When a Hollywood celebrity chooses a name like ‘Apple’ or ‘Pilot Inspektor’ for his or her new baby, we cringe and hope that the child’s star status keeps the playground taunts at bay. When a jubilant father names his baby ‘Facebook’ in honor of the social networking site’s role in organizing Egypt’s revolution, we smile indulgently, hoping with the father that his daughter grows up in a more democratic Egypt than he did. With Hosni Mubarak’s sudden resignation, Facebook could have the opportunity to vote in a more liberal and open election process than her country has experienced in over thirty years. But will she still face sexual harassment on her way to the voting booth?
For the past several decades, Egyptian society has languished under a repressive and stymying regime. The unemployment rate among young men is catastrophically high while pockets of religious extremism stifle liberal reform. Unsurprisingly, women bear the brunt of these social ills. Roving bands of undereducated and permanently adolescent men harass them daily on the streets, their behavior encouraged by a perversion of Islam that invites mistreatment of women. The new military leadership, in power until the next elections, has released a promising six-month timetable outlining steps toward democratic reform. But I am both wary and skeptical of Cairo’s ability to slough off the social effects of 30 years of repression any time soon. It is one thing to expand civil liberties and construct a more democratic constitution. Changing the value of women in a society is another challenge entirely.
Throughout the protests leading up to Mubarak’s resignation, news outlets such as The New York Times and Al Jazeera ran stories on women who chose to join the movement in Tahrir Square. Both sources ran interviews with young women in western dress and often without headscarves, talking of democracy and change with the typical optimism found in the early stages of revolution. These kinds of stories are nothing new; newspapers always search for sound bites from the brave women who join male-dominated movements, especially if there is widespread violence involved. Yet the interviews published by Al Jazeera portrayed a much more concerning, and in my experience, realistic picture of what is at stake for Egyptian women if Mubarak’s repressive legacy continues.
A few days ago, Al Jazeera created a “Women of the Revolution” section on its website featuring three women who had participated in most or all of the 18-day protest. Mona Seif, a 24-year-old daughter of political activists, said that it was not until the protesters were attacked by counter protesters that she realized how close Egypt was to removing its oppressive regime.
I was amazed by the peoples’ determination to keep this peaceful even when we were under deadly attacks. When we caught the pro-Mubarak thugs, the guys would protect them from being beaten and say: ‘Peaceful, peaceful, we are not going to beat anyone up.’ That was when I started thinking: ‘No matter what happens we are not going to quit until Mubarak leaves.’
Mona describes later on that she had “never felt as at peace and as safe as [she] did during those days in Tahrir.” She felt comfortable sleeping next to strangers and was treated as an equal even when events turned violent. Salma El Tarzi, a filmmaker, echoed this feeling of security within Tahrir Square: “Something changed in the dynamic between men and women in Tahrir. When the men saw that women were fighting in the front lines that changed their perception of us and we were all united. We were all Egyptians now.”
But this feeling of peace barely lasted to the final day of protests. “The moment Tahrir opened up,” Mona recalled, “we saw a lot of people that were not there before and there were reports of females being harassed.” The other two interviewees agreed that when the original protesters were joined by Egyptian masses that had stayed out of the fray, women were no longer equal or felt safe. “During the 18 days, neither I nor any of my friends were harassed. I slept in Tahrir with five men around me that I didn’t know and I was safe. But that changed on the day Mubarak stepped down,” said Gigi Ibrahim, also 24, who had been shot by a rubber bullet during the protests. Each woman reported that while in Tahrir Square, they had felt safe from the kind of harassment that is literally a part of everyday life for Egyptian women. While The New York Times reported on female protesters’ excitement at the chance for democracy, it ignored or could not see the women’s intense desire to be free from harassment as an equally important reason for their participation in the protests.
As an outsider with no direct connection to Egypt, it is difficult for me to pass judgment on a phenomenon whose roots are complex and controversial even among Egyptian women. I can only synthesize information I gleaned while in Cairo last summer and from articles written by Egyptian men and women on this subject. But despite my distance from this issue, I believe it is important for women traveling to the region to understand what they might face. I was certainly not prepared for the harassment I experienced.
Last summer, I stayed in Cairo for a week before continuing on to Turkey for a Global Seminar. Beyond Egypt’s political history, I knew little about where I was going or what to expect when I got there. I knew enough to pack conservative clothes but decided that wearing a headscarf as a tourist was going a bit far. It turned out that regardless of how I dressed, whether I was in shorts and a bikini or a full length pitch-black burqa, I would receive the same treatment from men on the street. Women are constantly catcalled, whistled at, groped, pinched, and verbally assaulted. A professor at the American University in Cairo said that she experienced harassment even when she was pregnant, which, as an Egyptian American, she found particularly upsetting. “It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing,” she told us. “Women in burqas receive equal amounts of harassment. Boys yell for them to lift up their covering and show what they’re hiding.” None of this jived with what I thought I knew about Egypt or women in Muslim societies. Harassment for wearing a burqa? It seemed too backward for me to believe.
The first day, we arrived at the American University in Cairo and were immediately approached by a female student. An American woman wearing a hijab, she told the women in our group to expect to be sexually harassed by the time we’d left. “It happens to everyone and you just have to remember that it’s not about you,” she said. Her experience had been more shocking than scary: a man had simply walked up and grabbed her chest. Her scream sent him running and she thought he was more surprised than she was. After all, many women endure the harassment without protest because speaking up is considered shameful. When I heard this warning, I simultaneously disbelieved the woman and felt exhilarated that someone might try to grab me. I don’t mean to suggest that I wanted to be harassed. I simply believed that if someone tried to pull something on me, I could both strike back and prove to them that women will not take abuse lying down. My naiveté was both galling and, to a point, understandable: when you have never experienced true aggression or sexual assault, it is difficult to know how powerless and insignificant you actually are. Over the course of the week, I quickly detached myself from any belief that I could survive true assault unscathed, let alone teach my aggressor some sort of lesson. Though we traveled as a co-ed group, I felt unnerved by the open stares and suggestive hand motions men made as we passed. Cairo is a city of 20 million people, and as a professor explained to us, the concept of personal space for most people is a luxury that their cramped living quarters do not afford. Young men were everywhere on the streets; I remember thinking at one point that the city was overrun with 20-year-old males hungry for action.
Western media often blames the high rate of sexual harassment in Egypt on Islam, connecting its conservative dress and roles for women to the men’s lack of respect for them. After hearing that women in burqas are harassed, this explanation didn’t seem to fit and is challenged by groups such as Altmuslimah, a blog devoted to fostering dialogue between men and women on gender in Islam. The blog’s recent article covering the Egyptian protests points instead to the high unemployment rate of men under the age of 35 as a stimulus for street assaults. Many families in Egypt, the blog asserts, demand high bridal settlements and real estate from their daughters’ prospective husbands. Jobless men can ill afford these prices and Altmuslimah argues that these high expectations make bachelorhood “an extended adolescence of sorts.” Cairo and other major cities are crawling with jobless, infantilized men who novelist Willow Wilson describes as “still sleeping in their childhood beds and taking orders from their mothers.” The excess of free time and lack of girlfriends cause men to “vent their frustration, sexual and otherwise, by harassing women on the streets.”
The presence of guys in our group kept us from experiencing anything serious until our last day, when we took a day trip up to Alexandria. Our guide had assured us that the beach he was taking us to was safe for tourists and usually fairly empty. When our bus pulled into the parking lot, it was immediately clear that both these assertions were false. For whatever reason – naiveté, excitement about the beach – we decided to swim anyway. Once again, it didn’t matter if we were wearing full scuba gear or a G-string – the minute we started stripping down to our swimsuits, the crowds of beach goers pulled out cameras and openly filmed us. Our guide kept saying that once we were in the water, no one would look anymore and everything would be fine. I kept a hand on my guy friend’s shoulder as we walked down to the shoreline and quickly dove into the waves, thinking our female bodies would be out of sight and out of mind. But within five minutes, a group of forty to fifty male swimmers had drifted to our area and the entire beach was turned toward us as if waiting for something to happen.
It took me a minute to realize what was going on. I had swum out farther than the rest and turned back to see the men swimming closer and closer until they formed a ring of eerie, smiling faces. Soon I felt something touching my legs; a boy kept “accidentally” bumping into me and trying to weave his legs between mine. I shoved him off and swam back to the group. An Egyptian man in the water turned to me and said, “Do you speak English?” I told him to fuck off; my nerves were rattled and I didn’t feel like playing word games. But he shook his head and said, “If you understand me, please get your group out of the water now. This doesn’t look good to me.” At that point all my senses were on high alert and I called for everyone to get out of the water. When we started moving toward shore, the men starting grabbing at the girls underwater, diving away from punches swung their way by the guys in our group. By the time we got out, each of us had been groped in some way and two girls were crying.
That night we attended a Princeton reception at a fancy hotel, and I realized as soon as I walked in that I did not want to meet any of the Egyptian male alums. Though I knew they were not the men at the beach, I still felt my chest seize up and instantly I hated them because of their gender and connection to this city that I now wanted to get out of. I could not imagine what I would do if I had to spend longer than a week there, let alone my entire life. As someone who studies other countries and other cultures, I hated that I now felt such an aversion to a society I barely understood and had experienced for such a short time. I knew it was unfair of me to judge Egypt by the actions of that small group of people, but it took many weeks before I could look back at that trip and think of the positives of Cairo, of which there are, in fact, many.
When I read about women who joined the anti-Mubarak protests, I thought they must be so immune to harassment that they could stand the inevitable assaults without much thought. The interviews published by Al Jazeera proved me wrong: no matter how many times women are assaulted, they never get used to it. At the end of her interview, Mona Seif said that the respectful treatment she experienced in Tahrir Square made her realize that she didn’t have to keep being silent when someone harassed her. She said that after Mubarak’s downfall,
I no longer feel alienated from society. I now walk the streets of Cairo and smile at strangers all the time…Before January 25 I was tempted to leave the country. This feeling has changed now, I want to stay here. This is an extension of our role in the revolution; we have to stay here and contribute to changing our society.
Ending Mubarak’s regime is not just about ending authoritarian rule or allowing freedom of speech. For women like Mona and Gigi and Salma, and the dozens of women on the beach in Alexandria who watched their men assault a group of college kids in silence, this revolution is also about ending unrestrained assault. It’s about lowering the unemployment rate and expanding job opportunities for young men and women. It’s about filling more than 1.8% of the seats in the Egyptian People’s Assembly with female bodies. It’s about creating the same environment of tolerance and respect for women that was found in Tahrir Square for 18 days. Women joined the protests against Mubarak to fight for the ability to walk down the street without harassment. The international community must value and support this protest as much as it supports calls for democracy, because so much more than the right to vote is at stake.