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In Egypt, harassed to their limit

THE WORLD

Women have been expected to put up with sexual taunts and worse. Some say not anymore.

December 17, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman and Noha El-Hennawy

CAIRO — She was leaving the bus when the driver touched her in a way a stranger shouldn't.

"I screamed at him, 'You're an animal!' " said Shaimaa Abdel Rahman Aref, a 28-year-old graduate business student. "I felt as if he was striking at my pride. I wish he had beaten me instead. It would have been much less humiliating, especially that I was veiled and not wearing anything that would arouse a man."

Aref took down the bus number and went to the police. But she found herself confronting a patriarchal society in which authorities are often indifferent to crimes against women and many families pressure their daughters and sisters to forgo justice rather than invite scandal. She said several police officers ridiculed her and her parents scolded her for breaching the line between humility and honor.

"They always put the blame on the girl," she said.

Women such as Aref are beginning to challenge their abusers and force their nation to be more vigilant against sexual harassment.

In a landmark case in October, a man was sentenced to three years of hard labor for reaching out his truck window and groping Noha Rushdi Saleh, a documentary filmmaker. On one day last month, police arrested more than 300 teenagers on suspicion of harassing and flirting with women across Cairo; more than 50 youths were arrested in a sweep in the capital last week.

A recent study by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights found that 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women experience public sexual harassment in this country dependent on Western tourists, including explicit comments, groping, men exposing themselves and assault.

Nearly 97% of Egyptian women and 87% of foreigners do not alert police. But human rights activists believe that the extensive news coverage of Saleh's case may inspire more women to file complaints.

"Two weeks after [Saleh's] verdict was handed down, four complaints were filed," said Nihad Abouel Qomsan, head of the women's rights center. "In the past, we used to have no complaints over the course of a full year."

Decades ago, before the migration of villagers from the Nile Delta and southern Egypt turned Cairo into a stifling metropolis of 17 million people, public sexual harassment was less prevalent. It was considered not only an affront to a woman, but to her neighborhood. Offenders caught in the act were often beaten by bystanders; some had their heads shaved by police as a mark of shame.

But that tightknit era has largely disappeared in a capital with sex on the Internet, poverty in the alleys and a police force regarded by many Egyptians as more concerned with protecting President Hosni Mubarak's regime than with guarding the rights of citizens. Mistrust of the government and a sense of powerlessness at home has caused widespread disenchantment, especially for a generation of young men with limited opportunities who are looking to lash out.

"It's the result of slums, poverty, unemployment, a permissive media and a state that has lost all its credibility," said Judge Ahmed Mekki, vice president of Egypt's highest appeals court. "Sexual harassment can be seen as an act of rebellion against society. The state is corrupt. The family is corrupt. We Egyptians have lost our identity. We don't know where we are heading, and this is affecting our value systems."

The rise in public sexual harassment also comes as Egypt has grown more pious. In the 1970s and '80s, miniskirts and revealing blouses were common in Cairo, but those styles began vanishing in the 1990s, when Islam took deeper hold and hijabs and modesty became the fashion. Egyptian women navigate an atmosphere mixed with sexual repression and religious devotion, where holy sayings such as "Inshallah" (God willing) drift alongside suggestive taunts and leering eyes.

Saleh refused to accept such treatment after her assailant reached out of his truck and groped her breast in June. The driver, Sherif Gomaa Gibrial, tried to escape, but Saleh jumped on the truck, which was then surrounded by neighbors. They grabbed Gibrial and told Saleh they'd beat him and send him on his way. But the 27-year-old former law school student wanted justice through the courts.

Saleh declined to be interviewed, but her lawyer, Ziad Eleimy, said: "The police tried to scare her from filing a complaint. They told her attacker, 'How could you have let her catch you? You should have run away.' They said, 'You'll scandalize your family if you file charges.' But her father supported her. He said, 'File the complaint.' "

Eleimy and Mekki said the judicial system prosecutes harassment cases, but police reluctance to pursue the crimes often means many charges are never processed. Human rights groups said Gibrial's sentence marked the first time a man had gone to jail for groping a woman in public.

"Now there is a legal deterrence, but we need a society that believes that every woman has her own sanctity," Eleimy said. "There's a belief that men are better than women."

Aref doesn't know what kind of justice to expect when her case goes to trial. She said she too endured scorn at the police station and was urged not to press her case.

"Unfortunately, I had faith in the police," she said. "I thought they would allow me my revenge, but that did not happen."

Many young women she knows don't even go to the police. Some stay quiet, others carry mace, stun guns or learn martial arts.

"I always feel insecure when walking in the street," Aref said. "I feel that anyone can harass me at any point. They turned us into paranoid beings. Girls have lost all sense of safety and security."

--

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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