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The Sexual Harassment File: Sexual harassment starts at home

Over the coming weeks, Al-Masry Al-Youm each Wednesday will feature pieces that dissect the reasons behind sexual harassment, the coping mechanisms for women (and men) in the streets of Cairo and the system that has been set up to tackle this festering issue. Comments and input are appreciated – send us your stories of sexual harassment and information on any organizations or initiatives that combat sexual harassment in Egypt.

Khaled al-Sayyad is exceptionally proud of his son. The young boy may not be a model student “his mind wasn’t made for such matters" – but he is, as his father claims, “a prodigy on the soccer field.” In fact, Hisham’s athletic abilities are so extraordinary that his father swears he was just signed to the official Enppi team, despite being only 13 years old.

“He’s also a really decent, polite boy and a firm believer in good sportsmanship,” says the cab driver. A series of anecdotes praising the boy culminates in a story about how young Hisham was recently slapped by an older girl at his club.

“He told the girl she had an impressive division line,” laughs the cab driver. “He’s a cheeky kid. Takes after his father.”

Sayyad’s failure to recognize his son’s budding attempts at sexual harassment for what they really are is perhaps the most alarming aspect of what, in recent years, has become a highly distressing national phenomenon. Sexual harassment is a serious problem in Egypt, as obligatory a part of any female tourist’s visit as the pyramids or the Nile.

And although foreigners may get more coverage for their woes, Egyptian women are by no means spared the catcalls, gropes, and, in many cases, far worse fates.

The fact that children are now part of the issue – young boys are increasingly comfortable and confident in their abuse of women, while it is not uncommon for schoolgirls, mostly veiled, to gather at the gates of their schools and whistle at male passersby – is worrying not only because it indicates the depth of the problem, but because it also suggests that it might continue to plague our society for generations to come.

“The earlier this type of behavior starts, and the longer it continues, the harder it becomes to reform or control it,” says Mai Kotb, a family and couples therapist.

In Kotb’s opinion, children engaging in the practice of sexual harassment may be victims themselves.

“A lot of these kids grow up in environments where they might be directly exposed to some form of sexual harassment,” she explains. “As a result, they may start to feel like, if people are doing it to them, then it’s their right to do it to other people as well.”

This is not the only explanation. The main reason why an increasing number of children, young boys in particular, may feel comfortable with sexually harassing others is that such behavior is so pervasive among the people they consider to be their “role models.”

“A lot of young boys see their fathers, brothers, and older friends harassing women, and, in turn, they interpret that as the appropriate way to act in order to fit in, or win approval of their peers,” Kotb suggests. “They model their behavior on what they see happening around them.”

“This is a very male-driven society, and men typically act according to the belief that they are superior to women,” says Kotb, adding that this belief may lead to a desire – perhaps subconscious – to “humiliate, overpower, and oppress” women in general.

Another potential cause is overwhelming sexual frustration.

As an example, Kotb cites the “many young girls who have been forced by their families to become veiled. They reach a certain age and start to feel these urges, but are uncomfortable expressing or even acknowledging them.”

“Adolescents of both genders experience feelings of sexual awareness and desire even before they’ve hit puberty,” Kotb points out. Those feelings, she claims, coupled with the confusion that comes from not having a proper sexual education, result in the misguided and often offensive “venting techniques” typically witnessed on the streets of Cairo.

The persistence of this type of behavior has a lot to do with social taboos.

“A lot of young men believe that the women they are harassing secretly enjoy the attention. They are convinced that these women have to act offended and uninterested, otherwise they’ll come across as being too ‘easy.’ The problem with this mentality is that it can easily lead to rape. It’s a serious problem.”

Unfortunately, many people don’t seem to realize, or agree with, Kotb’s perspective.

“It’s not as bad as people say it is,” says 18-year-old Salah Ahmed, shortly after calling out to two veiled girls on the Maadi corniche. “For your information, most girls like the attention. How else will they feel appreciated when, in our society, you can’t just walk up to them and compliment them directly?”

When asked if the same social taboos that prohibit innocent and casual compliments also permit sexual harassment, Ahmed shakes his head in frustration. “It’s not harassment. Rape is harassment. Reaching out and grabbing a woman’s breast is harassment. Just making a comment or calling a girl beautiful isn’t.”

“If I see a girl who has clearly put some effort into her appearance, why not congratulate that effort?” says Ahmed’s friend and cat-calling colleague Adel Sobhy. “She must want people to think she looks nice if she spends time putting on makeup, right? She’s not just doing it for herself. It’s not like she can see her own face when she’s walking down the street.”

“She’s doing it for others,” he says, before briefly contemplating and adding, “She’s doing it for us.”

Another member of the group joins the conversation, pointing out, “Ironically, it’s the girls who react positively to comments that are the ones you want to stay away from.”

“Decent girls, well-brought-up girls, will act shy or insulted, even when they secretly feel appreciative,” Mostafa Tammam, 18, says, describing the subtle cat-and-mouse game he and the majority of his peers seem to believe exists in most of their interactions with the opposite sex.

“You have to realize that this is also perceived as a bigger problem than it really is because of the way foreigners react to it,” Sobhy claims. “They don’t understand this behavior, because it’s not part of their culture. They’re not used to it, it makes them uncomfortable, and they react aggressively.”

A minor reassurance comes in the form of this particular group’s rejection of what seems to be an otherwise common belief, namely, that the only women who get harassed are the ones who deserve it, a judgment typically based on the way these women dress, or their “inappropriate” lifestyles.

“You have to expect that, in this society, all girls are subjected to some form of sexual harassment,” says Ahmed. “The idea that the ones who attract comments are the ones who deserve it, or are seeking it, can’t be true all the time. In every society there are positives and negatives. That’s all there is to it.”

“I won’t say that all girls enjoy the attention,” Ahmed shrugs. “But I also wouldn’t say that this is as big, or as serious a problem as you’re making it out to be.”

Asked to recall their first attempt at ‘complimenting’ the fairer sex, and where they picked up their technique from, the members of the group break out in laughter.

“It’s not like there’s a course, or a curriculum to follow,” Ahmed laughs. “It’s just a part of life, and a type of social interaction. You pick up on it the same way you do on the way you talk to police officers, for example, or doctors. You talk to certain people in certain ways.”

Talking in “certain ways” is exactly what therapist Kotb recommends as a solution to the problem. “Children need to be told how to interact with people. They need to learn that this type of behavior, sexually harassing people, is unacceptable, and that they will be punished for it.”

“These are lessons,” she claims, “that need to start at home.”

When his son was slapped by an older girl at the club, Khaled’s wife turned to him to explain to their son why what he did was wrong. Unfortunately, this was a task the proud father proved unable to live up to. “His mother was upset, and wanted me to talk to him,” Khaled shakes his head. “But I told her what I’ll tell you: kids will be kids.”

Contact the Life & Style section at [email protected] for your input in The Sexual Harassment File.

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