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.