x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Mother of two took her tormentor to court - and lost

Among the 2.4 per cent of Egyptian women who have reported sexual harassment to the police, there is Aser Yasser.

Aser Yasser tells how she was harassed in the street in a Cairo suburb while on her way to a relative's funeral.
Aser Yasser tells how she was harassed in the street in a Cairo suburb while on her way to a relative's funeral.

CAIRO // Among the 2.4 per cent of Egyptian women who have reported sexual harassment to the police, there is Aser Yasser. In early February, Ms Yasser, the 40-year-old mother of two young girls, was walking to her car from her home in a Cairo suburb when a young man drew up alongside her in a car. Ms Asser was going to the funeral of a relative and so was dressed entirely in black - though not in a hijab - and was accompanied by her 15-year-old niece.

"He just came after me with his car. He said: 'Oh, come with me, I want to talk to you.' He started to follow me. I couldn't cross the street," Ms Asser said. The youth and his friends in the car then drove around her in circles, squealing the brakes and kicking up dust. "My niece was with me and I was so scared. I thought maybe they would touch her. It's a really quiet area and when I started to scream, nobody tried to help me. Everybody just watched from their windows, like they were in a theatre."

And so, for the first time, she decided to call the police. It was a new strategy for Ms Asser, who has been a harassment victim before. In January, a month earlier, a man grabbed Ms Asser's breasts in a crowded supermarket. On another occasion, a man fondled her as she walked with her brother in a busy market. With both of the previous incidents, Ms Asser chose a more direct approach: she socked her assailants in the face.

But this time, Ms Asser called the authorities and to her surprise, the police arrived within five minutes of her call, detained the young man - a 19-year-old college student - and took him to the police station where they called his parents. Ms Asser had been planning on dropping all charges once the police had recorded the incident. A visit to the police station would be more than enough to scare the youth without actually getting him into any real trouble, she had thought.

But when the perpetrator's father arrived at the police station, Ms Asser realised she was facing a problem far more insidious than mere boys-will-be-boys shenanigans. She had been hoping to see some old-fashioned filial justice of the kind that only a father can deliver. But when older man arrived, it became clear that his son's misogyny was inherited. "His father was so rude when he came to the police station, Ms Asser said. "I kept thinking: if my brother did that, my father would have killed him right there. But the father just said to him, in front of me and my husband: 'She is too old for you, why were you even talking to her?' "

That the older man had worked for several years in Saudi Arabia - one of millions of Egyptians who lived in the Gulf during the 1980s and 1990s and returned with an ultra-conservative attitude towards women - struck Ms Asser as less than a coincidence. The perpetrator's father is not alone, said Ms Asser, who attributes part of Egypt's growing sexual harassment problem to the spread of Wahhabi thought. Those Egyptians who have adopted the Saudi mentality consider any woman who travels alone in the streets to be "asking for it", Ms Asser said.

But she also blames rising levels of violence in Egyptian society for women's insecurity in public. What she and countless others experience on Egypt's streets is less about sex than latent rage and social disaffection. As an example, Ms Asser recalled an incident when a young man pulled up next to her car at a stoplight. He called her a bitch and then threw his lit cigarette through her open car window onto her lap.

"It's because of violence and because women are weak," she said. "They are the weakest part of society, and it's normal that when you feel violence, you will go to the weakest people" to victimise as a catharsis. It is not the same Egypt Ms Asser remembers. The friendly teasing on Cairo's streets - a feature common to many Mediterranean cultures - was often annoying and pathetic, but it could also be humorous, charming and, sometimes, even flattering.

"It was funny and nice. They never used bad words or used their hands," she said. "It was like 'Oh, you're like the sun in the Nile.' Stuff like that. Just one word, one sentence, and then he leaves." But in the past several decades, talk of romance has been replaced by shouted curses, innuendo has turned to exhibitionism and batting eyelashes have given way to sometimes violent confrontation. Ms Asser now seems as committed to determining what has gone wrong in Egyptian society as she once was to pursuing justice for her own case. On April 7, two months after the incident, a court ruled against Ms Asser, citing a lack of evidence and the defendant's youth.

"I was really disappointed for two days," she said. "But I stopped thinking about myself, about my case, and I started thinking about my kids. I started thinking that this is not Egypt anymore." With a few friends, Ms Asser is now helping to make a documentary about sexual harassment in Egypt. She has also been chronicling her experiences - rare in a country where few women report sexual harassment - on a blog www.amyasser.blogspot.com that has grown in popularity since she started it in 2005.

Although the young man who threatened her may have avoided conviction, Ms Asser said she hopes that her efforts have convinced the perpetrator and his friends that they should "think 1,000 times" before they harass another woman. "I saw him once in the street and I told him, 'This is not personal. I just don't want you to do this again'. He said 'Yeah, I'm not going to do this again. Now I know it's a crime'," said Ms Asser, referring to an isolated conversation she had with her harasser before the final court decision.

"He kept saying, 'I did this just like everyone else.' I didn't like that comment, so I told him, 'OK, I will teach everyone else not to do this again. And you will help me.'" mbradley@thenational.ae