- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2008

Women in the Arab world who wear modest head-to-toe clothing in part to avoid unwanted male attention are increasingly coming forward to complain about lewd comments, groping, stalking and other forms of sexual harassment.

A recent report by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women polled reported having been sexually harassed, while nearly half said the abuse occurred daily.

The majority of women in Egypt wear the veil, known as the hijab.

“The issue of sexual harassment has become less taboo recently in the Egyptian media within academic circles, and has even become a part of daily discourse among women in Egyptian society, regardless of social or economic status or political belief,” the report said.

Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based Egyptian journalist, said the findings came as no surprise.

“As the survey shows, the situation there is epidemic,” she said.

Religious and political leaders perpetuate the behavior, she said, pointing to a public-awareness campaign in Egypt that uses the example of candy to tell women that if they cover up, they will be safe from harassment, as covered candy is safe from flies.

“Men and women are getting married later, so obviously men and women are both sexually frustrated, but women have no way of showing their sexual frustration,” she said. A “combination of religion and politics tells young men and women that unless a woman [is covered up], she is fair game. And now men enact their sexual frustration on women without any sense of shame.”

In a recent column posted on the Web site Middle East Online (www.middle-east-online.com), Ms. Eltahawy described her own experience with sexual harassment.

“When I [lived] in Cairo and wore the hijab … I was groped so many times that whenever I passed a group of men I’d place my bag between me and them,” she wrote. “Headphones helped block out the disgusting things men - and even boys barely in their teens - hissed at me.”

The women’s rights center has declared sexual harassment a “social cancer” in Egyptian society and has organized campaigns for tougher laws to protect women on the streets.

Blogs have provided an anonymous way for women to describe their ordeals with everyday sexual harassment.

In 2006, several bloggers posted an account of a mob of men who rampaged through downtown Cairo during a religious festival sexually assaulting every woman they came across.

The account put the topic of sexual harassment into the national spotlight and spurred several public demonstrations, although the Egyptian government denied the episode occurred.

Zainab al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, said the problem “is spread throughout the Middle Eastern countries.”

“I travel to the Middle East quite frequently, and I can tell you these kinds of things are very common,” she said.

Ms. al-Suwaij described occurrences in Kuwait during which she and a friend were followed and harassed by men in cars. She said stalking is a common form of harassment, and women often find themselves being followed for hours at a time.

The Yemen Post last month reported that men were using headset cell phones to send offensive messages to women.

Messaouda Rahmani, a member of the National Commission of Women Workers in Algeria, said that any time women leave their “traditional territory,” they expose themselves to predatory behavior.

“A woman is often seen as an object of pleasure and enjoyment and not a citizen able to fully assume a role in society,” she said.

Sexual harassment has often gone unreported in Middle Eastern countries because the victims are sometimes blamed for inciting the abuse.

According to the women’s rights center’s report, 53 percent of Egyptian men blame women for “bringing harassment upon themselves,” while most women said it is wrong to talk about being harassed or report it to the police.

“Many women get harassed and don’t report it because the man will say she did something and he responded, she seduced him and he responded to it,” said Ms. al-Suwaij. “In this society, it is really tough for a woman to have these kinds of rumors around her because it will minimize her chances of getting married, maybe her family will disown her, and in many cases rumors like this are linked to honor killings.”

Most Egyptians attribute the frequent sexual harassment of women in their country to the poor economy and high unemployment, according to the women’s rights center’s report.

Andrea Rugh, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said the slumping economies of many Middle Eastern and North African countries are forcing young people to put off marriage, often the only gateway to sexual activity, until their late 20s and 30s.

“There is the perception that men are [harassing women] more often because they are having trouble finding employment and having trouble getting married,” she said. “You have to amass a lot of dowry money, you have to get an apartment, you have to do a lot of things before you can marry, so the average age of marriage is getting much higher now. There are a lot of young men on the street who probably are sexually frustrated.”

Of the men surveyed in the Egyptian study, 62 percent admitted perpetrating harassment, and, of those who admitted the behavior, almost half attributed it to repressed sexual desires.

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