Harassment Reports Rise; Arab Women Complain of Everyday 'Epidemic'

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 2, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Harassment Reports Rise; Arab Women Complain of Everyday 'Epidemic'

Byline: Anthony Jaffee, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Women in the Arab world who wear modest head-to-toe clothing in part to avoid unwanted male attention are increasingly coming forward to complain about lewd comments, groping, stalking and other forms of sexual harassment.

A recent report by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women polled reported having been sexually harassed, while nearly half said the abuse occurred daily.

The majority of women in Egypt wear the veil, known as the hijab.

The issue of sexual harassment has become less taboo recently in the Egyptian media within academic circles, and has even become a part of daily discourse among women in Egyptian society, regardless of social or economic status or political belief, the report said.

Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based Egyptian journalist, said the findings came as no surprise.

As the survey shows, the situation there is epidemic, she said.

Religious and political leaders perpetuate the behavior, she said, pointing to a public-awareness campaign in Egypt that uses the example of candy to tell women that if they cover up, they will be safe from harassment, as covered candy is safe from flies.

Men and women are getting married later, so obviously men and women are both sexually frustrated, but women have no way of showing their sexual frustration, she said. A combination of religion and politics tells young men and women that unless a woman [is covered up], she is fair game. And now men enact their sexual frustration on women without any sense of shame.

In a recent column posted on the Web site Middle East Online (www.middle-east-online.com), Ms. Eltahawy described her own experience with sexual harassment.

When I [lived] in Cairo and wore the hijab ... I was groped so many times that whenever I passed a group of men I'd place my bag between me and them, she wrote Headphones helped block out the disgusting things men - and even boys barely in their teens - hissed at me.

The women's rights center has declared sexual harassment a social cancer in Egyptian society and has organized campaigns for tougher laws to protect women on the streets.

Blogs have provided an anonymous way for women to describe their ordeals with everyday sexual harassment.

In 2006, several bloggers posted an account of a mob of men who rampaged through downtown Cairo during a religious festival sexually assaulting every woman they came across.

The account put the topic of sexual harassment into the national spotlight and spurred several public demonstrations, although the Egyptian government denied the episode occurred.

Zainab al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, said the problem is spread throughout the Middle Eastern countries.

I travel to the Middle East quite frequently, and I can tell you these kinds of things are very common, she said.

Ms. al-Suwaij described occurrences in Kuwait during which she and a friend were followed and harassed by men in cars.

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Harassment Reports Rise; Arab Women Complain of Everyday 'Epidemic'


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