Women who face harassment on Cairo's streets often do not protest. But there are signs that this state of affairs may be changing Image Credit: Rex Features

Sexual harassment is becoming an everyday battle for women. I have to face this increasing problem every time I leave for my downtown work," said 34-year-old Mona Hassan, part of Egypt's large working middle-class. Like most Egyptian women, Mona is used to being harassed and grabbed by men in the crowded streets of Cairo.

"Harassment is mostly viewed as a taboo here. Women used to speak about the harassment they suffer — in public transportation or on the streets and sometimes by their male friends or in colleges — only in their closed communities," Hassan added.

Despite its 18 million inhabitants, Cairo has been globally considered one of the safest mega-cities in the world except for the sexual harassment episodes of groping and catcalls against women, which have not been adequately addressed by the Egyptian authorities.

For women in Egypt, sexual harassment is an annoying but all too common part of life. In 2008, the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR) released shocking statistics that stated that 83 per cent of Egyptian women and 98 per cent of foreign women in Egypt reported exposure to sexual harassment.

Out of 1,010 Egyptian women surveyed by the Cairo-based NGO, nearly half reported being subjected to harassment on a daily basis, ranging from lewd comments to molestation. Sixty-two per cent of Egyptian men admitted to harassing women.

"We receive complaints from women about various forms of sexual harassment. These range from salacious gestures and groping to impertinent compliments or outright chases on public streets. Subsequently, we have conducted several studies that have proven one thing above all else: Sexual harassment occurs regardless of age, dress or time of day. Women are victims simply because they are women," said ECWR chairwoman Nehad Abu Al Komsan.

Most European foreign offices advise their citizens to show respect to the traditions of Muslim countries, such as not to walk around in clothes too revealing, and respect the country's ethical code.

Some female tourists have reported being mildly harassed. "Despite the fact that harassment does happen, I feel totally safe living in Egypt. Men and women can move freely day and night without any fear from gangs or drunken people wandering in the streets as happens back in my homeland," said 38-year-old Amy Rogers, an American tourist.

More than 60 per cent of the respondents — including females — suggested that scantily clad women were most at risk. But the study concluded that the majority of the victims of harassment were modestly dressed women wearing the hijab. Contrary to expectations, the male perpetrators made little distinction between women wearing a veil and those who were not. "We found that a veil does not protect women as we thought," says Abu Al Komsan. "More than 75 per cent of women in Egypt are veiled but are still harassed. And 9 per cent wear the niqab — the complete face cover — so they are fully covered."

While both men and women surveyed said that short skirts and tight clothes triggered harassment, Nora Khalid, 31, told Weekend Review: "All my female colleagues advised me to wear the hijab to spare myself any advances from passers-by, just to find that women in the hijab were the most frequent targets of unwanted comments and touching on the street."

"As women, we follow our grandmother's advice — not to come home late, walk in a crowded area because people can protect you and never walk down a dark or desolate street — and we know all this very well," Khalid said.

However, Abu Al Komsan said: "But what [our research showed] was something completely different from the stereotypes — sexual harassment occurring in crowded areas, even if the women were covered from head to toe."

Dr Hanaa Al Gohari, sociologist at Cairo University, told Weekend Review that the problem of sexual harassment in Egypt has to do with the mentality of the society. Today's Egypt is infected with two main diseases: religious extremism and patriarchy.

"It is our Arab society's patriarchal mentality that holds women accountable for the mistakes of men. Egyptian women rarely report being harassed to avoid public embarrassment or alleged humiliation to their family. Women just remember: It's always your fault and your ‘Jezebel' behaviour and clothes."

On the other hand, we find perpetrators usually justify their actions by saying that women often provoke sexual harassment by wearing "immodest" or tight-fitting clothes. Some Islamic groups have used this reasoning to reinforce their campaigns for women to dress conservatively and adopt the veil.

Yasser Ali, a 21-year-old student, who apathetically admitted to have indulged in some minor harassment, said much of it is verbal. Young men hanging out in groups on crowded streets pass comments such as: "You're beautiful" or "What is your name?".

"Do not blame me. You should blame her. When a woman wears make-up and tight clothes, she seeks attention. Women in Cairo are out in the streets rubbing shoulders with men everywhere," he said, being defensive about the occasional catcalls he makes at women in the city, "who are different from the ones in my village".

In 2008, the issue of harassment took a significant turn when Noha Roushdy, a 27-year-old Egyptian filmmaker, won a landmark legal battle against a man who grabbed her breast on a busy road. The court sentenced the offender to three years in jail and ordered him to pay a $900 fine.

Roushdy explained that she was standing on the side of a busy, traffic-choked Cairo street when a van driver reached out of his window and groped her. Then, pulling at her body, he looked into her face and laughed. Roushdy shouted and demanded the driver get out of the van. When he refused, she jumped on the hood, determined not to let the man drive away. Roushdy asked people for help but everyone blamed her for fighting with a man on a street, even if the man had harassed her.

However, a court sentenced the driver, Sherif Jebriel, 30, to three years' imprisonment with hard labour, a remarkably lengthy jail sentence by Western standards for such an offence.

Women's rights activists and journalists in Cairo hailed the verdict, saying that to their knowledge, it was the first time an Egyptian court had sent a groper to prison. They were of the opinion that the judge had set an example.

Khairy Ramadan, a famous presenter and columnist in the Egyptian independent newspaper Almasry-Alyoum, praised Roushdy and the ruling, highlighting that enforcement was at the root of the problem. "Sexual harassment happens everywhere in the world. The difference is that abroad they enforce the law, whereas we have done it for the first time," he wrote.

Many bloggers and activists used new media to back Roushdy in her battle, adopting her case as a national cause. They launched campaigns such as "Respect Yourself", which was designed to target sexual harassers.

Maram Ashraf, the creator of one of the many support groups on Facebook, told Weekend Review that Roushdy's case showed women who remained silent about harassment that they could get justice.

"The van driver took it for granted that Roushdy would be lucky if she just managed to escape a nervous breakdown. He assumed that the best she could do is rise up and continue her walk home, carrying all the shame and pain. To his amazement, he found her rising up like a tigress, chasing his truck and jumping on to the driver's cabin to force him to pull up and get out," Ashraf said.

The case came at a time when verbal and physical harassment of women is starting to be acknowledged as a "real phenomenon in Egypt".

Women's rights activists said they hoped the severe sentence would frighten men into stopping committing assaults, which for years had gone unpunished and which many women had resigned to as something they just had to deal with on Cairo's streets.

Many analysts believe that behind the ugly face of this phenomenon lie socio-economic factors. With 20 per cent of the population living on less than $2 a day, men and women must wait until their thirties to be able to afford getting married, thus ending up being part of a generation that is sexually frustrated.

Engy Ghozlan, activist at the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights, blamed lack of order in the streets, as the system is the only thing that is protected on streets, not people. This makes people think they can get away with harassment of women.

"The government is absent, the regime is lax and the police don't care. The result is inevitable — it is what we see on the streets. We as activists and NGOs try hard to urge the minister of interior to establish more competent security on the streets," said Ghozlan.

Several people said such harassment of women was a new phenomenon in most populous country of the Arab world. Until the 1970s, there was very little harassment in Egypt. Nowadays many women envy their older relatives, who in the 1960s and 1970s would wear clothes they never dream of wearing today.

Lawyer and feminist Salma Jamal said: "Religious restraint of the Egyptian people, which used to be one of their best characteristics, became a catastrophe when it turned into religious extremism because of various political and economic influences. Women in such an extremist society are always viewed as secondary citizens — merely a sexual object created to please the man and satisfy his physical needs."

That argument is at odds with what Dr Amnah Nosseir, a professor of Islamic philosophy at Al Azhar University in Cairo, feels. She believes that lack of religious morals is the main reason behind acts of harassment of women.

"Look at our boys today," she says. "They have nothing to occupy their lives except TV and the internet. And now we have this problem of late marriage. When you combine it all, you will have social problems such as harassment."

On TV and the internet, they are exposed to cultural influences of the West through films that depict American actors involved in dating or premarital sex — practices alien to Egyptian young people. These in turn influence Arab pop culture, which often consists of scantily clad divas and remakes of Western TV hits.

Egyptian officials often play down the extent of the problem. Even Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, a strong advocate of women's rights, had underestimated allegations of rampant sexual harassment in her country, accusing the media, and implicity Islamist militants, of exaggerating the reports.

"Maybe some people wanted to make it appear as though the streets of Egypt were unsafe so that girls and women stay at home," Mubarak said in a television interview. However, public outrage and campaigner lobbying appear to have stirred a change in attitude of the Egyptian government, which long was hostile to even discussing the subject, but now appears ready to pass legislation criminalising sexual harassment to protect women and ensure offenders are duly punished.

Georgette Kellini, a member of parliament for the ruling National Democratic Party, said: "Egyptian law does not make sexual harassment a criminal offence. Although articles 268 and 306 of the Egyptian Penal Code touch on issues rising out of extreme sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo, the specific legal wording to protect women exists nowhere in the code."

On a public level, women have adopted innovative ways to escape sexual harassment with facilities such as taxis, metro carriages and coffee shops which cater only to women who want to remain beyond the reach of curious eyes.

"Signs of segregation are apparent all over the country. In recent years, the government has designated two carriages in each metro train for women. Also, private women-only beaches proved so successful that other private restaurants and cafés followed suit," wrote Osama Diab in his article published in The Guardian.

Raghda El Halawany is a journalist based in Cairo.