Egyptian Women Get Tough on Sexual Harassment

Egypt's women are learning to protect themselves from unwanted advances.

November 13, 2009, 10:22 AM

CAIRO, June 3, 2010 — -- Men have been doing it for generations, wooing women with their words, whispering sweet nothings to attract their attention. But on the streets of Cairo, where many men believe they're the Casanovas of their time, the matter of handing out compliments and making flirtatious remarks has taken a serious turn.

In a survey conducted by Egypt's center for women's rights, 83 per cent of the 2,800 women polled said they had been subjected to some form of sexual harassment. The center's chairwoman, Nihad abul Khomsan, said the survey ''shocked us.'' She said that ''most of the women who were harassed were veiled, so there is no relation with the type of dress you have.''

Nihad told us Egyptians are known for their hospitality and appreciation of beauty, comparing it to the Mediterranean style of life. But, she said, ''it is not nice anymore to say a rude word as a type of, or to show yourself as a cool person. It is not acceptable, and we build a campaign to say that even a nice word is not acceptable, thank you.''

Janan Sabe, the international relations coordinator at the center, told us that she is ''harassed daily, at least once a day, on my way to work, on my way to the store.''

She said ''it comes in various forms, sometimes a word, a whisper, I've been grabbed. The first time it happened, it was my second week living here. I was so shocked I didn't know what to do.''

Nowhere is it more evident than in the suburb of Heliopolis, on the outskirts of Cairo, where the young men and women wander the streets as soon as classes are over. One teenager told us, 'Of course we flirt. It's a very normal thing to do. It's in our blood.''

For the women in the country, the idea of being harassed has become part of their daily lives. One student wearing a headscarf told us, 'This is normal, it happens to me every day. If the boys don't flirt, they wouldn't know how to live.'' The way she deals with it, she said, is by ignoring them.

Learn Self-Defense, Fight Sexual Harassment

What an increasing number of girls and women are doing is taking matters into their own hands: They're learning to fight back.

At a training center in eastern Cairo, girls as young as 7 are learning how to spar with the boys.

"The men don't scare me,'' one student said. "Of course, I would hit them and defend myself.''

Another girl said, "It gives me courage when I walk down the streets, it's something that's very important for me to learn.''

While sexual harassment in Egypt is mostly verbal, it remains a nagging problem. Nihad said, ''At the end of the day, nobody has a right to violate your personal freedom or your movement.''

Her work has spurred many women to come forward, and she believes that the government is taking this problem seriously with new legislation being introduced to combat sexual harassment.

In a landmark ruling in which a man was sentenced to three years in prison for sexual harassment, Nihad believes that this was like a ''revolution, it encourages a lot of women to go to the police station to say yes, we are not alone, it is not our fault, we are not blamed.''

As Egypt's women take control and become more confident, Nihad said she hopes that this change will help tackle the festering problem of sexual harassment.