Egypt was ranked worst place to be a woman according to a Thomson-Reuters Foundation recent survey. Egypt ranked worst among the 22 Arab countries included in the report. The reasons varied from the high percentage of genital mutilation victims, the acceptance of sexual harassment and trafficking in child brides. Although the study put Egypt ahead of other equally oppressive countries like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where women are constantly abused and are considered second class citizens; the survey’s rankings were all about the statistics. Apparently these gender experts know better than we do.
Apart from the political propaganda, what do Egyptian women have to say about the survey’s results?
Sexual harassment has always been a huge problem in Egypt. Recently the problem has taken a vile turn; women must defend themselves against men who are constantly accusing them of “obscenity” and of “demanding” to be harassed. There have been anti-sexual-harassment marches, public awareness campaigns, movies and even television ads. None of these efforts have worked. Most of these campaigns were aimed at the culturally-aware, intellectual individuals who -let’s face it- probably are not guilty of committing these abuses.
Extremist Wahabi religious clerics actually encourage the men who proudly harass women whenever they have the chance. Genital mutilation is still practiced and widely accepted in rural parts of Egypt, as a religious tradition; it is practiced by both Muslims and Christians. As for child brides, unsurprisingly, with a Saudi fatwa from sheikh Dr. Salih bin Fawzan -a prominent cleric and member of Saudi Arabia’s highest religious council- girls can be married at any age, even if they are still in the cradle. The practice is considered legitimate: or halal in Arabic. Since most child- brides are unfortunate girls from poverty-stricken villages and suburbs; one can imagine why Egypt ranks lowest on the women’s rights list: we have far too many child brides!
In psychology, oppression continues only if you allow it. When you submit to oppression, you are giving your oppressor power over you. The less you fight back, the more oppressed you become.
I was 15 when I was first sexually harassed. I was on my way to a private Maths lesson after school and a car filled with young boys passed be my. Two of the boys lunged out of the window and started shouting obscenities at me:
“Let me lick your p***y,” one said.
“Hey whore, show me your boobs!” another blurted out.
I ran away in tears. One of them tried to pull my hair, causing me to pull away and walk faster. When I was finally out of their reach, I lost control. I fell to the ground, shaking and crying hysterically. I was horrified. Fear magnified everything in my head. I thought that they might get out of the car and rape me. I thought that if I cursed at them, they would beat me up. I looked at my clothes to try to find any reason for their insults and blamed myself. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn such a short-sleeved top. Maybe that V-neck is too much. When I went home that day, I felt different about my body and myself. I hated both.
Now let me get this straight. It’s not unusual for a man to beat a woman on the street in Egypt. I witnessed a beating once: a taxi driver slapped a woman for rebuking him for his harassment. I read various encounters by Egyptian girls who were slapped, severely beaten or spat upon, for fighting back against their assailants. The public stands-by, watching. Some of the elderly might volunteer and scold the girl for her clothing or her attitude. You always hear,“a decent girl doesn’t talk like that.” Or “Have you no shame? How can you raise your voice like that?” In some cases, “if you had worn your hijab, nobody would’ve attacked you.” Brilliant, indeed.
In one of the sadder, more maddening moments, a man who tried to defend a girl who was being sexually assaulted was beaten so badly that he suffered two broken ribs and a broken leg. One of the men who struck him, said that it was his own fault because this girl was a “whore and she liked being harassed!”
The last time I was sexually harassed was about six years later. I was out at a protest against the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime; a man with a long beard who looked twice my age, tried to grab my breasts. This time I didn’t run away in shame; I shoved my elbow in his crotch. I shoved him and screamed, “Enough! Enough!” He tried grabbing at me again but I shoved harder. The scene could’ve ended beautifully if it weren’t for a nosy passerby who yelled at me, “Leave him alone!”
If we as women are supposed to fight back, we have a long road ahead of us. It’s not just aggressive, sexual assailants whom we’re supposed to fight. We’re supposed to fight fellow conservative women who blame other women for men gaping at them. We’re supposed to fight religious clerics. We’re supposed to fight onlookers, taxi drivers, half of Egypt’s middle-aged population; and on top of it all, we must fight our own demons. We have to realize that our attackers are weak; but we also have to overcome the fear of being raped or physically harmed. We have to realize that only we -as women- have a claim to our own bodies.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ve been sexually harassed five times. I fought back only once. Egypt maybe the worst place to be but it is our weakness that makes it so. Even with our depressed and deteriorating status as women, denied our rights, I can still smell freedom. I know that a Day of the Women is coming and when it does, it will sweep every single oppressor out of its way.
Written by: Jaylan Salah