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There's no sense in blaming sexual assault victims in Egypt

Egyptian men aren't wired to instinctively blame women who are harassed — they are taught such falsities. An ideological shift is required

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Female victims of sexual harassment and assault in Egypt are usually blamed for somehow bringing the abuse on themselves.
Gulf News

Harassed or sexually assaulted Egyptian women often find little help in fighting back. Neither the Egyptian government nor much of Egyptian society itself seems shocked or galvanised by lewd catcalling in public, groping, or more serious assaults.

A main factor driving Egypt's seemingly ineradicable climate of sexual predation is an indifference to such crimes among Egyptian police. But there is an underlying reason for this indifference:

Female victims of sexual harassment and assault in Egypt are usually blamed for somehow bringing the abuse on themselves. A related falsehood is the notion that Egyptian women are overly sexual beings who must be constrained.

These pervasive attitudes are infrequently discussed but airing them is a crucial first step towards reform.

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.

Astonishing survey results

In a frequently referenced survey in 2008, nearly two-thirds of Egyptian men admitted to sexually harassing women — and half blamed the women themselves. Eight in 10 Egyptian women say they've suffered such harassment, with half saying it occurs daily — yet less than three per cent have reported abuse to the police.

And according to more recent, and even more astonishing, data from The Population Council, an international nongovernmental organisation, nearly 80 per cent of Egyptian boys and men ages 15-29 agreed that a woman who is harassed deserves it if she had dressed provocatively.

Perhaps even more disturbing, 73 per cent of similar-aged females in the survey also claimed that immodestly dressed women deserve any abuse they endure.

Many men in Egypt refuse to accept responsibility for harassing women, and Egyptian police before whom these men might be dragged often do the same.

The Population Council's survey also points to a darker truth: Blaming harassment victims in Egypt isn't some organic byproduct of a conservative society; this cruel blame game is explicitly taught to many children in this country.

Fifteen-year-olds aren't wired to instinctively blame people who are harmed by the actions of others. They are taught such falsities.

The suspicion that young girls grow into wild sexual beings that must be tamed exists in many circles. After the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat opened up the political system in the 1970s, some formerly exiled Egyptian Islamists returned to the country with the ideology of Wahhabism in tow, according to John Bradley in his 2008 book Inside Egypt.

‘Damaging society'

As a result, some portions of ultraconservatism now infuse Egyptian society. Guardian writer Joseph Mayton quoted a Cairo shaikh in May who said that if Egyptian women were liberated in the western tradition "they would resort to promiscuity and this would damage the family and society. This cannot happen because men would not be able to control their behaviour and harassment and sexual abuse would continue".

Stanford social psychologist Lee Ross identified in the 1970s a phenomenon called the "fundamental attribution error", which is the human tendency to reflexively attribute an individual's behaviour to their innate personality rather than environmental factors.

Department store shoppers witnessing a man screaming at a store manager, for example, are more likely to immediately mutter, "That customer's got problems", than "He must have been wronged".

But the reverse of this phenomenon seems to be the norm in Egypt with regard to sexually victimised women. Too often, the ingrained response is to attribute sexual assault to the victim's wickedly overpowering and flaunted sexual magnetism. Guilt of the aggressor, if it's actually considered, often exists as an afterthought.

Not everyone in Egypt believes such falsehoods, of course, and activists were pushing in early 2010 for the government to pass a law punishing harassers with one year in prison and/or a fine of about $175 (Dh643.7) — a considerable penalty in a country where many workers earn less than $2 a day.

Such 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.