Eye candy for the Egyptian man

A recent study by an Egyptian women's rights group claims that a whopping 83 percent of Egyptian women have been exposed to sexual harassment of some kind. Various groups have launched media campaigns to raise awareness, but some of them appear to be blaming the victims.
lolipop campaign.jpg
Egypt's recent "lollipop" email campaign seems to suggest that unveiled women are "asking for it." R.R.

BEIRUT, August 29, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Around a month ago, "Anna" was making her way home after having spent the night at a friend's house in Cairo. Three blocks from her house, two men suddenly rushed towards her from the street and started groping her.

"They put their hands down my top. In my shock and fear it felt like a hundred hands. The guy in front of me, the one with his hands in my clothes, was the one I focused on and I kicked and yelled and hit him until they let go and then I ran home crying and screaming. Because I was walking home by myself I was carrying my house keys in my hand. So the guy was repeatedly hit with my keys until he let go," she wrote in an email to MENASSAT. 

In June this year, the Cairo-based Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR) released an alarming study on sexual harassment in Egypt, describing the issue as "a cancer-like problem."

According to the survey, 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women said they had experienced sexual harassment. 

More than half of the Egyptian men questioned for the survey, 62 percent, admitted to having harassed women, and 53 percent of them blamed the women for "bringing it on."

These shocking statistics have shocked a number of groups into taking action, embarking on media campaigns to raise awareness of and advocate against sexual harassment.

ECWR was one of the first to start a campaign against sexual harassment a few years back, publicly exposing a subject that was taboo in Egyptian society.

Lollipops and candy

"It's about momentum. We have been running a campaign since 2005, called "Making Our Streets Safer For Everyone," and until recently we were the only ones promoting this issue. When we started, we couldn't even say the words sexual harassment," ECWR's Rebecca Chiao said in an online interview. 

But some of the new campaigns have raised controversy because they appear to be blaming the victim.

Take the case of the "lollipop" email campaign, which urges women to cover up to protect themselves from harassment. 

In an email that was recently circulated in Egypt's blogging and activist communities is a photo montage depicting two bright red lollipops; one of them is covered in a wrapper, the other is uncovered and swarmed by flies.

"You can't stop them, but you can protect yourself", reads the body of the email, the sender of which is unknown.

From left to right: the recent "candy campaign," and earlier awareness campaigns by Kelemetna and ECWR.

A similar montage that was widely circulated via email and on billboards shows two pieces of candy. One of them juxtaposes a veiled woman and a wrapped piece of candy, depicting her ‘purity’. The other piece of candy is unwrapped with an unveiled woman in the background, her long hair flying in the wind. Just like with the lollipops, the uncovered candy is covered with flies. 

"A veil to protect or eyes will molest," reads the accompanying slogan.

Whoever is behind this latest campaign, the emails have sparked debate, fury, and laughter on the Egyptian blogosphere. Some have expressed anger over them, linking the campaigns to the heightened social pressure on Egyptian women to wear the veil; others dismiss it as a kitschy and distasteful campaign. 

"I think if I were a woman I would prefer to be a pearl in the shell rather than a piece of cheap candy," read an ironic comment posted on the blog, The Skeptic

With or without the veil

Interestingly, ECWR's study suggests that dressing modestly or religiously conservative makes no difference in terms of harassment. 

In fact, the survey concluded that the majority of harassed women were veiled women. In some cases, veiled women who had been exposed to harassment actually blamed themselves. 

On another blog, The Arabist, a veiled commentator writing under the nickname Loubna, argued that wearing the veil is by no means a deterrent for harassment. 

"Let me tell you something, I have been veiled for 2 years, wearing very conservative clothes with the hijab and I was still constantly verbally harassed in the streets of Cairo. The veil doesn't protect. It's only a religious practice but it doesn't protect you. If someone is sexually frustrated, he will sexually harass you whether verbally or physically with or without the veil," she wrote. 

Women's rights groups demand anti-harassment legislation on the steps of Cairo's Journalists' Syndicate shortly after the 2006 Eid incident. © Alexandra Sandels

Perhaps most shocking of all are the reasons for harassment given by the Egyptian men questioned for the study.

Some said they did it simply out of "boredom."  One man, who admitted to having harassed a woman wearing the full niqab, said the woman must have been either "beautiful" or "hiding something" for her to cover her face completely.

In an attempt to reclaim the moral compass of Egyptian men, the Egyptian Youth Magazine Kelemetna recently started a campaign against sexual harassment that focuses on the perpetrators and not the victims. 

Under the slogan, "Respect yourself: Egypt still has real men," the campaign seeks to deter men from sexually harassing women and to confront harassers whenever they spot them. Kelemetna-sponsored groups of volunteers ranging between the ages of 14 and 24, cruise the streets of Cairo and talk directly to men and women about the issue of harassment.

"Our campaign is directed to a passive society and to each man who thinks that nobody would stop him if he harassed a woman on the street. We want to tell the harasser to respect himself and that he will find a man to stand up to him on the street," the campaign's coordinator, Ahmed Salah, recently told the Los Angeles Times.

Police apathy

"In the past, men were more gallant and protective'" Salah said. "They used to arrest the harasser and punish him by shaving his head. But things are different now."

These days, many women choose to not even report harassers to the police. "Anna's" visit to the police station after her harassment goes a long way to explain why.

"I went to the police station a couple of days later with two Egyptian friends, both lawyers. The police kept asking me to change my story. They wanted me to remove any reference to actual breast groping because I was a foreigner and they were worried about an international incident. They also repeatedly tried to make excuses for the men:, saying, 'They must have been drunk,' or 'It's just young guys having some fun.'  They even asked me not to contact my embassy. I did it anyway."

So, given the general apathy and the reluctance on the part of the police, can media awareness campaigns even make a dent? Many critics are skeptical, saying that the only solution is for parliament to adopt new legislation to criminalize sexual harassment.

Women's rights groups have been campaigning relentlessly for such legislation ever since the infamous Eid Al-Fitr incident in late 2006, when a mob of young men assaulted women, tearing their clothes off and groping them, in plain sight in the center of Cairo.

Video footage of the incident quickly made its way to the Egyptian blogosphere and from there to the Egyptian and international mainstream media.

ECWR's Rebecca Chiao is optimistic that a draft bill from Egypt's government-controlled National Council for Women will finally be brought to a vote at the next session of Egypt's parliament.

Because the subject is till taboo in Egyptian society, Chiao says the importance of the media in bringing the problem to the foreground cannot be underestimated.

"The success of our campaign depended a lot on media coverage. The majority of men we surveyed in our last study said they received information about harassment primarily from the media."