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For Egypt’s Women, Harassment Remains Part of Daily Life

February 21, 2011 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Margaret Warner talks with the World Bank's Nihal Elwan and American University's Diane Singerman about the street harassment Egyptian women face in their daily lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next tonight, two stories on women in Egypt

Margaret Warner has the first: a look at the harassment and dangers facing many Egyptian women in their daily lives.

MARGARET WARNER: The vivid scenes from Tahrir Square showed women working side by side with men, demanding reforms and the ouster of President Mubarak.

But on the night of his resignation, in the square, there was an ugly reminder of another side of Egyptian life: a physical and sexual assault on CBS correspondent Lara Logan. She was eventually rescued from her male attackers by Egyptian women and soldiers.

The attack on Logan unleashed a torrent of articles about the culture of sexual intimidation experienced by many Egyptian women. In a 2008 survey, 83 percent of Egyptian women in Cairo said they had been sexually harassed.

We take up the issue now with Nihal Elwan, who works on social development in the Middle East for the World Bank — Egyptian by birth, she formerly worked for the United Nations in Cairo — and Diane Singerman, a professor and director of Middle East studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

And welcome to you both.

So, that — those poll numbers are pretty startling, not to mention, of course, the attack on Lara Logan. Is sexual harassment or intimidation really that pervasive in Egypt? And what form does it take?

NIHAL ELWAN, The World Bank: Unfortunately, yes, Margaret, sexual harassment is a reality for almost all Egyptian women. Whether you’re rich, poor, you take public transportation, you walk down the street, you’re doing your shopping, whatever social class you’re from, you’re bound to get sexually harassed. It is part of our reality, unfortunately.

MARGARET WARNER: And what are we talking about when we talk about sexual harassment there?

DIANE SINGERMAN, American University: Well, I think it — it varies. There’s a lot of sort of pestering or harassing. A lot of it is quite mild. But sometimes, it veers to the physical.

Cairo and lots of cities in Egypt are very densely populated. So people are in public space together. And often they’re in public space together on very crowded public transport. And so often it’s kind of — it’s rather mild, but it’s unwanted. It’s not desired. And so, people — a lot of women feel it’s a very unwelcome sort of situation.

On the other hand…

MARGARET WARNER: But be more specific. Are you talking about men touching women, groping them? That’s what I read about.

DIANE SINGERMAN: I would say a lot of it is verbal abuse. A lot of it is looks. A lot of it is catcalls. But there is also groping. There is also people sort of touching you when you don’t want to be touched.

But that also is, I would say, not as common as the general sort of harassment that some people, including some young men, would not consider is so offensive. But women certainly do take offense.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Nihal, we would — women everywhere would say sexual harassment is a fact of life. How — anywhere — how different is it in Egypt, say, from the West or other parts of the Arab world?

NIHAL ELWAN: It is very different, in the sense that it’s extremely prevalent. Whether you’re in Cairo, in another city, in a resort on your holiday, you’re bound to get harassed.

And this is not necessarily — I mean, women who get harassed are not necessarily wearing Western dress. They’re not necessarily provocatively dressed. You can be harassed where you’re wearing a hijab, a full niqab, whether you’re covered. It’s just the fact that you’re a female makes you vulnerable to harassment.

And this is different from what I have seen elsewhere.

MARGARET WARNER: But why — and why is that? What is the mentality that produces this or the — or the — the conditions?

NIHAL ELWAN: Yes. I think there are several dynamics at work here.

I feel that, to begin with, the Egyptian people have been going through decades of economic hardship, poverty. And in a sense, I feel — I think they’re completely disempowered. And the only way they can regain ownership or a sense of manhood is by gaining ownership of the street.

The street is becoming a male territory. Women who decide to go down, walk down the street sort of lend themselves and — and challenge the patriarchy. And that makes men want to challenge back. And I think it is a form of challenging all the pressures that are surrounding Egyptian men. This is the only form of defense against everything else that’s making them depressed and oppressed.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that?

DIANE SINGERMAN: I think I would also say that, in the streets especially, there is a sort of notion of women’s place belonging at home, sort of female domesticity.

There are more women working now. There are more young women obviously going to school. And so — rightly so, sort of public space is more contested. And, in that sense, there’s also countering discourses from the state as well and from sort of conservative religious forces that — that women maybe shouldn’t be in some of the places that they’re in.

And — and, at the same time, the government also has somewhat of a tradition of being a little bit abusive or not really…

MARGARET WARNER: Well, give us an example.

DIANE SINGERMAN: Well, for example, one of the first really egregious scandals was in 2005, when there were protests, and some journalists…

MARGARET WARNER: Political ones.

DIANE SINGERMAN: Political protests about the referendums, et cetera.

And, actually, the police forces and some — some kind of party thugs started actually disrobing women and stripping women. And that was in 2005.

MARGARET WARNER: Who were demonstrating.

DIANE SINGERMAN: And the police did nothing. And this was a way of intimidating protests. And this was a way of humiliating women, because what’s different here, it’s not just normal political abuse and normal torture.

For women, when — when their sexuality and their reputation is challenged, that — that is more humiliating to them.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Nihal Elwan, we also read about the fact that there are many, many unmarried young Egyptian men who are not unmarried by choice but by economic necessity. Describe that. And is that a factor?

NIHAL ELWAN: It’s definitely a factor, because the cost of marriage in Egypt is extremely high. And the Egyptian population is going through a very difficult time economically. They’re poor. They can’t afford the cost of marriage, because when men are about to get married, they need to buy an apartment, they need to pay dowry, they need to be able to fend for the wife should she choose to stay at home.

And for most men, this is extremely difficult. And the alternative, if they can’t access women through marriage, is to sort of enforce this sort of sexual attention on them through harassment.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, there are plenty of unmarried men in the United States, and that doesn’t occur.

OK, to Diane Singerman.


And I think that it’s not just a question of unmarried men doing this. I think one of the larger issues here is that — is the question of sexuality and talking about sexuality. I call this period waithood, where there’s so many people who are not marrying.

And it’s quite difficult. They’re sort of socially excluded. And the question becomes, how can the women’s movement, how can others in society sort of raise this issue about the predicaments of young people? If they can’t get married, what else are they allowed to do? And many NGOs and others have been very involved in these kinds of questions.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do women complain, and what happens when they do? And is this becoming a subject of public debate, or still taboo?

NIHAL ELWAN: I think, up until very recently, women were extremely reluctant to talk about that. It’s something that every Egyptian woman knows, but nobody would talk about it, or certainly not report it, because it’s sort of a — this is — this is how you live. You know it.

If you would report a harassment situation to a policeman, for instance, they will laugh at you. Nothing would happen. But, in the past, let’s say, two to three years, NGO — NGO groups started talking about that and hopefully discussing some sort of legislation against harassment of women.

But I think the government has been extremely reluctant to take this issue up seriously, because harassment of women is one of the few sort of windows where they let the Egyptian population sort of breathe, and they don’t want to take this up seriously.

MARGARET WARNER: Or half the Egyptian population.

NIHAL ELWAN: Yes, half the Egyptian population.

MARGARET WARNER: But Diane Singerman, the atmosphere in Tahrir Square during the first 18 days of this was so different. What do you think — and fairly briefly here — but what explains that? And does that mean that changing the status of women or improving the status of women is part of the reform agenda now?

DIANE SINGERMAN: Yes, it’s very interesting.

Protesters were talking about dignity. Everyone was talking about the dignity revolution. And I think that was extremely important. It was extremely powerful to women protesters that there was no sexual harassment, that people were working together.

And that sort of dignity of individuals and respect and that Egyptians have it in their power is — was tremendously powerful for a lot of people. And it suggests that the future is brighter, in the sense of people being able to work on these issues. And also, respect, dignity, sort of individual rights is something that — that they’re talking about.

MARGARET WARNER: And yet there are no women, for instance, on this constitutional committee that was just appointed by the military…

NIHAL ELWAN: Yes. And it is unfortunate.

MARGARET WARNER: … to revise the constitution.

NIHAL ELWAN: It is unfortunate. And some rights groups have been talking about that and sort of saying that it’s impossible. If Egypt is supposed to walk into a new era, there has to be a representative of women in the committee. So…

DIANE SINGERMAN: There is a woman on the committee of wise men, as it’s called. So, they did add a woman to that committee.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, we’ll have to leave it there.

But, Diane Singerman and Nihal Elwan, thank you both.


NIHAL ELWAN: Thank you very much.