- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009

CAIRO | The sexual harassment of women in the streets, schools and workplaces of the Arab world is driving them to cover up and confine themselves to their homes, said activists at the first regional conference addressing the once-taboo topic.

Activists from 17 countries across the region met in Cairo for a two-day conference ending Monday and concluded that harassment was unchecked across the region because laws don’t punish it, women don’t report it and the authorities ignore it.

The harassment, including groping and verbal abuse, is a daily experience that women in the region face and makes them wary of going into public spaces, whether it’s the streets or jobs, the participants said. It happens regardless of what women are wearing.

With more and more women in schools, the workplace and politics, roles have changed - but often, traditional attitudes have not. Experts said that in some places, such as Egypt, harassment appears sometimes to be out of vengeance, from men blaming women for denied work opportunities.

Amal Madbouli, who wears the conservative face veil or niqab, said she is harassed despite her dress, and described how a man came after her in the streets of her neighborhood.

“He hissed at me and kept asking me if I wanted to go with him to a quieter area and to give him my phone number,” said Ms. Madbouli, a mother of two. “This is a national security issue. I am a mother, and I want to be reassured when my daughters go out on the streets.”

Statistics on harassment in the region have until recently been nonexistent, but a series of studies presented at the conference hinted at the widespread nature of the problem.

As many as 90 percent of Yemeni women say they have been harassed; while in Egypt, out of a sample of 1,000, 83 percent reported being verbally or physically abused.

A study in Lebanon reported that more than 30 percent of women said they had been harassed there.

“We are facing a phenomenon that is limiting women’s right to move … and is threatening women’s participation in all walks of life,” said Nehad Abul Komsan, an Egyptian activist who organized the event with funding from the U.N. and the Swedish development agency.

Sexual harassment has long been a problem in Middle Eastern nations, but it was little discussed until three years ago, when blogs posted amateur videos of a crowd of men assaulting women in downtown Cairo during a major Muslim holiday. It was one of the most shocking harassment incidents in the region.

The public outcry sparked an unprecedented public acknowledgment of the problem in Egypt and elsewhere in the region and drove the Egyptian government to consider two draft bills addressing sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment, including verbal and physical assault, has been specifically criminalized in only half a dozen Arab countries over the past five years. Most of the 22 Arab states outlaw overtly violent acts such as rape or lewd acts in public areas, according to a study by Ms. Abul Komsan.

She described how one of the victims of harassment whom she interviewed told her that she had taken on the full-face veil to stave off the hassle.

“She told me, ‘I have put on the niqab. By God, what more can I do so they leave me alone?’ ” she said.

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