x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Harassment guidance for mosques

The Egyptian government publishes a new booklet that will instruct imams on how to approach the topic of sexual harassment.

The harassment of women is a growing problem in Cairo, and ranges from ogling in the street  to more aggressive behaviour, which some observers blame on attitudes Egyptian men have brought back to the country after working in Saudi Arabia.
The harassment of women is a growing problem in Cairo, and ranges from ogling in the street to more aggressive behaviour, which some observers blame on attitudes Egyptian men have brought back to the country after working in Saudi Arabia.

The Egyptian government has published a new booklet that will instruct imams throughout the country on how to approach the topic of sexual harassment with their congregations. The government has taken steps in the past to recognise the growing problem of sexual harassment. But the booklet, which was published by the ministry of awqaf this year and which will be distributed to 50,000 government-funded mosques nationwide, marks the first attempt by Egypt's official religious institutions to confront a problem that many here say has reached intolerable levels in the past several years. Leaders of women's rights groups said they appreciated the ministry's willingness to openly discuss the topic of sexual harassment, but many were disappointed with the contents of the book. The publication's emphasis on women - their behaviour, styles of dress and social habits - struck some feminist leaders as a further distraction from what they say is the true cause of sexual harassment: degrading attitudes towards women and an atmosphere of social and legal impunity that surrounds men. "It seems they consider it important to raise awareness of the people through direct involvement of the mosques and that is important," said Mona Ezzat, the campaigns co-ordinator for the New Woman Foundation, a Cairo-based women's rights organisation. "However, the perception in this document about the reasons for sexual harassment is that it is due to the individual behaviour of women, either in their clothes or behaviour." The 36-page publication, Sexual Harassment: Causes and Treatments, presents a list of causes for why sexual harassment has worsened. Among them are a declining religious consciousness; the propagation of lascivious images on the internet and satellite television; women, both veiled and unveiled, dressing immodestly; drug abuse, and later marriage among young men. Written by Salem Abdel Galil, the deputy minister of religious endowments and preaching, the book instructs clerics to inform their faithful of various solutions to the problem. These include activating a more religious public discourse; adopting stricter guidelines for the media; encouraging young people to remain abstinent before marriage but also to marry earlier, and to promulgate legislation to appropriately punish offenders. "The concept of religiosity is not just about praying in the mosque. It's behaviour and words," said Mr Galil, who added that the visible increase in religious conservatism in Egyptian society is mostly "superficial" and belies an erosion of true social and religious values. "Unfortunately, any observer can see that Egyptian society lacks religiosity in this sense. Since sexual harassment is bad behaviour, it shows a lack of religiosity." Mr Galil rejected critics' claims that his booklet "blames the victim". Instead, he said, it offers realistic solutions to a problem that must be acknowledged by religious officials. The question of sexual harassment, he said, is one of shared blame: both women and men must change their behaviour if women are to feel secure on the streets. "I'm telling both to do the right thing," Mr Galil said. "If you're working in an office where there is known to be a thief, you don't leave money on your desk. You take care. Women should take care, too." This metaphor - and the mentality behind it - is insulting to women, said Nawla Darwiche, one of the founders of the New Woman Foundation. "He presents a very distorted image of women. Women are presented as evil. I am afraid that this book, used by 50,000 imams, could become a very destructive weapon against women." Not only that, but the logic presented in the booklet may be based more on preconceived notions than scientific inquiry and past studies into Egypt's worsening sexual harassment phenomenon, said Nehad Abu al Khomsan, chairwoman of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights. Ms Khomsan's organisation published a report last year on the rate of sexual harassment in Egypt and the identities of the perpetrators and victims. Mr Galil cited the report, titled Clouds in Egypt's Sky, in the introduction of his book but not in the body of the text or the bibliography - a fact that led Ms Khomsan to believe that the government has ignored conclusions she characterised as startling. In the group's survey of 2,800 Egyptian women, the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights found that 83 per cent of Egyptian women and 98 per cent of foreign women reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment on Egyptian streets. Of the Egyptian women who reported harassment, 72.5 per cent wore some variation on the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, and 31.9 per cent of those wore the hijab with a long, loose-fitting blouse and a long skirt, while 21 per cent wore the hijab with a longer, thigh-length blouse and trousers. Those women who wore the niqab, one of the more conservative forms of Islamic dress, which covers everything but the eyes, were still harassed by men at a rate of nearly 10 per cent. Also contrary to the "take care" mentality espoused by some conservatives, Ms Khomsan said, was the finding that most harassment took place during daylight hours and in crowded places among dozens of witnesses. The study's authors also interviewed men, 62.4 per cent of whom reported that they had engaged in sexual harassment at some point in the past, many on a daily basis. The study also cast doubt on one pervasive sociological theory that poverty has contributed to sexual harassment by delaying the marriage age for Egyptian men. Ms Khomsan noted that married men were nearly as likely as unmarried men to harass women. What is perhaps most surprising, women's rights activists say, is the emergence of aggressive forms of harassment. For generations, Egyptian men have engaged in "moaqsa", loosely translated as "chasing" - a kind of Mediterranean-style cat-calling that was rarely physically threatening. That changed, Ms Khomsan said, because of cultural encroachment from Saudi Arabia, which exported its conservative Wahhabi brand of Islam to Egypt by funding conservative mosques and by inculcating millions of Egyptians who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s with the ideology. The Saudi mentality, Ms Khomsan said, has poisoned the Egyptian conception of gender equality in a way that is now manifesting itself on Egypt's streets. But what has perhaps contributed more, Ms Khomsan and Ms Darwiche said, is that state security forces have turned a blind eye to the problem and, in some cases, condoned it or used it as a means of crowd control. In May 2005, hired thugs corralled and sexually assaulted women protesters during an anti-regime demonstration in downtown Cairo. Other incidents, captured on video and posted on YouTube, have shown groups of hundreds of frenzied young men stampeding through downtown Cairo streets grabbing any woman in sight as police stood idly by. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that only 2.4 per cent of Egyptian women and 7.5 per cent of foreign sexual harassment victims have reported the crime to the police. Nevertheless, law enforcement officials have made cautious progress in enforcing existing laws against "indecent assault" and "immoral acts on highways" - the only references to sexual harassment in Egyptian statutes, according to the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights, which is pushing for a more comprehensive legal definition of sexual harassment. Last week, a serial harasser, dubbed the "Maadi serial killer" by the Egyptian press (though he was never accused of murder), was sentenced to 45 years in prison after nine women accused him of physical harassment. Last year, a Cairo man was given three years hard labour for fondling a young woman on a crowded downtown street during daylight hours. But if Egyptians have been more willing to allow for public discussion of sexual harassment, Farkhonda Hassan, the secretary general of the National Council for Women, a government agency devoted to women's issues, said Egyptian social norms will allow for only so much honest debate. Egypt remains, she said, a conservative society. "These are the opposition NGOs who want to blame everything on the government. Don't take their views as 100 per cent," Ms Hassan said of the organisations that tend to blame government inaction for the sexual harassment crisis. "The change now is that there are more girls in the streets than before, so you have more of these incidents, you see? It is not because of the increase, no; it goes with the number of girls in the streets," she said. "Now you have girls in the workplace, girls in the streets, girls in the nightclubs all by themselves up to two or three o'clock in the morning without their families. So the change in this behaviour has increased the frequency of this harassment."

mbradley@thenational.ae