There is a pervasive problem with sexual harassment here in the Middle East. Prior to moving to Cairo I had heard from several women who had been harassed, molested and/or been exposed (literally) to the indecency of a (unfortunately high) number of the local men. Arriving here, the problem is so widespread it is quite simply ineluctable. Walking along the streets becomes an act of continuous surveillance, on the lookout for the wandering hand. A woman becomes tasked with ignoring the consistent catcalling. The frequency of which creates an echo that haunts you wherever you go – “hey baby”. You either need to ignore it or quickly grow an integument thick enough to brush off the barrage of sexist wisecracks.
I decided quite early that I was going to write a piece on this. Sexism in general seems well documented in the Middle East, but the level of harassment here is something completely alien to me and far worse than what I envisaged before coming here. I had read little to nothing on physical or verbal harassment, yet many inches dedicated to (for example) the fact that women in Saudi Arabia can’t drive (as an aside, ask any woman in Saudi what she wants to change about her place in society, and being allowed to drive wouldn’t even make it into their top ten). It seems as though the sexual harassment of women is a topic that is being left in the shade as the shroud of the presidential elections takes precedence in any and all foreign news coverage of Egypt.
The discovery that the level of sexual harassment for Egyptian women is just as bad as it is for foreign woman came as quite a surprise (such was my prejudice). I had held the belief that there must be something about being foreign looking that inspired the men to act like they did; this is not the case. I was told about a meeting that was being held in Downtown, Cairo and went along. I knew that my poor Arabic would mean that I would be incapable of understanding what was being said, but I held out for the chance of meeting some of the key speakers and hoping they could speak English and would be willing to meet up later in the week for a coffee and a talk.
We walked along Talaat Harb St in Downtown Cairo looking for the right building. Fittingly, as we walked my photographer friend (a 21 year old American woman) was being harassed constantly. A man handing out leaflets shoved one in front of her, which she shoved back immediately. Turning to me, disgusted, “That’s one of their favourite tricks”.
“What is?” I didn’t see anything wrong with it; he had simply tried to pass her a leaflet after all.
“They pass you a leaflet by shoving their hands across your chest in the sad hope they might get a glancing blow of a breast, the bastards”.
Yet another incident gone unnoticed by my bumbling Neanderthal self.
We arrived outside supposedly the right building, 44b. I walked up to a man sitting on the step and asked in my crude Arabic whether he knew where the meeting was being held. He replied with some incomprehensible Arabic before shrugging his shoulders. I turned and looked for someone else to ask; another man, another blank expression. Perhaps they were having difficulty understanding my Arabic? I found a third man. He nodded and said “Sitta” (6). “Sixth Floor or Room Six?” He nodded again, paused, looked anxious, and then smiled slightly. In we went.
It turns out it was neither room 6 (there were no visible room numbers in the building) nor floor 6, but in a small room in the top floor. We exchanged civilities with some women in a makeshift foyer area and made our way into the main room.
The meeting itself was sponsored by Nazra (http://nazra.org/en), Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (http://eipr.org/en/) and Harassmap.org. There were a number of press there and it seemed to be a very well organised meeting. They had a projector showing live tweets of the event and a live stream being broadcast for those who wanted to watch it on the internet. Sadly though, it seemed they were expecting a relatively low turnout, placing only 50 chairs for the proceedings, which were not even filled. However, every woman seemed to have a story to tell and seemed passionate of what was being said, applauding every other statement made by the speakers.
The presence of the twitter projections meant I was able to get a quick overview of what was happening, if not exactly what they were saying. On the projection, a delayed synopsis of 10 minute intervals meant I knew that “women are telling their personal stories of harassment” and “they are currently discussing what can be done to help stop harassment”. I sat quietly in the back and waited the two hours it took until they adjourned their meeting. Everyone seemed convivial enough and I took my chance to speak to the three main female speakers (there were also two male speakers). I introduced myself as a journalist, rightly or wrongly, and queried the possibility of meeting with them to discuss the issue in more depth.
Walking away from the meeting with their numbers I feel that with a meeting I may be able to find some answers to some of the nagging questions that fester in the mind. Why is it so bad? How long has it been like this? Was there any change due to the revolution last January? Who can they report to? How can the situation be ameliorated? Are there any statistics on the subject? There’s a lot I still need to know and I am determined to find out the answers.