November 1, 2010
Posted: 1311 GMT
Cairo, Egypt (CNN) – Young, old, foreign, Egyptian, poor, middleclass, or wealthy, it doesn't matter. Dressed in hijab, niqab, or western wear, it doesn't matter.
If you are a woman living in Cairo, chances are you have been sexually harassed. It happens on the streets, on crowded buses, in the workplace, in schools, and even in a doctor's office.
According to a 2008 survey of 1,010 women conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women's rights, 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed.
I know, it has happened to me. Last week, I was walking home from dinner when a carload of young men raced by me and screamed out "Sharmouta" (whore in Arabic.)
Before I could respond, they were gone, but I noticed policemen nearby bursting with laughter. I am old enough to be those boys' mother, I thought.
This incident was minor compared to what happened in 1994, shortly after I moved here. It was winter, and I was walking home from the office, dressed in a big, baggy sweater, and jacket. A man walked up to me, reached out, and casually grabbed my breast.
In a flash, I understood what the expression to "see red" meant. I grabbed him by the collar and punched him hard in the face. I held on to him, and let out a stream of expletives. His face grew pale, and he started to shake. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he whispered.
But the satisfaction of striking back quickly dissipated. By the time I walked away, I was feeling dirty and humiliated. After a couple of years enduring this kind harassment, I pretty much stopped walking to and from work.
Of course, harassment comes in many forms. It can be nasty words, groping, being followed or stalked, lewd, lascivious looks, and indecent exposure.
At times it can be dangerous. This is what a friend told me happened to her: "I remember I was walking on the street, when a car came hurtling towards me. Aiming for me! At the last minute he swerved, then stopped, and finally laughed at me. I learned later that it was a form of flirting."
Why is sexual harassment in Egypt so rampant? There could be any number of reasons, but many point to disregard for human rights.
"Egypt is more interested in political security, than public security," said Nehad Abu el Komsan, the Director for the Center for Women's Rights. She says that often means officials focus more on preventing political unrest than addressing social ills.
Some also blame the spread of more conservative interpretations of Islam from the Gulf over the past 30 years. They say such interpretations demand more restrictive roles for women and condemn women who step outside of those prescribed roles.
"Four million Egyptians went to the Gulf," el Komsan says. "They returned with oil money, and oil culture, which is not very open, related to the status of women. All of this changed the original culture of the Egyptian," she adds, "which included high respect for women.”
"The concept of respect for some reason doesn't exist anymore," says Sara, a young Egyptian activist. "I think Egypt has lived a very long time in denial. Something happened in Egyptian society in the last 30 or 40 years. It feels like the whole social diagram has collapsed."
What is being done to raise awareness and combat Sexual harassment? Currently Egypt has no law that specifically deals with the problem, but that could change. The government is drafting legislation that would give a clear definition for sexual harassment.
In the past, women who have been sexually harassed here have been too afraid or ashamed to speak up. That too is changing slowly. In 2008, in a landmark court case, a man was sentenced to three years of hard labor for grabbing the breast of Noha Rushdi Saleh, a brave woman determined to seek justice.
The trial was covered extensively in the Egyptian press, and brought the problem of sexual harassment out in the open.
The latest campaign to combat sexual harassment is a joint Egyptian and American website called Harassmap, due to go online in December.
Rebecca Chiao, co-founder of Harassmap explains how it will work: " We can receive reports by SMS, by Twitter, by e-mail, or by phone. When an incident happens, they will send us their location. The computer will receive this, and we will look at the reports coming in and map them on a Google map of Egypt. It will show the hotspots. When the hotspots emerge, we have planned community outreach that will occur around these hotspots.”
Downtown Cairo is one of these hotspots. In 2008, during the Eid holiday, which marks the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, gangs of young men went on a rampage, groping women and, in some cases, ripping off womens' shirts.
This incident also got a lot of attention in the media here. Police arrested dozens of men. With the renewed efforts to raise awareness about the issue, and the government's move toward putting a new law in place, there is hope that women will be able to feel safer on the streets.
But the only real protection women can have is when the attitudes of men change.