You don’t need to read the United Nations report saying 99.3% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed (and worse) to know how serious of a problem the issue is in Egypt. Half of Egyptian society is under constant threat in the public space — studies, reported cases, and anecdotes all make this very clear.
Despite the regular occurrence of sexual harassment and assault, one especially horrifying incident in Tahrir Square seized the attention of the public and government officials last week.
Egyptian government body the National Council for Women (NCW) strongly condemned the incident, calling on strong enforcement of the law to take all necessary measures “to address the phenomenon of sexual harassment which is alien to Egyptian society”.
Similarly, the presidency released a statement on the issue describing sexual harassment as “an alien behaviour to Egyptian culture”.
When half of society is constantly subjected to harassment, and has been for some time now, it’s time to acknowledge that sexual harassment is not alien to Egyptian society. In describing it as some sort of phenomenon that is foreign to Egypt and something that society doesn’t struggle with on a daily basis, we both distract from our collective guilt and fundamentally change the way we deal with the problem.
Last summer, four Shi’a were lynched in a Giza village in an incident that was widely and strongly decried. At the time the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, and others also described the incident and sectarianism in general as some sort of phenomenon foreign to Egypt, the same way they did when violence in Dahshour in 2012 culminated in the expulsion of over 100 Christian families or when security forces attacked Saint Mark’s Cathedral in April 2013.
The similarities don’t stop there, though. In a highly polarised political environment, many have sought to settle political scores and scapegoat opponents for problems that go beyond politics.
In the same NCW statement the group said it intended to file a lawsuit against Al-Jazeera for the “defamation of Egyptian women” and said that investigations would “reveal the true intentions of the perpetrators” — an insinuation that the body believed that the assault had roots in political motives. Secretary-General of the Arab Women’s Union Hoda Badran blamed sexual harassment and assault in Tahrir Square on the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Such shameful and unethical behaviour cannot stem from the honourable Egyptians who revolted in January 2011 and on 30 June last year,” said the NCW in another statement, even going as far as to say: “Egypt was packed with millions [of protesters] for days without witnessing a single case of sexual harassment,” a patently untrue statement, especially when independent groups documented some of the worst sexual violence during protests from 30 June to 3 July.
On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party’s news portal said the rape and assault in Tahrir Square last week “reflects the moral absence and decadence that links the leader of the coup to his supporters,” another attempt to put political spin on a problem that existed years leading up to Mohamed Morsi’s ouster.
Many have supported the notion that sectarianism is alien to Egyptian society, often blaming “foreign hands” for attempting to “ignite strife”. In 2012 when Christians were threatened in the Egyptian border town of Rafah and were forced to leave, residents of the town blamed Israeli intelligence service Mossad for playing a role in the incident.
Attempting to make claims that the root of the problem exists in politics is another way of denying that such a problem requires we take a deep look at society itself, reducing sexual harassment and assault to a political problem. Whether or not this can be proven in the context of protests and demonstrations, women’s experiences on a daily basis walking on Cairo’s streets shows that the problem goes much deeper.
First and foremost, we must observe the actions of the government when dealing with these deep societal ills, and there are some reasons to be hopeful in how the government has gone about dealing with last week’s abhorrent incident. A commission put together by the government seems to recognise that preventive measures that include education and awareness are an integral part of combatting the issue, which also requires adequate implementation of the law.
Treating each individual case in a vacuum under the “this is alien to Egyptian society” rhetoric allows authorities to treat each as a single criminal case, but overlooks the patterns, deep driving forces, and prospect of future similar cases. Forcing some of Egypt’s crises into a political context ignore the gravity, and enable people to selectively highlight occurrences. Some who have drawn attention to last week’s brutal assault may not be as ready to discuss alleged sexual abuse in police detention, while others may be willing to unfairly reduce Egypt’s sectarian issues to something that is only caused by the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists. Political context is helpful, but it also has been abused to push narratives seeking to defame political foes.
But when problems are so embedded in our society, it is important we all acknowledge, as tough as it might be, that they represent an ugly side of Egypt that we all live with. Only then will we be able to take serious steps to solving problems that we hope one day are truly alien to Egyptian society.