Sexual Harassment

Originally I had planned to write my Masters thesis on the issue of sexual harassment (SH), so I started doing research on the topic. Most of the work on it has come from the US, where sexual harassment first became a major issue in the workplace. One major explanation for SH was that it was a way for men to let women know: “you don’t belong in the public sphere, so we are going to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible.”  In this case the public sphere referred especially to the workplace, which until today is mainly the preserve of men.

I wondered whether this explanation made sense in the Egyptian context. SH has reached unprecedented levels in Egypt and has become a major social problem.  Many explanations have been given, mainly by the media, including economic problems keeping youth on the street, a conservatism couched in religiosity has been spreading, and a general degradation in morals due to strict dictatorship. None of them really seem to explain why SH is so widespread.

The public sphere argument made the most sense to me: men just didn’t want women to feel comfortable when they were out in the public sphere. They want women to feel out of place so that men can continue to feel that the street belongs to them. I feel this every single day when I leave my house to get into my car. Cars drive by honking, men who are standing around turn and look. All of it makes me want to step back inside and never leave the house again. And it definitely has a cumulative effect.

A few days ago, I interviewed Alaa al-Aswany, who is a famous Egyptian author (Yacoubian Building) and political commentator. We touched on the issue of SH and his explanation was that men did it because they felt humiliated by the state and society, and so felt the need to make someone else feel humiliated. This explanation makes the most sense to me for a few reasons. One is that men here don’t seem to harass because they think they will get a girl’s attention; they do it in a way that is just harmful, disrespectful, and demeaning. I’ve never felt that a guy harassing me is flirting or wants to talk to me – he just wants to make me feel bad about myself. Another reason is that Egypt is not a sex-deprived society, and so it cannot be the case that men are harassing for that reason. Also, Egyptians have been continually humiliated for decades, and this has hit the youth especially hard, so it makes sense that many people just want to make sure they aren’t in it alone; that they won’t be humiliated alone.

It is also possible that there isn’t *one* explanation for SH in Egypt. I definitely reject the argument made by some westerners that it is just “how Egyptians are.” Aside from being racist, essentialist and neo-Orientalist, it is also historically inaccurate since SH in Egypt is a new phenomenon. Until now, the two explanations above are the only convincing ones, and the only ones that could help explain why SH is so widespread. During the revolution, it is a fact that for 18 days, not a single case of SH was reported in Tahrir Square. What does this mean? Of course moments of euphoria, national consciousness, and bonding lead to positive behaviors, but then this would have lasted past the revolution. Instead, right after Mubarak stepped down, the SH resumed. My thoughts would be that this happened because the system hadn’t changed, and people continued to feel undignified in their everyday lives. Only when the entire system changes, will social issues like these disappear.

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7 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment

  1. Great post and analysis, Sara. I look forward to reading your blog.

    I have heard this called the, “Kick the dog” syndrome (I think after something Mark Twain wrote about how poor Whites treated Black slaves in pre-emancipation America, but I could be wrong about that): When you are treated poorly, you look for who is “lower” than you on the social status scale that you can attack, harm, insult, demean, or degrade, passing along the frustrations and the pain; in effect, you, “Kick the dog” that is just sitting there, having done nothing to you to merit the kick.

    Aeschylus, in his play, Agamemnon, says, that it is the nature of humans to kick a fallen man. This would require the perspective that men see women as below them (equivalent to a fallen man), whose weaknesses they despise, as they despise weakness in themselves (it all gets externalized on women). If the men had courage to stand up to the oppression and humiliation they have endured, whether from the state, their fathers, their bosses, whomever, they would not hate themselves so much, nor take out this hatred on others they saw as weak.

    More yet different armchair-psychologist explanation: The abused becomes the abuser; is it easier, perhaps easing the pain of violation and abuse in the short-term, to identify with the abuser, to glorify or praise the abusers’ traits and behaviors, to assimilate these traits and behaviors and to replicate them, than it is to face the pain of our own humiliation and abuse?

  2. Oh… and another thing… systems don’t change overnight. Trauma is not excavated in a day. And patterns and behaviors of thought and feeling are deeply anchored in us, and it requires serious work to struggle against them and uproot them. And this is true on the gender level, on the economic level, on the power level, the age level, etc. There are so many structures of power inequality and inequity, that a commitment to overturn or reject them is wonderful in principle, but in reality is not always that easy. Some patterns have become like the air we breathe. It is not impossible to release them and be free of them, but it is not simply a matter of one choice. It is a choice we must make every day, sometimes every moment of every day. This is hard work. Worthwhile, but difficult.

  3. Welcome to the blog Kamal! You have an amazing blog, really enjoyed going through it 🙂
    Thanks a lot for your comments…they added a lot of insight into what I hinted at in my post. I really like the Displacement theory, I think it makes a lot of sense in the context of Egypt. When I get harassed here I rarely feel it is sexual, but more violent and humiliating – like the guy wants to make me feel completely inferior, which is probably how the state makes him feel.

  4. This was really interesting. I didn’t realize the sexual harassment was relatively new in Egypt; what you said here makes sense. I hope that one day as Egypt is freer it will be eradicated. Keep us posted. I enjoy reading your point of view since you are Egyptian and part of the culture and not writing from an outsider’s perspective.

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