Harassment and the law for women in Cairo

This is material from my blog Opinion Ate It

The last year has been tumultuous in Egypt, for men and women. However, the recent constitution and continued protest marking the 2nd anniversary of the revolution, which ousted former ruler Hosni Mubarak have brought little reprieve to Egyptian women.

Sexual harassment is so rampant that it is a daily occurrence for women in Egypt, particularly Cairo. Women who are veiled, and unveiled are cat called, groped and harassed in the streets or crowded places. This has become so prevalent that it is synonymous with women in the streets. In 2008, a study revealed that 98% of foreign women* and 83% of Egyptian women reported they had been harassed. If you are so inclined, the PDF of this research can be found here it was produced by the  United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in association with the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR). More than half of the women surveyed stated they were harassed on a daily basis; interestingly they surveyed equal amounts of men to determine the reasons for harassment, and average age of harassers.

Men speak in coffee shops about harassing women openly. It seems the only women left un-harassed are those who travel regularly with men, or those wearing all-enveloping, baggy abayas (the usually black dress-like overcoat) and niquab (face veil) or burqa (often with a screen over the face veil to further shield even the eyes). Although in the research quoted in the previous paragraph, even completely veiled women reported harassment. In fact, in contrast with the common theme that, “women are harassed because of their style of clothing,” over 71% of women who reported harassment were wearing hijab.

Recently Increasing Problems with Sexual Assault

During the two-year anniversary celebrations and protests there were many cases of rape and assault reported to Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and another group Tahrir Bodyguard. They stated they were able to help 25 of the women. These individual events are reported mainly through social media, particularly twitter. International reporters for the Global Post, the The Guardian (UK based media) were caught in group assaults and reported their traumatic experiences. A male reporter wrote in The Egypt Independent newspaper about his attempt to help a woman who was stripped naked as she was assaulted by a group of men. His article titled “Sexual Assault in Tahrir, What it Means and how to Stop it” was an excellent read, although, how to stop it remains a question to solve.
Groups such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and HarassMap have been documenting and attempting to rescue victims of sexual assault and harassment. Women in Egypt can text 0169870900 to report cases of harassment anywhere in Egypt. They are recorded on a map; if there are many reports in one area, the team sends out a group to discuss speaking out against harassment with shop owners and residents.

Egyptian Women and the Law

There are currently no enforced laws against harassment. Laws against sexual assault are rarely used in court cases. According to the 2008 study listed above most women both foreign (87%) and Egyptian (97%) who were harassed did not report the crime or seek help; sexual assault is also rarely reported because of the social stigma related to shaming the community or family. Many foreign women stated that they were mocked or harassed by police when they complained.
The current Egyptian Constitution, which was approved by only 30% of voters in December, does little to enforce equality and human rights for women. There were only 5 women represented in Egypt’s Majlis Ashurra. It is dominated by Islamists; in fact the Christians, women and minorities who worked on drafting the constitution nearly all withdrew after complaining that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties refused to include or hear their concerns.
The past constitution stated the equality of Egyptians; that portion has been removed. As before, the document states that “Islamic Shariah law” is the basis of the law, the council added that Shariah law will be interpreted by AlAzhar, the long-standing Islamic University and ecumenical branch in the country. Currently, women are mentioned under families, stating that the government will provide for maternal and childcare, in order to “preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family,” and to balance, “the duties of a woman toward her family and her work.”  Women’s rights activists worry that these clauses and the removal of clearly stated gender equality will further erode women’s personal freedom.

*As a foreign woman living in Egypt, I have rarely been harassed in a way I consider openly rude. Some of my Arab friends consider asking certain leading questions, or even speaking to women without a proper reason to be an opening line to harass a woman.  First they ask a question, or try to speak in English, then they ask if you’re married or want a date. I don’t answer any questions, in general from men, and mostly only in Arabic. I have also been extremely sheltered here in Egypt, as my friends and family always insist on accompanying me to anywhere which isn’t very safe. I have never, thank God (alhamdulillah) been grabbed, stalked, or talked “dirty” to in my six months here.  I wear hijab, and modestly long tops with jeans or skirts. If people call out to me, or ask more than where I am from- my Arabic is obviously not Egyptian- I have no clue, as I mind my own business and have perfected the steely faced look necessary for survival as a woman in the Middle East. As with in the UAE, I save my smiles for the ladies and little kids. Unlike in the UAE, I don’t tell men I’m American. I just don’t answer, and the American in me feels SO mean for ignoring such a seemingly innocuous question.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

I'm from the West Coast, since I was raised between my Evangelical mother in Idaho and my queer father in California. That may seem at opposite ends of the spectrum, but I ended up religious like my mom (except I'm Muslim), and liberal like my father . Feminism, social media, gender research, journalism, international news and reading are my passion. I enjoy blogging about those subjects as well as Muslim American issues on my blog.

Read more about Erica

Join the Conversation