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The Sexual Harassment File: Can culture be blamed?

Trying to unearth the cultural origins of sexual harassment in Egypt is a very complicated endeavor; the core of the matter runs deep and the blame is often passed onto some factor other than the harasser.

One thing is certain: sexual harassment does occur on a mass scale. But why? And where does this platform of acceptability come from?

“Frustrations from society often push men towards sexual harassment,” says a spokesperson for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) who asked to remain anonymous. “Due to marriage laws and poverty, many males find it impossible to move out of their parents' houses. Eventually out of frustration, the line gets blurred between complimenting a woman and sexually harassing her.”

In Egypt, social customs including the mahr (dowry) and shabka (gifts to the bride) make marriage quite expensive for many men. Often, families assign their daughters a high dowry to ensure her safety and security for life, which has the effect of sidelining a significant portion of single men.

“All I want to do is find myself a girl, settle down and get married,” says Mohamed al-Sheikh, a 27-year-old office boy. “But with my salary, how am I ever supposed to afford to pay a mahr or a shabka. My salary is LE200 a month, the girls I’ve wanted to marry have been offered by their family at LE10,000. How am I going to afford that? I barely even survive on my salary as it is.”

For many like Mohamed and his friends, the only contact they have with females they aren't related to happens in the street where occurrences of explicit intent seem almost inevitable due to their fateful circumstances. And yet, many men will testify that though they married late in life, it never led them to engage in sexual harassment.

Others place the blame for sexual harassment on the veil – stating that it raises the bar as to what is acceptable for a female to wear outside the home.

“Among the general community, it has become the norm for a good girl to be covered up when she is in public,” says Noha Khaled, a 55-year-old housewife. “When I was young, short sleeves and shorts were more acceptable, but now if I wear that I am considered promiscuous because the culture has been turned around. Abroad, nobody turns their head, but here you stand out as desiring attention.”

And yet, veiled women receive the same, if not more, harassment from their general community – especially on public transport or when they walk alone.

All of which implies that gender inequality is more than superficial, and goes beyond the veil and premarital sex.

A study put forth by the UNFPA shows that there is a strong connection between sexual harassment and power structures in Egypt. Men are generally considered more powerful and able than females, so the females in a family usually have to take care of their husbands and brothers and cater to their needs. Though at home the females are treated with respect, says the report, the boys carry this culture of servitude out onto the streets with them – in search of a hierarchy of their own.

“Often the boundaries of respect that exist within a family are broken when out of the house,” says Maha al-Sherif, a 26-year-old teacher. “I see it all the time. The same boy that beats up another for hissing at his sister, will then go hiss at another girl immediately after.”

Religious traditions have a strong influence on notions of gender equality, which in turn have an impact on relations between the sexes. According to sharia (religious law), for example, female children receive half the inheritance of their male siblings, while the same male siblings are also allowed to marry four females.

To some, the existence of such traditions and the texts upon which they are based are evidence that religion itself is at the heart of the problem. For others, however, it is the tendency towards misinterpreting such religious edicts that results in a lack of respect towards women.

“We understand the impact and role of religious scripture linked to societal problems, despite the moral solutions it provides,” says Sheikh Mahmoud Abdel-Moneim. “The problem is that a lot of these words of guidance were put in place to glorify women as people to be carefully taken care of and respected. But poor interpretations get passed on from generation to generation.

“The way many people act is more reflective of jahiliyyah [ignorance of divine guidance], as opposed to Islam. That is why we have a responsibility to reaffirm the religious ideals of tolerance, respect and cooperation.”

One suggested solution is to create anti-harassment laws. But the anonymous UNFPA spokesperson says sexual harassment exists “in various communities regardless of legislation. It always comes back to cultural backgrounds and the general perception of women.”

Writing off sexual harassment as having to do with money, clothing, power structures, religion or law is allowing the phenomenon to escape itself and transform into another modality. Harassment is thereby able to self-propagate under the guise of "culture" because of the inability, or ultimate unwillingness, of the community to call it what it really is – which is abuse.

According to teacher Maha al-Sherif, this culture should be addressed through education, with intervention from schools.

“There is a need for classes taught at the formative age concerning gender roles and social responsibility. It is a cycle that needs to be broken and it is very easy to do if it is spoken about clearly and effectively. The problem is nobody wants to touch it because of its associated stigma and diverse connotations among the community at large," she says.

“It is my belief that it is the role of the school to guide culture into its desired manifestation.”

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