Sexual harassment: fuck “selmeya”

Posted on June 20, 2011

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I have to confess, I do not quite see the point of writing this post. So many people have written extensively on the subject of sexual harassment: surveys have been conducted, campaigns and marches undertaken, and even a seemingly-precedent-setting sentence handed down to a harasser. Nevertheless every woman in Egypt still needs to look at the ground all the time lest she encounter male eyes, consider whether that centimetre of extra skin or bright top will bring her more attention than usual, and cross the street on autopilot when a group of teen boys approaches. It’s not about awareness of the scope or of how much we hate it anymore.

A lot has been written about the causes of sexual harassment, and what are not the causes: the so-called marriage crisis, satellite TV, the purported increase in scanty clothing (what?!). But this I think bears restating: it’s not about the clothes the woman wears, although certainly the ubiquity of the veil makes the unveiled stand out in a manner that attracts attention, even if it should not attract comment. I would love to blame veiled women for implying that unveiled women welcome the lustful eyes of men, and for implicitly accepting by donning the veil that they take responsibility for men’s sinful eyes – in my angrier moments I do blame them. But the fact is they don’t mean to say any such thing, and they, like all of us, want nothing more than for all women to pass men receiving nothing but the neutral, non-threatening gaze that men give each other. Some women, surely, make distinctions for “welcome flirtation” – respectful smiles and glances. But for most of us such normal social interactions are almost mythology, something you see in movies and when you travel abroad (once you’ve remembered to stop looking at the ground).

On days when I feel tired and sick of my own negativity I try to see sexual harassment as a misguided mating ritual, the manifestation of a society that does not allow young people to meet, know and date each other in an accepted manner. I try to pretend that perhaps each whispered offense is a pathetic way of actually trying to meet me. But it’s not actually about that, and it’s not even about sex at all, as every woman knows that most of the harassment she gets, verbal or physical, is the sort of deeply insulting, humiliating stuff that cannot possibly lead to anything more than disgust, by any stretch of a harasser’s imagination. Essentially, the overwhelming impression is that it is the bullying of the weak (physically, societally) by the strong. The centuries of oppression, disenfranchisement, and humiliation of the average Egyptian man, combined with the bullshit patriarchal discourse that defines masculinity as triumph over some other person, have led to men believing that even the look of hate and revulsion he gets from a woman after a hasty grab or a filthy reference to his sperm is about as much recognition of his manhood, and masculinity, as he is likely to get from a cruel world. At least the woman knows he is there, and that he can make things unpleasant for her. It would be pitiful, like schoolyard bullying by an abused child, if it wasn’t so vile.

I’m sure others will write powerfully about how the revolution has given us all a chance to tackle this and the myriad other issues besieging Egyptian society in new and more effective ways (people power!) and that may be so. I personally believe however, and as the women who marched in the women’s rights march on March 8 experienced, that misogyny in Egypt goes deeper than the bone and waiting for the slow and difficult process of legal, judicial and police reform to wrest justice from a reluctant public is not something I am prepared to gamble on, what with the revolution having achieved almost nothing by anyone’s standards so far. Egypt has in fact seen a tremendous increase in tolerance by the Egyptian people of violence and injustice towards minority or disenfranchised members of society – protestors, the poor, Copts, women, Bahais, the martyrs. The frightening reality is that the simple tacking on of a label, a mere word, to any group of people – “baltagy” “3ameel” “bayta fe khema ma3 shabab” by anyone, whether an authority figure or not, is enough to make the average Egyptian nod in approval as the rights and personal security of such people are violated. No one knows more than we women how easily and automatically the tiniest aberration in our behaviour from the docile, virtuous norms promoted by the bourgeois justifies any and all abuses, and therefore I do not hold out hope of any societal or legal change happening soon to deliver us from the constant threat of verbal and physical harassment, violence, and rape. Nor can I speak to verbal strategies to combat harassment; any woman knows that most verbal responses short of profanity lead to laughter, while profanity may likely lead to violence. Similarly, taking a man’s photograph or any other physical act may also lead to violence, and we all know how likely it is that everyone else will stand around and let it happen, believing as they do that resisting harassment is apparently the act of an indecent harlot who wants to make a spectacle of herself. The only solution I have for now – since it is unlikely that men will grow the balls to assist in protecting women – is to carry around the sort of weapon that delivers non-lethal shock, and gives you time to run away. Tazers, stun guns, mace, pepper spray, what have you. Yes, they’re largely illegal. I don’t give a fuck. When enough men get tazed, they’ll think twice about harassment. You’ll have to run fast though.

Alternatively, if any of you have any other ideas for immediate action let me know, but please not that infinitely pointless harassmap – why is it useful to know where and when incidents are happening? I’ll tell you: everywhere, all the time.

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