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Women chant slogans as they participate in a protest against sexual harassment, in central Cairo

In a powerful scene from the 2010 Egyptian film “678,” a veiled woman boards a crowded public bus on her way to work, squeezing through a mass of passengers in search of a space where she will feel least vulnerable to attack. Inevitably, though, groping hands reach her and she has no choice but to endure or try to quietly move away without drawing attention.

For many women in Egypt, this scene is far too familiar – warding off potential harassment has long been a part of their daily lives. A study conducted in 2008 found that 83 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed in public and nearly half described the harassment as occurring on a daily basis. Few women file formal complaints against attackers, either out of fear, embarrassment, or the recognition that the police are unlikely to pursue such cases.

But in recent months, this atmosphere of impunity has combined with Egypt’s volatile politics to produce a spike in harassment and a new trend of violent sexual attacks. These mob attacks are directed primarily against women demonstrators in Tahrir Square. On the second anniversary of the Egyptian uprisings on January 25, at least nineteen female demonstrators were sexually assaulted. The reports are shocking: In first-hand accounts, women have described being suddenly set upon by large groups of men, groped, stripped of their clothing, and raped. At least one woman was sexually assaulted with a bladed weapon.

“Many Egyptians still believe that the blame for sexual harassment falls largely on women who fail to behave ‘modestly.’” – Allison Nour

Yet the Morsi administration has done absolutely nothing to respond to this unprecedented, intensely violent, and organized wave of attacks. Inconceivably and unconscionably, the Egyptian president has yet to utter a public word to acknowledge the problem. His prime minister, Hisham Qandil, has offered only a passing reference to possible new legislation to address the issue. With clear video evidence of attacks shown on television and online, the government either lacks the will or the ability to confront the situation.

Women shout anti-government slogans during a march against sexual harassment and violence against women in Cairo February 6, 2013. (Reuters)

More unfortunate than the government’s failure to act is the exacerbation of the problem by some in government and among the Salafi leadership. During a meeting of the Shura Council last week, elected representatives – most of them Islamists – blamed the victims for their attacks. As a Salafi member of the Asala Party put it, “Women sometimes bring rape upon themselves by putting themselves in positions which make them subject to rape.” In a video posted to YouTube, an Egyptian Salafi preacher declares that women protesting in Tahrir Square “want to be raped” and are attending the demonstrations either because they are “Crusaders” or “widows who have no one to control them.”

These comments, while shocking to many Egyptian observers, unfortunately reflect the sentiments of many others in the country. Many Egyptians still believe that the blame for sexual harassment falls largely on women who fail to behave “modestly.” At best, the Morsi administration’s failure to address the problem stems from a belief that sexual harassment is a natural consequence of women participating in demonstrations. At worst, the government is complicit in the attacks as a means to tamp down turnout at demonstrations. Either way, with economic turmoil and electoral debates dominating public debate, the issue is unlikely to become a priority anytime soon.

A woman raises a knife during a march against sexual harassment and violence against women in Cairo February 6, 2013. (Reuters)

The women at the center of “678” – fed up with feeling helpless in the face of harassment in the public domain – decided to fight back by carrying weapons and stabbing their attackers. While the story was powerfully portrayed, I remember thinking their approach was unlikely to catch on in real life. But as the problem of sexual harassment intensifies with no end in sight, I couldn’t help but think of the film as women brandished knives at a recent anti-harassment demonstration in Talaat Harb Square. As with so many of the challenges facing Egypt, if left unaddressed by the powers that be, those who suffer most will find a way to fight back, even if doing so means drawing the country further into chaos.

This post was originally published under a similar headline on blogs.cfr.org.

The views expressed in this Voices post are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you have an opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. And, if you would like to share your own reflections on events or issues about or relevant to the Middle East, we would be glad to consider them for publication. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for a Voices post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your personal blog.

Allison Nour

Allison Nour is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

9 Comments

  1. Syafiq Sahrom

    May 17, 2013

    Hi guys,

    As a Muslim, I am unable to grasp this concept of women being sexually harassed everyday. It is largely advocated in Islam that women are of the same position as men, and men have no right to forcefully put forth their power over them. Rape is entirely the men's fault, as they are the ones who are unable to control themselves and it is a really huge sin for men to even grope them, let alone rape them. Let's just say, this happened due to cultural beliefs and Western media has successfully brainwashed all of you here into thinking that it is a portrayal of Islamic behaviour and law, and in fact, we are very modern in our thinking. The Arabs are infamous for their methods of governance and their idea that women are just objects. I am big advocate of women's rights (not feminism), and I believe that Islam is on the right track for gender equality.

    Reply
    • So you are an advocate of human rights, but are not an advocate of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men? Feminism is a subset of women's rights, and I do not see why you reject it.

      Reply
    • TC Meral Demirel

      July 4, 2013

      Read kuran once again, where does it put women on equal position?? Inheritance? marriage? beating women if they deserve???? thats the fucking equality in islam???? kuran is the first source who twist the mind of pureness

      Reply
  2. Craig Dillon

    March 24, 2013

    Islam uses rape to put women in their place. To keep them subservient and intimidated. In the end, Egypt must decide does it want to be like Wahhabbist Saudi Arabia, or like a modern country.

    Reply
  3. Christopher Nelson

    March 15, 2013

    And why not, Paul Wong? Why the hell not? If nothing else, it is useful to fully expose the results of a barbaric aspect of a twisted and perverted interpretation of a major religion, called strict Sharia Law. Primitive and ignorant are words that barely touch the fullness of its vicious nature.

    Reply
  4. Paul Wong

    March 15, 2013

    Allison it is none of our business

    Reply
  5. JKF2

    March 11, 2013

    Another article that does not deal with the fundamentals, because it is not cool, or convinient to deal with it???? – If Sharia law is impossed, women are not allowed anywhere by themselves (unaccompanied by a male relative/husband…).nor are they allowed to get involved in other things but their homeduties…. The Islamists see such women as breaking the law… The fundametal issue is that under Sharia law women are not emancipated….nor are they protected, if they do not abide by it. It is not a problem of Egypt only, other tribal societies/countries have the same issues.
    Unless root causes are addressed, such crimes will never be prevented or resolved = which is SHARIA LAW and extremists loose in the streets enforcing it, with total impunity, if not with the blessing/encouragement of their extremist religeous leaders! SOLUTION=SECULAR STATES.

    Reply

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