x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Enough is enough - it is time to end harassment of women

Women are saying it loudly: enough to being groped on the subway, to being undressed with a look, to being followed to work. This must stop.

Every time I turned my head, he was right there on my heels. He was respectfully dressed in a clean shirt, black shoes and a pair of khaki trousers, and at first I didn't think twice about him. But then as I looked around he was still there in my blind spot. I became suspicious. When I made a right turn, he would too. When I decided to take a shortcut, he was right there.

It was a pleasant winter's afternoon in Cairo and I had decided to walk the short 10 minutes back to my office from the downtown cafe where I'd just finished having a coffee with a friend. If life is to be bearable in Cairo, women, unfortunately, have to adapt to being stared at or having the odd sly comment made to them by a bored shopkeeper mooching outside his store. But actually being followed by a man on foot is something else. At one stage, as I was approaching my office, he passed me, then stopped, waiting for me to come nearer. It was totally unnerving.

Just at that moment a male colleague stepped out of his car. I leapt on to his arm, and we walked into the building together. Sexual harassment is a serious problem in Egypt. Relating my story to women in the office, I discovered that two out of three of them had had a similar experience to mine of being followed. All had tales of casual harassment. In the past, these were just anecdotes shared between girlfriends venting their anger at the ridiculous things that happen to them - being groped, cat-called, followed, pinched. Public debate on the subject was largely non-existent and there was no real legal process in place to punish harassers.

Occasionally, someone would try to take things further by complaining to the police, only to find the complaint was not taken seriously. The officer would claim there was no case to answer or tell the woman: "Well, look at the way you are dressed. What can you expect?" True enough, the onus in our society has largely lain on women to prevent sexual harassment. If a girl doesn't cover her hair or wear very conservative clothing, then she's obviously asking for it and wants the harassment, the prevailing attitude seemed to be.

As a result, more women began to cover up. The hijab and niqab became common in Egypt, not purely for religious reasons but also because women wanted to avoid the unpleasantness of being glared at by the opposite sex. But when the harassment continued, Egyptian women knew there was something seriously wrong. Covered from head to toe in black, they were still being groped, propositioned and annoyed. What more could they do?

Three years ago, an amateur video of women in hijabs being attacked in downtown Cairo during a holiday event was made public. Shocked Egyptians were brought face to face with the ugly nature of harassment. Some mobile-phone images showed men tugging at young girls' clothes. Others showed the girls being physically attacked. This was real evidence of a very real problem. Those who had ignored what every woman knew could deny it no longer.

Women's groups were emboldened to launch anti-harassment campaigns, teaching women that the problem was not their fault and encouraging them to persist in bringing complaints - even small ones - to the police. They were also urged to take self-defence classes and to use what they were taught on men who abused them in the street. The culmination of this growing female militancy came this week with a conference on sexual harassment in Cairo - the first of its kind in the Middle East.

What makes some men feel entitled to harass a woman in the street - even one whose shape is hidden beneath a shapeless robe - is beyond the scope of this column, but it remains a huge question that Egyptians still have to confront. Now at least women here have realised they need to do something. A study conducted in part by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights found that men were feeling threatened by a burgeoning female labour force and it was the desire to keep women at home that drove men to such aggressive behaviour. Indeed, a couple of my single Egyptian girlfriends have told me that the men they hoped to marry didn't want them to work.

Some of the worst harassment happens on public transport. In the same study released this week, as many as 90 per cent of Yemeni women - who are almost always covered in black robes, their faces veiled - said they had been harassed, while in Egypt, 83 per cent out of a sample of 1,000 reported having been verbally or physically abused. In Lebanon more than 30 per cent of women said they had been harassed.

I can attest that harassment is a problem in Saudi Arabia as well. Sent to Jeddah on a work assignment, I found that men had no compunction in driving up in their cars to offer me a ride or following my cab for a few kilometres even though I was dressed in a shapeless black abaya and headscarf. I could see how such attention would make women, especially those from traditional communities, uncomfortable about leaving home alone.

In Egypt, sexual harassment will, most probably, continue to exist for a long time to come. Attitudes that allow such behaviour appear culturally ingrained. But increasingly women are waking up to this reality and beginning to reject it. Women here are saying it loudly: enough to being groped on the subway, to being undressed with a look, to being followed to work. This must stop! Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo