Sexual Harassment: A Muslim Problem

Posted on April 25, 2011

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By Hena Zuberi

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Most of us have heard the the reports out of Egypt, but this is not just an Egyptian problem. It is experienced in many Muslim countries. Many women in Muslim countries don’t even know that this is a crime.

Lets look at the stats coming from Egypt more closely.  In 2008, Abul Komsan, the woman’s rights activist, polled 1,000 women from all parts of the country. What she found shocked her. 98 percent of foreign women polled said they had been sexually harassed. And about eight out of 10 Egyptian-born women said the same thing. She also surveyed Egyptian men, and almost two-thirds of men polled actually admitted that they harassed women.  And before the holier than thou start preaching that this only happens when women are uncovered, no it does NOT. One of the most important aspects of this study was that it found that 72.5% of victims surveyed were wearing hijab when they were sexually harassed.  It happens to all women, even ones that are in full niqab, under several layers of cloth . This survey may superficially shatter the claim that hijab does not protect from molestation. But remember these were just 1000 women in a country of 18 million and the study was taken in an urban city. Anecdotal evidence suggests women may be harassed less depending on where they are, if they cover and as they age. I am not refuting the research but do think more research needs to be done in Egypt and in other Muslim countries, as well. ( I will examine the hijab=protection issue in another post, inshaAllah. Here in the U.S. I have never be sexually harassed after donning my hijab, maybe because the mindset is totally different or  maybe the outer garment screams ‘don’t come near me’.)

Before the all is perfect in the West crowd pipes up – this a definitely not a problem exclusive to Muslim countries, either. From Mexico City to Chicago, this is a male problem.  According to National Crime Records Bureau, the fastest growing crime in India is violence against women.  Walking down the street, taking public transportation or having a career, all put women at risk for sexual harassment and sexual assault, no matter the city, country or continent.  Catcalls, fondling, violence and indecent exposure are an everyday occurrence for women in the United States as well. iHollaback.org  is a website dedicated to ending street harassment where young women across the nation share their stories and, if they’re quick enough, post photos of their harassers in this safe, online space.  Gawaahi.com is the Pakistani distant cousin of Hollaback, where women are speaking about harassment and abuse.

Sexual harassment in Egypt

What is definitely worth studying are the responses of the men in the ECWR study.

Perhaps nothing illustrates Egypt’s loss of a moral compass than the responses of some men in the ECWR study.  Some said they harassed a woman simply because they were bored. One who abused a woman wearing the niqab said she must be beautiful, or hiding something.  As a professor in Cairo, I  see these misogynistic sentiments on display all too often. A woman is called a whore in public? She is seen as dressing like one. Groped by a man on the subway? She must’ve allured him beyond his control with aromatic fragrances and entrancing pheromones. An urban ambler exposes himself to a girl on a sidewalk? She was probably staring lustfully at him… a law can help but it needs to be accompanied by an ideological shift. Young Egyptians, both male and female, must be convinced that the burden of blame for sexual harassment doesn’t belong to the hunted. The guilt of sexual abuse, by logical definition, is the predator’s alone. Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo.

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