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.