Sexual harassment is a widespread and serious social problem in Egypt. It is affecting all parts and all members of the Egyptian society, often on a daily basis.
Still, it is often justified by myths and misinformation. These myths create a vicious circle: they are used to excuse harassers and blame the harassed, and excuses and mislaid blame are reinforcing the idea that sexual harassment is acceptable, forgivable, manly, ‘cool’, or the fault of the harassed. As a result, many people who witness harassment choose not to react or intervene. And with no consequences, harassers are only encouraged to act again and again.
It does not have to be this way. Myths about sexual harassment don’t stand up to the facts and can easily be proven wrong!
Here are some of the most common myths:
‘Sexual harassment is not very widespread – it only happens to foreign women’
Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Sexual harassment is very widespread in society and it affects everyone, Egyptian and non-Egyptian. In a UN Women 2013 study, 99.3% of Egyptian women surveyed said that they have been sexually harassed in their everyday life. According to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) of 2000 Egyptian women and men, 83% of Egyptian women admitted to experiencing some form of sexual harassment. 46% of these women experienced sexual harassment on a daily basis. Similarly, over the years, HarassMap has collected thousands of stories from Egyptian women who have been sexually harassed.
Importantly, reports from people who have been harassed are not the only way to prove that sexual harassment is a serious problem – 62.4% of the men surveyed by ECWR admitted to having harassed someone.
Men can also experience harassment – 2.5 percent of the reports HarassMap has received in 2010 and 2011 were from men who had been harassed by women or men.
‘Sexual harassment only happens in dark, deserted places’
Again, evidence shows the opposite. Sexual harassment takes place all over Egypt, at all times of day. According to a 2008 study, 69% of harassment incidents happen on the street, 49.1% on public transportation, 42.4% in parks and coffee shops, 29% in educational institutions, 19.8% on beaches and 6.2% in the workplace. 63% of reports submitted to HarassMap also indicate that harassment takes place in schools and in private spaces such as homes.
‘Sexual harassment only happens to unveiled and/or indecently dressed women – respectable women don’t get harassed’
Sexual harassment happens to women and girls from all parts of Egyptian society: veiled, unveiled, young, old, married, unmarried, Egyptian and non-Egyptian. Dress or behavior does not matter. According to the same 2008 study, 72% of women who experience harassment wear the hijab (head covering) or the niqab (full face and body veil). In 2008 that percentage was about the same as the percentage of total women wearing the hijab and niqab in Egyptian society, which indicates that the average Egyptian woman gets harassed regardless of her clothing and appearance.
Someone’s clothes, way of walking, talking, or behaving is not to blame. The actions and decisions of a harasser are.
‘She asked for it – women like the attention’
It is not up to the harasser – or the society – to decide if someone likes the ‘attention’ or not. Yes, some people might find the attention flattering, but without asking the person first, there is no way of knowing if she or he will like the ‘attention’ or not.
Would you ever excuse a thief by saying that the victim wanted to have his or her things stolen? Sexual harassment is a form of violence and bullying, and it is a crime. The victim of violence or a crime is never to blame. The perpetrator is. Still, this myth is very common, and the harassed rather than harassers are often blamed for harassment.
‘It is just harmless flirting and fun – boys will be boys!’
Sexual harassment is not a game. It is intimidating and degrading and has serious effects on the harassed’s well-being and self-confidence. It influences people’s life decisions, makes them hate to go outside and impacts their entire family.
Sexual harassment is not flirting or harmless fun. Flirting is something that makes you feel happy, and it happens when two people take part in a mutual exchange, not when one person hurls sexual comments at the other.
Sexual harassment does not make anyone feel happy. It can seriously affect our physical and emotional well-being, creating health issues such as: headaches, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, and other stress-related disorders. Someone who has been harassed often feel angry, scared, in pain, embarrassed, ashamed, confused, powerless, unable to act, and depressed.
The impact of sexual harassment on society is also serious. It makes people scared of each other, it keeps women out of the public sphere, and it is destroying traditional Egyptian values of respect and dignity.
‘If you ignore it, it will go away’
Sexual harassment is a daily occurrence all over Egypt. For a long time, it has been ignored and hidden. And because of this silence, it has not only increased, but also become socially accepted. It seems to have eroded many of our traditional values of respect, communal togetherness, and care for one other. This was not always the case. In the past, bystanders’ reactions to harassment were strong. Treated much like thieves are treated today, harassers are known to have been actively and publicly shamed by way of beatings or by shaving their heads.
Nowadays, bystanders usually don’t intervene when they see sexual harassment taking place. Most people, including the police, often choose to ignore the incident. 75% of people who report harassment to HarassMap say that they did not receive any help from people who witnessed the incident. UN Women 2013 study, shows that in 85% of cases of sexual harassment, none of the bystanders intervened to help. ECWR’s study also shows that 61.4% of male witnesses of harassment chose to ignore it and only 0.1% of witnesses tried to help.
Silence gives the impression that sexual harassment is acceptable, or a source of shame for the harassed. It encourages harassers since they face no consequences, and provides a dangerous role model for the next generation. But harassment is never acceptable – and we each have to take an individual decision to be a positive role model for others and speak up with words, as well as actions.
‘Only poor, uneducated men harass women’
Given the fact that most women in Egypt experience harassment frequently, this can only mean than that many men in Egypt commit harassment. 62.4% of men interviewed by ECWR actually admit to harassment. While reports to HarassMap don’t always say if the harasser is a man or a woman, at least 45% of harassers are identified in the reports as men. 2.5% of reports were actually submitted by men who have been harassed by men or women.
Sexual harassment is not committed by a certain type or group of people. Harassers include all parts of Egyptian society and all ages. Our reports have documented harassment from managers/supervisors, teachers and professors, police officers, soldiers, security men at banks and hotels, builders, taxi or bus drivers on the streets, guys in fancy cars, doctors, salesmen, restaurant staff, peddlers, and young children.
‘Men can’t help it: The bad economic situation is preventing young men from getting married and because their religion prohibits premarital sex, they are forced to become harassers.’
Harassment is not related to sexuality. It is a form of violence and it is related to power, dominance, frustration, and bullying.
In 39% of reports to HarassMap in 2012, the harassers were children under the age of puberty.
Married men, and men with high incomes, also harass.
The argument that men are helplessly incapable of controlling their bodies and minds is not only untrue, it is also very insulting to men. We are all able to control our actions. Harassers choose to harass, and they can also choose not to harass, just as they would choose to avoid committing any other crime.
And no religion tolerates sexual harassment.
‘Harassment might be annoying, but it’s not a crime!’
Actually, sexual harassment is a crime according to Egyptian law. The law and its implementation is far from perfect, but it is there, and it can be used to incriminate perpetrators of sexual harassment.
In 2008 a man was charged with the crime of sexual harassment and given 3 years in prison and a fine of 5,000 LE. Another harasser was sentenced to 2 years in prison and given a 2,000 LE fine in November 2012.
There is also an increasing number of organizations and initiatives working to end sexual harassment in Egypt – more and more people are starting to say no to sexual harassment.
‘Sexual harassment is only groping and/or rape’