“Women already have rights” or why it’s important to talk about sexual harrasment
I was sitting in a hip smoothie shop on the 26th of July street in Zamalek. Artists like Ingrid Michaelson and the Arctic Monkeys, bands even Americans would consider ‘hipster’ played softly over the speakers set up near the iPad tablets customers used to order their personalized smoothies. The place was decidedly geared toward the younger demographic and always attracted a younger, “cool” crowd. It had become a haunt for the study abroad students who, unaccustomed to the heat, took refuge in smoothies and air-conditioning.
At one point, as I sat preoccupied with my latest smoothie creation a young Egyptian approached me. We struck up a conversation and at one point he asked me “So, what do you hope to do?”
“Well, I want to work with women’s rights,” I replied. He laughed and said “Women already have rights. What else are you going to do?” Now, perhaps this comment was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I was shocked at derisive he was with the notion of women’s rights work. As I continued the conversation I realized his comment wasn’t due to lack of awareness, but to his understanding of the worthiness of prestige of the work. Whether he thought it wasn’t worthy because he was cynical of society’s ability to change or for other reasons I will never know.
Only the night before I had finished a conversation with an Egyptian friend who had worked to found an organization specifically aimed at preventing the most violent forms of sexual abuse. Unlike the man in the smoothie shop, my friend felt that work to prevent sexual violence (in addition to other women’s rights issues) was not only worthy but wholly necessary for Egypt. Later that night, as we sat in lounge chairs surrounded by other friends debating the likelihood that the 30th of June would result in any sort of progress for Egypt, I struck up a conversation with him about his earlier comments. There he informed me that he was a member of one of several networks aimed at preventing sexual violence during protests: Imprint. In an interview Imprint one imprint founder claimed that these attacks, though sexual ones were not based in sexual desires. He said harassment had come to be viewed as a badge of honor. That it was based primarily in violence and that the solution was not to react with violence but with reason. “Men are quite open to being talked to by other men,” the founder said. “We come up against a lot who argue back of course, saying ‘she was wearing this or that’, but around eight out of the ten men we speak to ultimately get persuaded.”
My friend often spoke of the frustrations of his work. There were times that the throngs of people, tightly woven together, prevented him from reaching the young woman being harassed. When I asked him to speak to cases, he explained how he and his fellow patrollers formed what he called a ‘protective wall’ around the woman whom he helped to escape as the other men attempted to engage the perpetrators.
When I later asked him about women patrolling he responded “There are some. None in our group. There have been times in others that the woman who was part of the patrol was also harassed,” I nodded, absorbing his descriptions of the chaos of the protests. When patrolling, each member needed to be considered part of a whole organism. “It would be difficult to protect others if you are spending more energy on protecting yourself or others in your groups,” I said in response to his statement. He nodded. “Every order has to be followed immediately otherwise we won’t be able to do our job.”
Last year HarassMap*, an organization dedicated to ending “social acceptability” of sexual harassment launched a social media campaign aimed at “dispelling myths” surrounding sexual harassment. The quote above was one of the many questions and myths HarassMap’s social media followers submitted.
According to an article in the guardian, the Egyptian government under Mubarak removed sex education from secondary school curriculum in 2010. While this may seem shocking, the article goes on to say that the curriculum schools did have often barely covered the basics of reproductive health and hygiene and only 4% of adolescents felt they learned adequate information about sex from their parents.
In many ways, these statistics bring to mind the experiences mentioned by the students featured in “Libido” and it begs the question: How important in sex education? How does silence affect sexual culture in Egypt?
Next up: healthy forms of sexual education in Egyptian culture.
To be clear none of this should indicate that people in Egypt deserve to be thought as “other” than anyone else. Sexual abuse is not exclusive to Egypt and Egyptians are perfectly capable of addressing this topic themselves. In fact many are through organizations like Harass Map, Tahrir Bodyguards, Imprint, the Nazra Center for Feminist Studies and so much more.
* English site found here