbed my buttocks as I made my way into the subway station. I shouted at him and he ran away. Of course he had to, I was furious to say the least. I used to be feisty but Egypt has turned me into a fierce tigress. That is the only way to deal with a culture that is so pervasive it is almost normal.
The fourth, fifth and hundredth all whispered obscenities in my ears as they passed me by. They whistled and passsed snide remarks as I passed by. They ‘accidentally’ brushed their hands against my breast and my behind as they passed and when I turned my head to ask they raised their hands to say ‘I did not mean to.’ Of course what they all did not mean was to get caught and be embarrassed for it.
The one who drove me to write this story also grabbed my buttocks on the subway on the morning of Tuesday 4 October. A few hours earlier someone had stolen my purse and all the money, bank cards and identity documents in it were gone. I was already upset so I turned and shouted. He showed no remorse. In fact he had an evil sneer on his face, showing satisfaction for having accomplished what he wanted, he had made me upset and so derived power from knowing that he had made me upset. Passersby looked at me as if I was the crazy one. Coupled with the racism I face in this country I retreated from Cairo and took days to find myself again and rebuild my strength. I also took time to reflect on the levels of sexual harassment in Egypt and I tried to rationalise it. I reached one conclusion; there is no rationalising such a terrible culture.
Could it be religion? I ask myself. But what religion condones the degradation of women and their treatment as mere sexual objects? What Deity condones the mal-treatment of half of its creation? If it is about Islam and its demands on how women should dress then I do not understand the patterns of harassment because whether dressed in a Jalabiya (long robe) and Burka (head cover that leaves the eyes out only) or tight skinny jeans, the men still harass you. If it is about Christianity, then these people are reading the wrong Bible because the word of God in Deuteronomy says “Do what is right and good in the LORD’s sight, so that it may go well with you.” If they believe that harassing women is good and right in the sight of the Lord, then I cannot stretch my tolerance to accommodate such misogynistic tendencies.
Maybe it is a lack of education but even the educated ones do harass women. Besides one does not need to be educated to know what respect for another human being entails. It should be one of those innate values that transcend religion, culture, education and gender.
Maybe it is a way of redefining their masculinity. I know under the previous regime men were humiliated, suppressed, denied room for expression and personal growth and so they could not provide for their families, they could not voice their opinions out of fear of arrest and detention. So maybe the whole political, socio-economic context emasculated them and made them feel worthless but how does harassing women make you more of a man. Does it not actually make you less of a man and a coward if you spawn your anger and frustrations on a ‘weaker’ sex? As one of my friends Christele Diwouta pointed out when they pull women down because they think it makes them better than us that confirms that they are already beneath us. That makes them cowards. What man calls himself a man when he derives a sense of worth from belittling women. That is pathetic.
I have a right not to be subjected to unwanted sexual advances. I have a right not to be leered at and treated like a sexual object. I have a right not to cower and wonder what a man will say when he passes me by. Real men treat women with respect. Real men protect their womenfolk. Real men do not hiss like snakes to express their interest in women, they engage them in decent conversations. So I declare today to all the men who sexually harass women in Egypt and anywhere else in the world. You are not real men. You are unknown creatures. You are diseased and you need healing. You are cowards!