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Egyptian women confront sexual harassment

April 05, 2009|Anna Johnson | Johnson writes for the Associated Press.

ZAGAZIG, EGYPT — Dressed in karate uniforms and track suits, the young women break off in pairs and begin sparring, with one kicking and punching while the other tries to block the attacks.

The nearly two dozen women and girls gathered in a small gymnasium in this city of 1 million north of Cairo are learning to fight off assailants -- a rarity for most women in the Arab world.

Such self-defense classes have popped up in the last year across Egypt as the conservative Muslim country for the first time turns major attention to the issue of sexual harassment. Women -- and even some men -- also have launched campaigns against sexual harassment around Cairo, using Facebook to raise awareness among the country's Internet-savvy youth.

It's one way in which the Internet is turning attention to issues that used to be hidden in Arab society. Open discussion of the harassment issue first emerged two years ago after Egyptian bloggers gave broad publicity to amateur videos showing men assaulting women in downtown Cairo during a major Muslim holiday.

But a recent survey by a women's group that found widespread harassment of women in Cairo and its environs has propelled the issue to one of the country's hottest topics. Even the government, long hostile to even discussing the subject, now appears ready to act. Legislation to outlaw harassment is before parliament, and police have arrested dozens of alleged perpetrators in recent months.

In a landmark case in October, a judge sentenced a truck driver to three years in prison for groping a 27-year-old woman's breasts as she walked by.

"That was a turning point in attitudes. The judge sent a serious message that harassment is a serious crime," said Nehad Abul Komsan, the head of the rights group that conducted the survey.

It's been common knowledge for years that the problem was widespread, with women mostly talking privately about it. The study by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights was one of the first efforts to measure the full extent of the harassment.

It showed that 83% of Egyptian and 98% of foreign women surveyed in the nation said they had experienced sexual harassment. Even more startling: of men surveyed, 62.4% said they had harassed women.

The survey also found that what a woman wore -- in a country where head scarves are common -- did not matter. Of those who reported being harassed, about one-third said they were wearing a scarf and conservative clothing. Less than one-fifth said they were even more covered up -- wearing a veil and an all-encompassing cloak.

The survey sample of 2,020 Egyptians was divided equally among men and women, and researchers questioned respondents in person in Cairo and its sprawling suburbs. The survey also included responses by 109 foreign women living in Egypt.

The high rate of harassment points to larger problems in this mostly conservative Muslim society. Egyptian women rarely report being harassed, to avoid embarrassment or alleged dishonor to their family. Police and security forces have generally taken little interest in stopping the practice, sometimes even harassing women themselves.

Premarital sex is forbidden under Islam, so there many sexually frustrated, often unemployed young men who cannot afford to get married.

Much of the harassment is verbal -- young men hanging out in groups on crowded streets hissing comments, some of them vulgar, at passing women: "You're beautiful." "What is your name?" "I want to have sex with you."

But it can also come in even more disturbing forms -- men who follow women as they walk home, grabbing buttocks or chests or touch their thighs while sitting next to them on a bus.

"On a weekly basis, I have almost three or four incidents in the street happen to me," said university student Asmaa Mohammed, 21, after a recent self-defense class in Zagazig.

After the survey came out, a few women wrote first-person accounts in newspaper editorials about being grabbed or insulted by men. Groups of young people started creating campaigns to raise awareness among their peers at universities and throughout Cairo.

"We felt we had to have a more organized way of describing the problem that wasn't only complaining about it," said Abul Komsan of the women's rights group. "We didn't want to attack the society, but start a dialogue and start talking about it. We want to send a message to all women in Egypt that you are not alone."

In the middle-class Cairo neighborhood of Mohandiseen, a group of men and women created an anti-harassment campaign sponsored by Kelmetna, a magazine for young people.

Called "Respect Yourself," it targets men and also encourages women to speak out. The group rallies at universities and canvasses the streets, reminding taxi drivers and food vendors to uphold Egypt's tradition of hospitality. On Facebook, the campaign boasts more than 48,000 members.

At one recent meeting, several teenage girls stood up and told the group about instances of being sexually harassed.

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