Egyptian men explain their relentless catcalls

Many thought Egypt's pervasive sexual harassment had ebbed when men and women rallied side by side for revolution. But old habits have returned.

An Egyptian female protester, second right, argues with a man as hundreds of women marched to Cairo's central Tahrir Square to celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, 2011. A protest by hundreds of Egyptian women demanding an end to sexual harassment and equal rights has turned violent when men verbally abused and shoved the demonstrators.

Mohammad Anter hands out flyers to evening crowds on a packed Cairo street, trying to catch the attention of any passerby – until one catches his.

“Hey, hot chic!” he yells. “You have beautiful eyes!” Mr. Anter is a computer science student and salesman at a small shop here; he is one of Cairo’s many casual harassers.

“We’re an Eastern culture, so it’s all right for me to yell out – when I’m attracted to someone, I do it,” he says, surrounded by fluorescent store lights and shoppers in every direction.

Anter is not alone: The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found in a 2008 study that 83 percent of women are sexually harassed and roughly half of Egypt's women experience such treatment on a daily basis.

Many thought that men like Anter had changed during Egypt's uprising five months ago. When hundreds of thousands converged on Tahrir Square in a collective effort to oust President Hosni Mubarak, men and women stood side by side in unified protests with few instances of sexual harassment.

But while activists say the revolution was a step in the right direction, the popular demand for greater freedom has not necessarily brought a greater recognition of women's rights or reprieve from harassment.

"Just because Mubarak stepped down doesn’t make people anymore educated or aware of how to behave appropriately and respectfully,” says Amy Mowafi, editor of an Egyptian women’s magazine called Enigma.

Activists are seeking to make people more aware, however, most recently with a June 20 Twitter campaign under the hashtag #endSH. Offline, Nazra for Feminist Studies is working on building a grassroots feminist movement. And in early June, an Egyptian women’s Charter was released with half a million signatures of people calling for women’s social and political representation and equal economic and legal rights.

Men blame delayed marriages, inappropriate clothing

Down the street from Anter, a group of young men guarding their carts of colored T-shirts say they didn’t have time to think about hassling women during Egypt's 18-day uprising; they were concerned with political aims. Now they’re back to their monotonous jobs and catcalling is a way to pass the time and make casual jokes.

“It’s normal – people here really like to laugh, so it’s OK,” says one man.

“See that girl?” asks another man, Ahmed Mahfouz. He points to a woman with flowing black hair, wearing a short-sleeve shirt. “We’d yell out to her because she likes the attention. That’s why she dresses like that.”

But farther down the street Abdel Azim admits that it's not just the less conservatively dressed women who get unwanted attention.

“Usually we hassle the girls who dress inappropriately,” he says. “And veiled girls who are extremely beautiful – then we can’t help it.”

Anter says men wouldn’t harass women so much if they could get married younger, though activists denounce that as an unacceptable excuse. Local tradition requires that men have an average of 15,000 Egyptian pounds (about $2,500) before formally asking a woman’s hand in marriage. The 25-year-old, who works two jobs, has been unofficially engaged for more than two years. He still doesn’t have enough money to get married.

“Egyptians are conservative,” says Fatma Emam, a research associate at women’s rights organization Nazra, “so people don’t get involved in sexual relations until they are married. They find sexual harassment a way to express their sexual frustration.”

Mr. Azim says delayed marriage is one of the reasons for harassment, but explains that married men harass women too. He does it only when his wife isn’t looking.

Anter gets a disappointing phone call

Activist and feminist Nawal El Sadaawy, who has fought for Egyptian women’s rights for decades, suggests that sexual harassment is part of a broader oppression of women in Egyptian society.

“We are oppressed by the patriarchal class system… . We are oppressed by power – military power, class oppression, and money," she says. "So we have to connect harassment to political and economic harassment.”

She says the toppling of Mubarak was the first step in effecting change for women.

But lasting change – whether political or social – will likely take many years. One draws parallels to an argument made by writer Frantz Fanon, who believed women's participation in the Algerian Revolution would change social relations forever. “And of course he was 100 percent wrong,” says Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “As soon as the war was over, things went exactly to the way they were.”

Back on one of downtown’s dusty streets, as the evening grew late, Anter's phone rang. “My fiancée just called and broke off our engagement,” he says, his eyes heavy. “Her family is tired of waiting.”

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