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The Sexual Harassment File: Coping mechanisms

For women in Egypt, walking down the street is not just about avoiding the reckless microbuses or being fast enough to jump to the side when a man on a bike carrying a crate filled with flat bread zigzags in your direction.

It is not only walking on the often decomposed pavement or tiptoeing gracefully to dodge piles of garbage abandoned here and there.

No, this already dreamy scene needs to be sprinkled by the presence of male predators on every corner, who whistle at you, whisper dirty comments or in the worst case, brush parts of your body with their hands. Then you’ll be in the reality of all women in Egypt: veiled, unveiled, local, foreigner, Copt or Muslim.

So women adapt, and they find in themselves the attitude – the mask that will somehow limit these daily unpleasant encounters with the other sex. After discussing the matter with various women, it seems that most have adopted similar strategies:

1.  Walk less, ride more:

Many women, when they can afford it, tend to drive instead of walking.

Hala, a young painter, tries to avoid walking in the street and attempts to find the nearest parking lot to her destination. “Of course, I always have to walk a little, so I stiffen my body and walk really fast,” she explains, adding that she never makes eye contact with men in the street.

Dina also uses her car as her “best defense,” and she tries to park it close and walk as little as possible.

2. Listen to loud music:

Loud music seems to be a good ally for many women, who boost the volume of their MP3 players to alter the often harsh reality that surrounds them.

Listening to Busta Rhymes not only cuts you off from dirty remarks that drown in the rappers’ rapid flow, but it also gives you a gangsta attitude – and with it a strong(er) walk, scornful look and feeling of invincibility – that acts as a deterrent for harassers.

Unfortunately, no sound does not necessarily mean no sight, as Hala points out. “With my MP3 I do not hear their bad words,” she says, “but I can always see from the way they look at me that it is disgusting.”

Jalila, a biology teacher, says most of the time she walks in the street pretending that she cannot hear the men’s remarks, but  “unfortunately it rarely discourages them!”

3. Avoid eye contact

This is the golden rule that Egyptian women have registered from a very young age, and this is the rule that foreign women learn to adopt after two days in Egypt. It is the most natural and sad mechanism that women integrate, because eye contact is seen as encouragement, which Egyptian men clearly have enough of already.

Rola, a Lebanese woman working in Cairo, walks “expressionless” and looks straight at her target, or even starts making animal noises to scare them off. “I preferably moo to scare them!” she says.

Hala also has another technique to be at peace in the street: “Sometimes I try to spot an older man and walk close to him so men think he is my father, and I can have some peace.” Hala adds that what makes her sick is the victorious look she sees in their eyes when they succeed in offending her. Sunglasses also help, if the men cannot grab your eye you suddenly become a less attractive target.

4. Insult and humiliate

When the combined effects of walking as little as possible, blasting Busta Rhymes, wearing sunglasses and looking straight ahead is not enough to protect you from dirty remarks, and when the insults are so serious that ignoring them becomes impossible, most women resort to foul language and insults.

“When ignoring them is no longer an option because the insult is too big or just because this is the 20th harasser of the day, I start yelling as loud as I can, citing God that can see them – this works particularly well during Ramadan – or I talk about their sisters,” Jalila says. She explains that they are so dumbfounded by such comments erupting from a young woman that they sometimes flatly apologize. “But it is a little exhausting to do this every hundred meters," she adds with a smile.

Rola has also resorted to insults when men were particularly insistent. “A couple of times, in response to lewd comments, I said 'Umak ahla' (your mom is hotter), which got a muted response in one instance and in another, the guy started apologizing as he suddenly realized how inappropriate his behavior had been.”

Menna, a young designer, explains that in certain cases she starts a scandal right there in the street “so that everybody can hear the foul language I am capable of.”

Engy balances the violence of her insults according to the virulence of the man's remark. “I start with the minimum, telling him that he was badly brought up, that he should respect himself. … The next thing, if the insult is really huge and unbearable, I include his mother in all the insults.”

5. Physical violence

It seems that most women use violence when the harassment exceeds words and includes physical contact.

Menna says she was only touched by a man once, when she reacted by “punching and kicking him and calling him the worst names” until the man left in shock.

We're not in the practice of advocating violence here, but usually – and it is experience talking – a stinging slap on the back of the neck is perceived by harassers as the most humiliating gesture, because it reduces them to the level of dogs, while punches and kicks leave them bewildered.

Of course, the ultimate revenge are the slaps, punches and kicks in front of the man’s friends. Engy once reacted to what she calls a slight harassment by holding the man by his jacket while all the men in the street “gave him a hard time.”

Over the coming weeks, Al-Masry Al-Youm each Wednesday will feature pieces that dissect the reasons behind sexual harassment, the coping mechanisms for women (and men) in the streets of Cairo and the system that has been set up to tackle this festering issue. Comments and input are appreciated – send us your stories of sexual harassment and information on any organizations or initiatives that combat sexual harassment in Egypt.

Contact the Life & Style section at [email protected] for your input in The Sexual Harassment File.

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