Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shoulda Put a Ring on It

Last week at my job, I was reading the State Department’s annual human rights report for Egypt when I came across a depressing study.

A survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR) found 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women in the country have been sexually harassed and half reported they endure harassment on a daily basis. According to the State Department’s report, “women reported men staring inappropriately at their bodies, touching them inappropriately, making sexually explicit comments, and stalking them.” Furthermore, the ECWR found that only 2.4 percent of Egyptian women and 7.5 percent of foreign women decide to seek help from the police. Worse yet, some police officers reportedly mocked or harassed the women brave enough to come forward.

Last week when I wondered whether I was safer living in Cairo or here in DC, I was asking the question as a guy. For women living in Egypt, the situation is entirely different, sometimes even scary. Not one of my female friends escaped sexual harassment. The longer I lived in Cairo, the better I became at staring down sketch balls and using my body as a shield against would-be gropers on the sidewalk. One of my friends, fed up with the constant badgering, clocked a guy over the head with a bag of bread. Lesson learned? Probably not.

So why is sexual harassment so pervasive? There are a few reasons. The first results from the perfect storm of conservative values, marriage and unemployment. For most Egyptians, sex before marriage is taboo (but it does happen). Meanwhile, Egyptian culture dictates that a man cannot marry until he can sustain himself and his would-be family. Normally this would not present a large problem, but because Egypt suffers from overwhelming unemployment, men often cannot marry until their late 20s or early 30s. Thus, young Egyptians constantly struggle to maintain their outward piety while restraining their inevitable internal urges. In the process, sexual tension is released in unhealthy ways.

But this phenomenon only helps explain why unmarried Egyptian men might sexually harass women, but unfortunately they are not the only culprits. Therefore, a second factor is the cultural acceptance of sexual harassment. If you grow up seeing your father sexually harass women, you’re likely going to do it too. And if you start doing it while you’re young, you’ll likely do it for life – and eventually become the father who serves as the bad example for the next generation.

Furthermore, Egyptian society has yet witnessed a women’s emancipation movement as we saw in the West. But that doesn’t mean one is impossible. It was only a few decades ago that sexual harassment was rampant in the United States, as any episode of Mad Men demonstrates. Currently, plenty of Egyptian women are standing up and powerfully asserting their rights.

This implicit endorsement of sexual harassment by Egyptian society also helps explain why the government hasn’t been responsive to the women who choose to stand up against their assailants. After all, an Egyptian police office is often little more than a bunch of bored men smoking cigarettes in a hot, crowded room. But just as women are standing up for their rights, the government has also begun to (slowly) come around. While there is no law specifically prohibiting sexual harassment, the government has prosecuted cases under the statute called "Public Exposure and the Corruption of Morals." In the first case of its kind, a man was sentenced to three years of hard labor last year after he groped a woman on the bus.

Finally, foreign women face additional harassment for two reasons. For one, sexual harassers don’t need to worry that the victim’s Uncle Ahmed will come seeking retribution the next day. There’s no fear of shame. Second, there is a pervasive misunderstanding about Western morals. Namely, a lot of Egyptians think we have none. For many Egyptians, America is best exemplified by The Hills, Lady Gaga and Las Vegas, not Seventh Heaven, Taylor Swift and Birmingham, Alabama. A recent concert by Beyonce stirred incredible controversy in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood calling it an “insolent sex party.” This misunderstanding of Western culture leads to unrealistic and unhealthy expectations about Western women in general. But if Egyptian men only listened to Beyonce’s lyrics, they would know “you shoulda put a ring on it” first.

While sexual harassment currently poses an incredible problem for women in Egypt, there is reason to hope things will improve. As the indigenous women’s rights movement gains steam, as the government grows more responsive, and as increased cultural exchange between Egypt and the West helps erase damaging stereotypes, the cultural acceptance for sexual harassment will begin to wither. And none too soon.

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