Ahmed is an 18-year-old student wearing a plaid shirt and waterproof-gelled hair. He’s walking in Mohandessin, an upscale neighborhood in Cairo. He is convinced he is the look-alike of Egyptian singer Tamer Hosny, who, before being attacked by demonstrators in Tahrir Square for insulting them, was considered the Arab world’s king of pop. Ahmed, who ingenuously claims he “compliments” women walking in the street, appears embarrassed talking to a woman about sexual harassment.
Harassment – especially in the form of verbal abuse – is largely minimized and tolerated as a part of Egyptian culture. Women are usually the victims, and therefore, constitute the main voices in articles dealing with the subject. As a consequence, men’s views are rarely explored. But any woman who has been harassed wonders why men do it. What do men think women feel about being harassed? And how do men think they will benefit?
“I know sexual harassment is a big problem here in Egypt, and I’m very worried about my relatives,” Ahmed says, “but complimenting a girl on her appearance or following her can’t be considered harassment.” According to Ahmed, harassment only includes physical abuse; catcalls are merely a way of flattering a stranger.
The student, who works in a museum, says he “compliments cute girls” he meets, both foreigners and Egyptians – because he “respects foreigners as much as locals” – and follows some girls. However, he stops trailing her as soon as she openly expresses disappointment. “I compliment her if she is pretty,” he explains, “hoping that I might be able to open a conversation, as has happened a few times.”
When I ask Ahmed how he would react if a guy “complimented” his girlfriend, he laughs. “Of course I would beat him up,” he tells me. “I compliment a girl only if she walks alone in the street.” The Tamer Hosny look-alike seems oblivious to the possibility that a girl walking alone might not enjoy sexual “compliments” from a stranger.
A common male misperception sees “women asking for attention.”
Omar is an 18-year-old law student. He’s walking along al-Bustan street with two friends. When I start talking about harassment, his friends begin to blush. But Omar remains serious when explaining how he calls out to women or insistently glares at them.
“I’m not ashamed because girls who wear provocative clothes want to be harassed and followed,” he says. But Omar gets embarrassed when he can’t explain exactly what the signals are that he perceives. “I know she wants it,” he simply reiterates.
When asked how he would react if a guy harassed his mother or sister, he interrupts: “Well, it definitely can’t happen – my sister or my mother would wear provocative clothes.”
According to a frequently cited 2008 study published by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women visiting Egypt have been harassed at some point. It showed that women are verbally abused regardless of what they wear; victims are both veiled and non-veiled, wearing “provocative” clothes or completely covered.
Nevertheless, men fervently believe that harassment is mainly women’s fault.
“I see many boys between 17 and 25 years old harassing girls,” Essam, a 50-year-old chatting outside a downtown shop, explains. “Sixty percent of the time, it’s due to the provocative way the girl is dressed and the way she walks. With the remaining 40 percent, it’s because men simply don’t have good manners.”
Essam nostalgically evokes memories of a time when harassment was rare. “The current open-to-the world society,” he goes on, “is changing people’s manners in a negative way because you can meet the girls you used to see only in movies in everyday life.”
Alaa, a 30-year-old clothing vendor, explained his own motivations for harassing women. “I don’t harass, I just compliment a girl so I can open a discussion and convince her to buy my clothes,” he says. He eventually asked for this reporter’s phone number, though he was off work at the moment.
“I know if she can accept my flattering remarks or not,” Alaa says, and gives me a live demonstration of staring at a girl, “who clearly wants to be harassed” according to Alaa, but doesn’t even look at him.
Harassment can have many forms. It includes “compliments,” insistent stares at a girl walking in the street, and grabbing. As any social disease, it lacks a single cause. When being interviewed for the article, men commonly agreed that one of the main causes for sexual harassment is related to the difficulty of getting married in Egypt due to financial hardship. The prohibition of premarital sex and women’s responsibility for wearing provocative garb are also reasons. Few of the men interviewed accepted the possibility that harassment may also be the perpetrator’s responsibility.
Mohamed is a 28-year-old student. He lives in the United Arab Emirates but frequently visits Cairo where he has studied for many years. He explains that harassing is a sin and is wrong, but “I do it anyway because of the economic crisis and the general sense of frustration.”
He feels freer to harass girls in Cairo than in the UAE, where “people make you feel ashamed.” He says, “I do it there only if I’m sure no one can see me, while in Cairo it’s an accepted practice.”
While asking for this journalist’s personal information – “because you should also introduce yourself” – he assures he will stop harassing girls once married “because my wife would beat me up otherwise.” Either way, getting harassed is women’s fault.
According to some married men, marriage has deterred them from harrassing. “I’m married, so it’s out of question,” says Ehab, a 32-year-old bank employee, when asked if he harasses girls. “I used to do it in the past but it was only verbal. Now, if I see someone harassing a girl, I intervene.”
As psychologist Salima Barakat explains, “The lack of moral values is the main reason for sexual harassment… from middle to lower economic classes.”
She says harassment has become a social and economic phenomenon. “The man doesn’t really see the woman when he harasses her. He doesn’t do it because he finds her attractive or sexy, but simply wants to annoy her because he feels he belongs to a lower level. Not having money or a job, he feels depressed and frustrated.”
“Men’s frustration” can have serious psychological consequences for women. “She reaches the point where she doesn’t walk in the street, or, if she does, she walks like a train, avoiding eye contact, or she stops taking public transportation,” Barakat goes on. “Being a victim of harassment on daily basis… detaches you from society.”