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.

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.

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].”

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.”

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.

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