Monday, June 20, 2011

Thoughts on End Sexual Harassment Day

I have wanted to write about sexual harassment, again, for the last few months. I've wanted to write because I'm a woman in Cairo, so it's on my mind anyway, and because friends of mine were recently targeted by a mob of men, and I myself had an incident in which I felt physically threatened for the first time (by civilians, I mean. Thank you amn dawla circa 2006). This could simply be coincidence, or the absence of the traitorous police force encouraging a free-for-all attitude. All the more reason to speak out and fight against harassment.

But Egypt has been pushing against itself, as some fight for legitimate political demands while others demonstrate for their basic economic and social rights while those in power consistently disappoint the nation, proving only that change is still a necessary but distant goal, and that the struggle for it will be long and slow. With so much happening in the country on so many fronts, the issue of harassment – one which has been discussed, studied, and publicized so much in the past – just did not seem to need as much attention.

How wrong of me. The fact is that sexual harassment is a social disease that is linked to numerous other problems in the country. Here are just a couple:

The police: The corrupt and brutal police force which has humiliated and terrorized citizens for decades is complicit in sexual harassment - not only do policemen themselves often harass women (and men), but the fact that victims cannot refer to the police for protection or to search for justice in cases of assault without being blamed for the incident, or worse, is an outrage.

Education and social services: If the majority of Egyptian men had the chance to feel fulfillment or respect (reflected in their own eyes and the eyes of others) based on accomplishments other than street smarts and seya3a, perhaps harassing women would not be such a favorite pastime. But where are young men supposed to get any sense of self-worth when they have no chances for a decent education or dignified employment?

(Of course, men in BMWs who own at least the physical symbols of success also harass women.)

If, after years of a long and frustrating struggle to reform the country, we succeeded in improving education and the justice system, perhaps sexual harassment would organically decrease to become an occasional occurrence which women could report. But why wait? Through the revolution and ongoing protests, people became educated and engaged in politics like never before - because they had something at stake, because they saw that engagement could work. Perhaps the same can happen with the issue of harassment.

Start simply. Men need to understand that harassment is wrong, and women need to know that they shouldn't put up with it. And everyone needs to take responsibility - when you witness harassment and say or do nothing, you are condoning that behavior. You are accepting it as a normal part of the society around you.

We've heard the stories and read the studies. We know it is rampant, we know it is linked to ingrained ideas about sex, gender, and public space. It's time to act, in every way we can.


Wednesday, February 09, 2011


At a an intersection near Tahrir square, a man selling Egyptian flags sang out “Shaga3 masr! Shaga3 masr!” (Support Egypt!) The cab driver I was with cracked a joke about whether we were going to a football stadium, and I started thinking about symbols.

In the weeks that have passed, the flag and the national anthem have been held up by both the agents of Mubarak's government, be they laughable state media channels or baltageyya, and the millions of people demanding change.

I have a problem with nationalism and its symbols. National identity, like religion, can be a force for cooperation and positivity; it can also be an easy justification for violence and intolerance and a tool for manipulating the masses for the benefit of the few.

Rarely have I felt as ashamed of people around me as when thousands of Egyptians obeyed orders or took money to attack peaceful protesters with fists, rocks, glass, and fire. Or when people started harassing and attacking foreigners and accusing them of being spies or agents, so easily abandoning human decency, and in some cases neighbourly ties, in favor of xenophobic state-sponsored lies. Or when people began questioning each others Egyptian-ness based on political views, accents, hairstyles, or clothing.

But rarely have humans moved and surprised me as much, nor have I seen such a condensed current of that unnamable, uplifting spark that has been one of the few sources of hope I've clung to while treading through Cairo for the last years. (Amnesiac does a great job of describing this.) When I saw thunderous waves of thousands of people descending upon Tahrir time and time again, after violence and lies and intimidation. When I stood on the corniche and watched, with my mouth literally agape, as protesters used sheer determination to push security forces back across Kasr el Nil Bridge on that Friday that everything changed, picking up tear gas canisters and throwing them into the Nile, leaving clouds of toxic smoke sitting on the water like it was unsure where to go. When I heard people had formed a human shield to protect the Egyptian Museum from looting. When I saw people protecting each other on the streets, sharing their homes and their food and their cars. When I heard hope and enthusiasm in the voices of relatives and friends, talking about Egypt with marvel.

And so it seems to me that is more than a fight over a throne or a parliament, a flag or a word. It's a fight over the spirit of a population which has always had the courage, wit and endurance so many foreign correspondents are commenting on as they walk around Tahrir these days. It's a fight to shake off a power structure which has done nothing but steal, suffocate and humiliate. It's a fight between the bad, and the potential and the hope for good.

As a dear relative said, “Whatever happens with politics, things will never go back to how they were. Finally there is hope, finally people know that there can be something different, that they have to demand it, never to let go of the truth that they deserve it.”

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Looking forward

The last 12 days have been incredible ones for Egypt. The massive, nationwide protests broke down people’s fear of the authorities and security forces in a country which has used intimidation and violence to silence its population for decades. The protests also invalidated international stereotypes and internalized inferiority complexes that Egyptians have about ourselves – that political apathy and cynicism are overwhelming, and the long-held conventional wisdom that Egyptians will not rise up except when food security is threatened, a la 1977.

The battle between the anti-government movement and the regime for public opinion, for the support of the majority of Egyptians who have not protested but have been holed up at home in front of the television for over a week, began the second the first “the people want to bring down the regime” was chanted. The president’s emotionally appealing first speech, the nationwide withdrawal of the police and security forces, the over-hyped news of looting, the interruption of normal life by an unnecessarily early military curfew (3 PM), the freezing of all banking transactions – these moves were all engineered to instill a deep craving for physical and financial security. The state media – where most Egyptians get their news – has gone a long way towards making the regime seem reasonable in its concessions, open to dialogue with opposition, and eager to resume normal operations for the country. The truth is that the regime has held the population hostage – cutting off cash, transportation, and communication – while making the population think it is the protesters who are kidnapping them.

The protesters’ strategy begins and ends with the act of protesting in itself. The overwhelming turnout of people in Cairo and other cities for demonstrations offered proof that the call had been heard, that people were ready to join in. News networks are reporting that last Friday’s protest in Cairo was the biggest yet. The movement has not wanted to politicize by promoting a particular opposition group or platform, opting instead to focus on one goal with a strong resonating power – that the regime step down. Most activists felt there was no need for a political plan, for an alternative to be offered when and if Mubarak steps aside. They were not aiming to put a certain person or party in power, simply to remove the current President.

This is no longer sufficient. As the population grows more tired of the hiatus to normal life and state media continues its barrage of lies and distortions, public opinion is clearly shifting away from the protesters. People feel that they have no plan and nothing to offer, while the government does. With the country’s army, bureaucracy, media, and financial institutions in its pockets, the regime itself – Mubarak or no Mubarak – appears to be going nowhere. Heads, including those of the much loathed Habib el Adli and the uber corrupt Ahmed Ezz – seem to be flying, but they are being replaced by nearby allies and confidants, stooges of the same system.

If Mubarak steps aside, it will be seen as the ultimate political concession on behalf of this regime and people will want to give the government time to implement the reforms it has promised. And we will have achieved little politically other than guaranteeing ourselves another septuagenarian, military leader – Omar Suleiman - and the continuation of the exact same power structures we have under Mubarak. If he does not step aside, we will have helped the government get one step closer to a succession plan which works in its favor, affording Suleiman eight months as Vice President and giving the US plenty of time to accept and see the advantages of the new reality before he is “elected” in September.

The protesters must come up with a political plan – something they can offer the people, a voice and a platform to represent them in the media. This is an enormous challenge for several reasons. First, it is always difficult to get people to agree on details once a movement has already started and grown – there are more diverging interests, less common ground; emotions are amplified and there is more at stake. Secondly, there is a significant amount of distrust within the core supporters and organizers of these protests towards opposition figures and politicians, most of whom did not lend their support to the demonstrations until after they surprised the world with their power. This eliminates the possibility of relying on already established organizational structures, weak as they may be; the movement will have to build something completely new.

Thirdly and, in my view, most importantly, the energy and the type of strategic thinking required to create a political plan runs almost directly opposite to the single-mindedness and incredible tenacity that protesters have had to adopt in order to continue the demonstrations, holding on to Tahrir square night after night, many of them fighting off the regime’s thugs at the front lines. People in the square are tired and they can only focus on one thing - the survival of the protests.
The protests’ focus narrowed onto the removal of Mubarak specifically after his first speech, in which he announced a new government would be formed. For over a week now, the banners, slogans, and chants of the protesters have targeted Mubarak personally.

I fear that, without a political alternative on the table and without public opinion on their side, protesters who will continue to demand the downfall of the regime after Mubarak (hypothetically) steps aside will be seen as unreasonable and selfishly disregarding the suffering of the majority; more than that, they may fail to bring out the numbers and support they need in order to continue.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


The metro ride downtown was great. It was empty enough that I was actually able to take a seat next to an old man who smelled like sugar cookies. Across the aisle from me a woman, covered in beige apparel from the top of her head to her feet, sat quietly crying. A man whose frame was smaller than hers sat next to her, lightly jabbing her with his shoulder and speaking to her, clearly trying to cheer her up. She didn't speak, just kept her eyes on various parts of the car's ceiling, I suppose so as not to meet the gaze of curious watching strangers. She eventually mustered up a weak quarter-smile, but you could tell it was mostly for the sake of her companion.

Two hours later I'm waiting for the train to leave downtown and take me back home. As the platform gets more and crowded I notice how small the proportion of women is. We all get on the train, I am holding on to the bar near one of the doors. Two young men get on the car and stand between me and the door, so I am sort of facing them. They talk to each other, clearly good friends. It takes a few minutes before they engage in that most maddeningly irritating sleazeball habit of talking to each other about me. It's a tactic I've often wondered about - I think its appeal must be that they can refute any accusations by me with "7ad kallimik?".

I keep my eyes focused on a window, and turn away from them slightly. I am halfway home. My eyes quickly survey the rest of the car - it is mostly men, I see some women at the other end. Of course, they are all veiled. I use my coat, which I am not wearing due to the stuffiness underground, to cover my chest, though my sweater is quite loose anyway. I hold it the way one would hold it if it were wrapped around a child, and I wonder if the illusion of motherhood could somehow offer added protection. Most of the men look straight ahead of them or are sleeping, but there are enough of them who have steadily stared at me for long enough that I feel like I must turn into some kind of statue. I draw my legs closer together as I stand, bring my arms as close to my body as possible, and concentrate on not accidentally making eye contact with anyone, or, god forbid, thinking of anything that might make me smile.

I would like to reach into my bag for my ipod but I am afraid that the movement would only attract more attention. So I stand there, fixed in place, thinking of stone. Eventually the car empties significantly. I shift positions a little bit, and catch sight of a man leering at me, chewing something in his mouth, sitting with his legs spread open, leaning forward, taking up space with his body. I think of the way he sits and I also think of how I have been quietly trying to disappear, to be invisible and still and small, and I am suddenly furious. A cold kind of anger, which is all the more unpleasant and deadly, because hot anger, it can just come to the surface, you can let it erupt, and in doing so, let it go. Cold anger, on the other hand, has nowhere to go, and you must carry it around, never quite sure exactly how it is affecting the rest of you.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Too tired for coherent sentences on Ghaza. I've been waking up right before the dawn prayers, against my will, for the last few days. I hear the cacophony of the prayer calls, starting seconds apart from each other, some voices beautiful, others whiney. I wonder if anyone is calling out for prayer from a minerat in Ghaza. The only mention of mosques I've heard is of them being blown up. Do prayer calls continue in times like this?

A few minutes after the singing has quieted, I hear the sound of the gardener's hose outside, trying to bring our yard to life. I think of uprooted land, turned on top of itself, trees blown up, the loss of livelihood and beauty and the right to both. Of land, eaten up with greed, evil, myopic greed, self-righteous greed, god-given greed. Taken, stolen, renamed.

I hear the sound of an airplane, which is uncommon in our neighborhood and I wonder what the deal is. It occurs to me that this isn't the first time the sound has triggered fear in me, an irrational idea that Cairo has suddenly joined the list of other cities, those which are no worse but are just less fortunate than it, existing on a part of the map that is either more or less important to all the wrong people. Beirut, Baghdad, Ghaza City. Ancient, reconstructed, invisible, forgotten. Part of a region that can't get its shit together, because above its grounds it is so old, so crowded, and underneath it is cursed with a poisonous gift. Because it is where texts were written and nations imagined on cocktail napkins and god reinvented time and time, and time, again.

And I remember that I happen to be in a country that is bordered by two genocides, one to the south, the other to the east. One might as well just walk into the Mediterranean and be done with it all, be washed over by water that saw its own ancient battles but at least the ships on both sides had weapons, at least back then there was no New York Times or CNN to take the lives of thousands people, PEOPLE, REMEMBER, which have been transformed into narratives of terror and loss and unspeakable indignities, and lie about and reduce and insult and exploit them for their own greed, their own tunnel vision for millions of people in the "free world" to swallow and digest and produce shit out the other end about "self-defense" and = that most harmful of words of this century - "terrorism".

Over 30% of the casualties so far are children. 292 children. 292 pairs of eyes (but what would they see?). Feet (but where would they run to?). Hands (but what would they do? what would they make? what would they touch?). 292 mouths emitting aborted laughter, sentences, cries, garbled syllables on their way to learning to speak. And it's disgusting, that if, before they were silenced forever by phosphorus bombs and 18-year-old recruits, those mouths had said "mom" and "dad" instead of "mama" and "baba" and "3ammo" and "teita" (or is it "sitto"?) and "ma sha allah", more people with bigger bank accounts and Security Council vetoes and industrialization and government offices would be outraged, would talk about it, would see it. Disgusting that I have to point that out.

And so on.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

In which the news reads like a dystopian fantasy story

Society's obsession with what people are doing in their bedrooms never fails to amaze me. We've had thousands of years to come to terms with the fact that people are turned on by different things, and that they will continue to do those things no matter how energetically society tries to police them. I do not understand why people give a damn, frankly. As long as someone's sexual acts are consensual and private, why should it matter to anyone else? Why must society force us all to fit into one heterosexual, chaste until marriage, monogomous version of the story? Have we not learned that repression of sexuality often leads to violence, depravity, and the sort of behavior that is generally more likely to ruin lives and break apart families?

Apparently not. This article in the Daily News Egypt is interesting because it starts out discussing couples that are suffering due to the fact that the husband is a homosexual who got married only to save face socially. And yet the bulk of the article is spent discussing homosexuality from exactly the same perspective which caused these couples so much grief in the first place: that homosexuality is a disease, and one that should be treated.

There is mention of erectile implants to assist men in being able to have sex with women, as well as this gem from a Dr. Abdulla "a gynecologist and the Ministry of Justice’s Medical Consultant for Sexual Disorders":

"While Abdulla underlines the futility of psychotherapy in the majority of such cases, he commends the results of behavioral therapy which consists of reversing the patients’ sexual obsessions through conditioning to trigger orgasm through pornography in the presence of a woman."

For the sake of caution, I do think it is possible that the writer was trying to be neutral and simply "report" the attitudes and practices surrounding the problem. However, I think it would have been responsible to find a quote from someone from a human rights group posing a different question: What if we stopped criminalizing homosexuality?

It would have added a bit of dynamism to the article. Instead we are left with the same old panicky "WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT THE GAYS?" answered horrifically with: "stick implants in their penises and force them to watch heterosexual porn". Yeah, that'll fix it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Om el Donya

It seems that the creeping approach of Ramadan has caused my boss to wake up from the lull of managerial office routine in a frenzied panic, and to throw buttloads of work into my lap. One of these suddenly remembered tasks sent me on a ten-day trip to various parts of Upper Egypt and Fayoum. We are talking about working with farming communities in the heart of the s3eed here. In August. Never have I so frequently lamented my female-ness. Not even while living in Saudi Arabia; at least there one has the option of leading a double life - publicly, a life that is indistinguishible from its repressed surroundings, and privately, one that mirrors western conceptions of leisure.

The trip was educational both professionally and in the way it opened my eyes to how culturally removed Cairo and Alexandria are from the rest of the country. Cairo is so crowded and overwhelming that one often forgets that its residents, and its commuters, are in fact a minority of the larger Egyptian population. I'm among those who complain about the enforced social conservatism of Cairo, and, like most, I usually attribute it to religion. I had forgotten all about straight up traditionalism. I guess that's easy to do in an enormous, mostly Muslim city setting. The following is an email I sent to some friends mid-way through the trip, pointing out various things I had learned about the s3eed by that point :

- It is rude for women to chew gum.
- It is rude for women to cross their legs in public. It is not, however, in any way notable if a man sits with his hands cupping his balls for about 15 minutes, or picks his nose continuously (really, really picking. Like exploratory digging.)
- If you are not veiled, do not be surprised if a development "professional" asks you if "you guys are fasting these days."
- There is a kabab store in Fayoum called "Kalbaz". I look forward to seeking it out tomorrow almost as much as I look forward to having a beer and wearing a (gasp!) half-sleeved t shirt on saturday.

I did indeed make it to Kalbaz, and it proved to be the cheesy, brightly colored, lard-smelling, flourescently lit place I had imagined. Other highlights of the trip included:

- Walking through a village and hearing about how they had to enlarge the police presence after a case of taar (revenge killings) left 3 people dead a few months ago.

- Driving through Fayoum (the actual town, not the touristic "oasis" by the lake) on Thursday night and seeing at least two dozen pick-up trucks absolutely overflowing with wedding guests.

- Quickly realizing that unless you specify otherwise, any cup of tea that is given to you will be unbelievably sweet, and dark to the point where it looks thick. It makes Lipton seem like some sort of baby-faced pre-pubescant whose voice hasn't yet cracked.