Egypt Finds Freedom -- From Sexual Harassment

Female protestors describe a sudden lull in an old plague.

January 25, 2011, 1:58 PM

Feb. 1, 2011 — -- Whether or not the past week of protests usher in real political change in Egypt, they have already brought a certain freedom for Egyptian women. Protestors say the current street demonstrations have brought at least a temporary reprieve from the rampant sexual harassment that has marred most public gatherings in recent years.

"Usually in protests you dress especially for them," said 23-year-old Sarah Ismail of Cairo. "You wear really baggy things so that you don't attract that kind of attention. But this time I didn't do that. I'm just glad that sexual harassment didn't stand in the way of the revolution. "

While there are few credible statistics about rape and sexual harassment in Egypt, a study done by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights in 2008 showed that 83 percent of all women surveyed had experienced some form of sexual harassment, including stalking by telephone, being followed in the streets and even groping. The survey covered only a small portion of the country and did not use rigorous scientific sampling. Recently, the U.S. State Department warned female travelers to Egypt that "Unescorted women are vulnerable to sexual harassment and verbal abuse. The Embassy has received increasing reports over the last several months of foreigners being sexually groped in taxis and in public places."

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During large public gatherings, packs of young men have often chased and attacked women. During rioting in 2006, attacks by throngs of men on young women in the streets attracted the attention of the media. In 2009, during a soccer celebration in the Cairo neighborhood of Mohendeseen, almost 100 young men chased down two girls, attempting to rip their clothes off. That same night women in a horse drawn carriage were attacked by a similar sized group, and only retreated when the driver started using his whip. That same year, men attacked women during a protest in front of the journalist's syndicate in downtown Cairo.

In an infamous online ad campaign in 2008, a religious group suggested veils would shield women from attack. Two pictures side-by-side showed a wrapped lollipop and then an unwrapped lollipop, covered with flies. "You can't stop them," said the ad, "but you can protect yourself. In fact, the men attacking women in the streets have not seemed to discriminate between veiled and unveiled women.

Protestor: 'All of a Sudden, the World is Positive'

Dr. Helen Rizzo, chair of the department of sociology and psychology at the American University in Cairo, said she believes the real reason for the rampant harassment is that young men are bored. Unemployment among Egyptian men 35 and under is more than 15 percent.

"The issue is that you have young men that are unemployed or underemployed hanging out on the street with nothing to do," she said. "This is the way they prove their manliness to each other."

Other observers have blamed sexual frustration, since unemployment and a weak economy have forced many young men to delay marriage.

This month's demonstrations, however, have not been marked by the same sort of sexually aggressive behavior.

Heba Lashin, 25, told ABC News that in the past she has stayed home during protests. "The risk is too high and the returns are too low," said Lashin. "I could get groped, and no one is listening to them anyway. But now, we aren't even thinking about this. We are all only thinking about one thing. This has become our focus."

Ahmed Meyazi, 28, says he thinks the young men in the streets are not harassing women because of the crowd's excitement and focus on political change.

"There wasn't one woman that I walked with that was harassed," said Meyazi, who has been taking part in protests daily. "I'm walking on the streets I grew up in as if I've never walked through them before. All of a sudden the world is positive."

ABC News' Deena Sami contributed to this report.

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