Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Harassment Of Women On Cairo Streets

Warning: While most of my posts are General Audience, this post has some material that you may not want young children reading.

Sexual Harassment on the streets of Cairo is a common topic that comes up whenever a couple of women here in Egypt meet up, online or in someone's home.

There are those that say that it isnt really bad, incidents of rape are so low compared to the US, what's the harm in a little cat calling? The problem is that if you ignore the cat calling, it then turns to men masturbating at the sight of a women (I've had friends who said they saw their taxi drivers masturbating with one hand while driving with the other, simply because a foreign looking woman got into the back seat of their car), groping (which happens in a lot of cases) and could eventually by progression lead to rape if this malaise is not stopped in its tracks.

I've posted before, about Sexual Harassment but its mostly been newspaper articles or other people's experiences. Few women choose to detail their own humiliation for dissection to the world (its a different matter between close friends who understand and have gone through the same - that is in a way, slightly therapeautic)

When I last traveled to Dubai in March, most papers were filled with the news of 2 construction worker immigrants who were facing court proceedings for cat calling/ whistling at a South East Asian maid.

Points to be noted about Dubai.
1. Women (foreigners/expats) here cover far less than the majority of women in Egypt. (think tank tops and shorts to the maximum, but off shoulder, backless, low necklines are pretty common too)
2. This is a muslim majority country and local Emirati women are predominantly dressed in the black abaya type hijab. Fully covered black robes and heads/hair covered.
3. There is a high number of single men - men who have left their wives behind in home countries because they cannot afford to bring them over when they are here on long work contracts/ unmarried men.
4. There is a large population of hired labour living in what would be considered as Below Poverty Line status in the rest of the world.

All of these have been used as excuses to brush away sexual harassment in Egypt, yet Sexual harassment in Dubai overall is not even 0.1% of what "I" face in Egypt on a daily basis.

Why? Mainly because authorities take action about any such complaint. The law is tough and it is applied without fail. No excuses.

I'm not saying that everything about Dubai culture is perfect or everything about Egypt is imperfect (I've lived in Egypt for 3 years) but harassment on the roads makes me tend to avoid going out unless absolutely necessary or in a large group of friends. I know a lot of expat women in Egypt who are here on husbands postings, who do not visit anywhere that is not an expat dominated location for fear of being assaulted. While such fears may not be justified, it is a real feeling that these women live with daily.

A closer look at my wardrobe, shows me much higher necks and back lines than 3 years ago. Sleeves below the elbows, loose fitting semi-shapeless clothes. Visiting Lebanon and Dubai makes me realise how much I have changed my own style of dressing to suit this country. (Not that I ever wore plunging necklines to work in India, but they didnt all end above my collar bone either) Changing the way I dress, was just one of the adaptations to blend into the culture and surroundings in Egypt.

My husband and I both love traveling around the country/city and discovering hidden gems of cultural, architectural and historical interest which takes us into sometimes weird areas. Our driver/translator despairs when 'Madame' wants to visit Souk al Gumma (The second-hand Friday market) and other such areas, which he tells me even his mother and sister who have lived in Cairo all their lives, avoid.

But a part of the charm and beauty of living in another country is to explore its nooks and crannies. Unfortunately in Egypt, exploration into some of these nooks and crannies brings a lot of unwanted attention and in many cases, especially if my husband isnt with me, harassment both verbal and sometimes physical. So one has to be extra careful about where one goes, with whom one goes and what kind of clothes one is wearing.

Fortunately, not being cursed with blond hair, white skin and blue eyes, the harassment that I face is less than those who look "foreign" even if they are conservatively dressed.

Yes, making a scene helps and you don't need to speak in Arabic. I remember generally strolling around the pyramids alone when my husband went inside one of them (I'm claustrophobic and chose to not go in) one of those camel ride guys was persistently trying to get my attention. As is the case with most touts in the pyramids area (I have visited over 25 times in the last 3 years) I continued to ignore him, as though I couldn't understand him and refused to make eye contact. (this may seem rude, but works in most cases of persistent touts) Usually after 3-4 tries they leave me alone. This guy actually touched my hand and attempted to give me the riding whip/stick for the camel. While his gesture was not sexual, he was still "touching" me without my permission and when I had given him absolutely no reason to believe I was interested.

In Egypt, Egyptian women will never permit a strange man to ever touch them, so why do they think it is ok with tourists/foreigners? Anyhow I screamed at him in English "How dare you touch me, what do you think of yourself, what gives you the right to even touch me?" Nothing abusive, nothing indecent. In English and loudly. It was enough to make the people around stop and look and stare at the man. There was nothing confrontational about my attitude. I just made a noise to attract the attention of other people around to what was clearly something this camel guy should not have been doing. He immediately apologised and slunk away. The incident shocked him (I train people in NLP and Body language, so I KNOW he was shocked) and I doubt he will be touching any women any time soon.

But why do foreign women coming to/visiting Egypt allow these men to touch them, hand on shoulders, holding hands (not shaking hands) People whom they have just met in a shop, not people they know. They would not allow men in their home country to impose on their personal space this way, but yet some of them are perceivably ok when it happens to them in a new country. Any theories?

Point to be noted. Most of the harassment, my friends & I have faced, has been in Cairo. Men in Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria (unless during the Cairene summer invasion), Dahab, Sharm el Sheikh, Hurghada, Abu Simbel, Bahariyya, Siwa, Sinai have been way more respectful of women.

Published on desicritics.org

1 comment:

Bunty said...

an abuse to the society...in egypt or here in india...

thought-provoking post...albeit disgusted by the acts by the taxi drivers...

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