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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.

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Although Egypt is galaxies away from the intolerance level of Saudi Arabia, the suspicion that young girls grow into wild sexual beings that must be tamed exists in many circles. After the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat opened up the political system in the 1970s, some formerly exiled Egyptian Islamists returned to the country with the ideology of Saudi Wahhabism in tow, according to John Bradley in his 2008 book “Inside Egypt.”

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As a result, some portions of Saudi ultraconservatism now infuse Egyptian society. Guardian writer Joseph Mayton quoted a Cairo sheikh in May who said that if Egyptian women were liberated in the Western tradition “they would resort to promiscuity and this would damage the family and society. This cannot happen because men would not be able to control their behavior and harassment and sexual abuse would continue.”

Female genital mutilation

Dumping the blame for sexual misconduct on women helps explain why nearly all Egyptian women have been subjected to the medieval practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), which involves clitoral removal or other forms of cutting. The practice is believed to relieve women of uncontrollable sexual impulsivity that would otherwise result in premature fornication and reduced marriage prospects. Egypt’s health ministry announced a complete ban on the practice in 2007 but the procedure continues to be performed on teenagers and children, sometimes with little or no anesthesia.

Stanford social psychologist Lee Ross identified in the 1970s a phenomenon called the “fundamental attribution error,” which is the human tendency to reflexively attribute an individual’s behavior to their innate personality rather than environmental factors. Department store shoppers witnessing a man screaming at a store manager, for example, are more likely to immediately mutter, “That customer’s got problems,” than “He must have been wronged.”

But the reverse of this phenomenon seems to be the norm in Egypt with regard to sexually victimized women. Too often, the ingrained response is to attribute sexual assault to the victim’s wickedly overpowering and flaunted sexual magnetism. Guilt of the aggressor, if it’s actually considered, often exists as an afterthought.

Not everyone in Egypt believes such falsehoods, of course, and activists were pushing in early 2010 for the government to pass a law punishing harassers with one year in prison and/or a fine of about $175 – a considerable penalty in a country where many workers earn less than $2 a day.

Such a law can help but it needs to be accompanied by an ideological shift. Young Egyptians, both male and female, must be convinced that the burden of blame for sexual harassment doesn’t belong to the hunted. The guilt of sexual abuse, by logical definition, is the predator’s alone.

Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo.