The XX Factor

Fearing Egypt

As a native of a country that was also once ruled by a longtime dictator (actually two successive dictatorships lasting nearly 30 years) it was hard not to feel happy for triumphant Egyptians when they finally showed Mubarak the door. Even though Haiti has little in common with Egypt, I still felt a certain kinship with Egyptians and shared in their hopeful exuberance about the months and years ahead. But after reading, watching, and listening to news reports about Egypt’s severe problem with sexual harassment of women, I’ve gone from wanting to visit the country to being terrified to step foot  there. I’m sure I’m not alone.

It’s beyond troubling to learn that the despicable attack on CBS reporter Lara Logan was just an extreme manifestation of the sort of sexual, verbal, and emotional harassment the majority of women in Egypt, both native and foreign, are subjected to on a daily basis. That the everyday occurrences are not as violent is small comfort when you consider the environment is ripe for what happened to Logan to happen to other women. For all we know other, less high-profile, women could have been similarly struck and not reported it because of the stigma attached to such attacks in Egypt.

Most Americans are just now hearing about this problem, but news reports about sexual harassment in Egypt, such as this one on CNN last year , and this one on Al Jazeera English in 2007 are not new.

Yesterday, NPR reported that “according to one recent report by a women’s rights group, some 80 percent of Egyptian women and 90 percent of foreign women visiting the country have been sexually harassed. And the former government did little to stem the problem.”

“If you type in ‘harassment Egypt’ on YouTube, dozens of videos showing women being mauled will pop up,” NPR correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported. “In one particular incident, a mob of men rips the clothes off of a woman. It’s horrific and terrifying.”

I went on YouTube and while I couldn’t find the video she mentioned, I saw enough to give me pause, but also to give me hope because the Egyptian women are fighting back . I love this video of Egyptian girls taking karate classes to defend themselves from aggressive men. The reporter notes that families are spending money that they would normally use for food to pay for the classes. The video also shows a group of girls on a street being surrounded and harassed by a large and scary group of men.

That some Egyptian men are involved in the efforts to help women protect themselves is also encouraging. Mohammed Saffi is one of those men. He is the spokesman for , a program started in 2010 to help women report, track, and avoid areas where women have been harassed or attacked.

“The Arab world is a male-dominated society,” he told NPR. “And you can imagine if you mix a male-dominated society with an oppressive way of life for the past 30 years, that’s not gonna garner good results in the field of women’s rights.”

I get this, but what I don’t understand is why all over the world, in other parts of the Middle East, in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and other places experiencing civil or political disorder or societal breakdown, men feel compelled to attack the most vulnerable members of their population –  women and girls. Why, in addition to denying them basic human rights, must they emotionally and physically demean and violate them? (Remember the extensive raping of women during the Bosnian war?) The widespread rapes currently taking place in troubled corners of Africa are hard to fathom. Now rapes of women and girls are on the rise in the tent cities housing already traumatized earthquake victims in Haiti.

That’s not to say we don’t have our own problems with sexual harassment and violence against women here in the U.S. But we certainly have many more means to fight back and we have a government and laws to help us do that. Women in Egypt and elsewhere deserve no less.

One member of the Egyptian parliament, clearly in denial about the extent of the problem, told Al Jazeera that only certain women are targeted: “There is no way people will attack her if she is dressed modestly or if she  is walking in a respectable manner.” Polls taken about sexual harassment in Egypt have proved otherwise, and so have the experiences of many women.

“I also find that many veiled women get harassed and many little girls get harassed and people who are not particularly hot get harassed. I think it has more to do with denigrating femininity in whatever guise,” Hania Shuleimy a professor of gender studies at the American University in Cairo, whose breasts were grabbed by a man on the street, told NPR.

If Egyptian authorities hope to see robust tourism return to their country they will need to get more serious about confronting this problem and put in place tough policies and penalties that signal that this behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated in any form.