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EGYPT: Sexual harassment of women on the rise

July 22, 2008 | 10:39 am

Picture_of_harassment “Oh, what a beauty!” “Your hips look great!” “Wow, I like your breasts!” are all comments that a woman hears frequently on Cairo streets. Yet, the harassment is not always verbal; sometimes it gets physical with the harasser grabbing a woman’s breast, hitting her hips or exposing himself to her.

A recent study has shown that almost half of Egyptian women get harassed on a daily basis.

“Sexual harassment has become an overwhelming and very real problem experienced by all women in Egyptian society, often on a daily basis, in public places,” said the study released last week by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, a Cairo-based organization.

The survey showed that 83% of Egyptian women of different ages reported ...

... exposure to harassment, while 98% of foreign women stated they had been sexually harassed while in Egypt. Harassed women have experienced men staring inappropriately at their bodies, inappropriate touching, sexually explicit comments and stalking, stated the study.

“The absence of a clear law that criminalizes sexual harassment with all its forms is the main reason why sexual harassment is spreading,” said Rasha Hassan, who conducted the study.

The issue of sexual harassment hits a sensitive nerve in a patriarchal society that usually defends the harasser and puts the blame on the woman for wearing an "indecent outfit."  However, the recent study shook this proposition as it showed that almost 72% of victims wear veils. It also showed that the police seldom act in favor of harassment victims, which discourages women from reporting the incidents. The study said that 96.7% of Egyptian women and 86.9% of foreign women did not seek police help because they thought it was futile. In some cases, police officers harass the victim instead of chasing the culprit, added the study.

Some generic explanations of the phenomenon suggest that deteriorating economic conditions stand behind the proliferation of sexual harassment. In a society that forbids premarital sex, young men who cannot afford marriage may be harassing women in public to quench their sexual desires.

This notorious practice came to the forefront after plainclothes police officers were implicated in the molestation of female demonstrators during a protest against President Hosni Mubarak’s rule in 2005. The incident captured much attention at home and abroad and was condemned by local and international human rights groups. Since then, local feminists have been calling for strict legislation to criminalize harassment.

— Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo

Photo: A young woman is groped at an anti-Mubarak demonstration in 2005. Credit: BBC 

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