A few weeks ago, my Arabic class was learning a bit of grammar associated with words that can be used to describe only women (for example haamil, or pregnant). The textbook designated these words as describing “the feminine condition.” My friend Amy — who can always be relied upon for a good feminist rant — and I looked at each other with expressions of mingled amusement and annoyance. The feminine condition? “It sounds like some sort of disease they hope we might recover from,” I whispered to Amy. She laughed, and we both rolled our eyes at the absurdity of Al-Kitaab (our textbook).
But all jokes aside, there’s no denying that in Egypt, being a woman seem be as painful and restrictive as an illness. This is a society that is clearly, unabashedly dominated by males. Sure, the same can be said of the U.S. (less than 17 percent of members of Congress are female, even though women make up more than 50 percent of voters, FYI), but American society at least has the decency to try and deny its misogyny, hiding it behind claims that the glass ceiling has been broken even though one in four female college students will experience sexual violence and women still make less than 75 cents to every dollar earned by men.
In Egypt, there is no such pretending. Male dominance is out there for everyone to see. Egyptian men can, and do, say what they like to women passing by — anytime one of us girls walks anywhere we leave a trail of men yelling “mozza” (sexy) or “kiss me” in our wake. Yesterday I walked to Manshiya by myself because I needed to pick up a necklace that I’m having made. It was still broad daylight, and the market is always so full of people, mostly women, that I knew that nothing bad could happen. And nothing did, but as I walked through a narrow passage between dress shops a shopkeeper standing in to the pathway looked right at me, licked his lips, and said “mmm” under his breath. It was easily one of the creepiest, most vulgar things that have ever happened to me. I quickened my stride and kept my gaze straight forward. I was horrified, disgusted, and despite being brought up to conceive of myself as a proud, independent, successful western woman and a worthwhile member of society, I felt like nothing more than a piece of meat.
I know that this is a relatively small thing, something so subtle and discreet that it could have easily happened at in the United States, at a party at Georgetown or walking in Manhattan late at night. Either way, I’ve always told myself that I won’t let the harassment I’ve gotten in Egypt bother me unless it’s physical. If they don’t touch me, they can’t hurt me. But at a certain point, you break. A person can only bear being treated like a sexual object for so long. It starts to get under your skin. And it’s not just foreigners who get it. Two thirds of Egyptian women report experiencing harassment on a daily basis, and women who wear hijab fare no better than those who go without. People wonder why women haven’t achieved social and economic and political parity in the world, and this is why. So many westerners look at Arab women wearing head scarves and abayas and condemn them as instruments of male oppression, but I think that the status of women in Egypt stands to lose far more from the harassment. How can a woman who wants to be a doctor or a politician, a leader in society, how can she take herself seriously, and make others take her seriously, if she is constantly being ogled and yelled at? How can a woman think and act independently if she can’t even feel safe walking to the market on her own?
What is so frustrating about this trend is that it stands in such stark contrast to everything else I’ve experienced of Egyptian culture. This is a culture that prides itself on hospitality so much that every Egyptian home has a special sitting room reserved only for guests, a culture that claims to value modesty and respect, claims to be modern and forward thinking. I have met so many genuinely kind and open-hearted people here, people eager to open their homes and their minds to foreigners, thrilled that we would even want to visit their country and learn their language. Just this weekend Dr. Iman invited us to her house for Iftar, cooking a huge feast for us, introducing us to her grown children, greeting every girl with a kiss on each cheek and every boy with an enthusiastic handshake. I have never met such a warm, intelligent, interesting family. Everything about their apartment — from the books stacked on every surface to the abstract photographs (taken by Dr. Iman’s daughter who was studying on her own in Turkey) that could have been of marbles or the moon hanging on the walls to the picture of Dr. Iman as a young girl, lying in the grass in front of the university wearing a knee length skirt and no hijab — oozed modernity, culture, and intellectualism. Girls and guys discussed politics and fashion in equal measures. But all that stops at the door. Out on the street, a woman’s ability to engage in intellectual discussion or take abstract photos is second to the fact of her body. Her feminine condition.
How can a society that values hospitality so deeply turn around and greet its female visitors this way? For that matter, how can a religion that says a women’s purity is like a pearl (which is a problem in and of itself) condone behavior that treats women like sexual objects? It’s a difficult topic, and one that Egyptians seem unwilling to broach. I’ve talked to my professors and some of the language partners about it, but there’s an eagerness to dismiss the issue as a problem of poverty and a lack of education. “It’s just the shabab (young guys),” people will say, “Most Egyptians don’t agree with the harassment.” But they tolerate it nonetheless, and at too high a price — knowing that they can say what they want and get away with it, the men go further. My friend Sarah, whom I stayed with in Cairo at the beginning of this trip, said that she was walking with a few friends in Zamelek one night when a man reached out the window a car and grabbed her friend’s butt. The car sped away before anyone could stop it, and though several people on the street who heard Sarah’s friend scream rushed over to help, no one suggested that she go after the car or report the incident to the police. They apologized to Sarah’s friend, insisting that this was an isolated incident, that “this is not Egypt.” This may not be Egypt, but these are Egyptians. And Egyptians need to take responsibility for the actions of their compatriots, not for the benefit of female westerners who feel uncomfortable getting cat calls in the street during a two month stay, but for the millions of Egyptian women who put up with this every day, year in and year out. That is what makes me angriest. The men on the street don’t have to respect me — God knows that Americans have done plenty for Egyptians to be scornful of — but I do expect them to respect their fellow citizens, their mothers and sisters and daughters and friends.
I really do love this country — I love the endless activity in the streets, the taste of the ful eskandrani, the bubbling enthusiasm of the people. I want to come back here someday soon, to speak to Egyptians in their own language and do it justice, to rent an apartment and shop at the souq, to read Arabic newspapers and sing Egyptian songs. But I also know that I will never really feel comfortable in Egypt, never be able to embrace it fully, so long as the harassment continues like this.
All that said, there are a few things, small things, that make me feel a little less angry and hopeless about the entire situation. There’s this article, published in the run-up to the Olympics, featuring female Arab athletes from across the Middle East. I spent an entire afternoon watching every video, multiple times, mesmerized by the enthusiasm and confidence these girls show in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition. One runner from Palestine qualified for the Olympics despite never having been on a track before. The Somali basketball team will play knowing that their country’s de-facto leaders, the rulers of the Shabab, don’t consider them to be women at all. I was particularly struck by the words of Fayza Omer, a runner from Sudan: “They ask us why we play since we’re women, and say it’s not feminine. To the contrary, sport gives girls a complete femininity. It gives them shape, it gives them a stronger mentality. Some people think otherwise, but I need to reach my goals, I don’t listen to them. I want to reach the Olympics or other world competitions, I want to be an ambassador for my country. … Sport is a beautiful thing.”
Here in Egypt, there’s also a website called Harassmap that allows women to report places where they’ve been assaulted. The site serves the dual purpose of noting the prime locations where women are harassed and also demonstrating exactly how common the harassment is. Its use as increased dramatically in the past few years, concurrent with the wave of liberalism and hope for change that accompanied the revolution.
These are the kinds of things that will eventually lead to change — on the one hand, seeing women taking ownership of themselves and their bodies, representing their country and achieving something wonderful, while on the other, systematically reporting abuse and identifying it as something that won’t be tolerated any longer. When guys can’t get away with the constant verbal and physically, and when they respect women enough to stop wanting to try, that’s how change happens.
I now declare this rant officially over.