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Opinion

Sexual harassment in Egypt: Why men blame women

Egyptian men aren’t wired to instinctively blame victims of sexual harassment – they are taught such falsities. Proposed legislation would help, but what’s really needed is an ideological shift.

By Justin D. Martin / August 18, 2010



Cairo

Harassed or sexually assaulted Egyptian women often find little help in fighting back. Neither the Egyptian government nor much of Egyptian society itself seems shocked or galvanized by lewd catcalling in public, groping, or more serious assaults.

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A main factor driving Egypt’s seemingly ineradicable climate of sexual predation is an indifference to such crimes among Egyptian police. But there is an underlying reason for this indifference:

Female victims of sexual harassment and assault in Egypt are usually blamed for somehow bringing the abuse on themselves. A related falsehood is the notion that Egyptian women are overly sexual beings who must be constrained.

These pervasive attitudes are infrequently discussed but airing them is a crucial first step toward reform.

As a professor in Cairo, I see these misogynistic sentiments on display all too often. A woman is called a whore in public? She is seen as dressing like one. Groped by a man on the subway? She must’ve allured him beyond his control with aromatic fragrances and entrancing pheromones. An urban ambler exposes himself to a girl on a sidewalk? She was probably staring lustfully at him.

Astonishing survey results

In a frequently referenced survey in 2008, nearly two-thirds of Egyptian men admitted to sexually harassing women – and half blamed the women themselves. Eight in 10 Egyptian women say they’ve suffered such harassment, with half saying it occurs daily – yet less than 3 percent have reported abuse to the police.

And according to more recent, and even more astonishing, data from The Population Council, an international nongovernmental organization, nearly 80 percent of Egyptian boys and men ages 15-29 agreed that a woman who is harassed deserves it if she had dressed provocatively. Perhaps even more disturbing, 73 percent of similar-aged females in the survey also claimed that immodestly dressed women deserve any abuse they endure.

Many men in Egypt refuse to accept responsibility for harassing women, and Egyptian police before whom these men might be dragged often do the same.

The Population Council’s survey also points to a darker truth: Blaming harassment victims in Egypt isn’t some organic byproduct of a conservative society; this cruel blame game is explicitly taught to many children in this country.

Taught falsities

Fifteen-year-olds aren’t wired to instinctively blame people who are harmed by the actions of others. They are taught such falsities.

Interviewing a Saudi professor in his recent memoir, journalist Neil MacFarquhar wrote that in Saudi Arabia, “conservative customs in the kingdom basically teach that women are for sex, which they crave,” and noted the professor lamenting that Saudi “men think that they will be corrupted [by unchecked femininity].”

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