Walking the streets of Cairo, I can’t stop being grateful that I’m not a stunning beauty, nor a strikingly obvious foreigner. It’s strange to me that Cairo evoked this gut response to beauty, but it did. It can be hard enough to manage here as a female. Being normal looking evokes enough unwanted attention that standing out in anyway must be a nightmare.
Depending on the time of day, location, and context, and sometimes irrespective of all of these factors, for some Egyptian males, the public domain is theirs and only theirs. Aged eight and upwards, it is their God-given right to gawk, smirk, chide, and on rare occasions, shove. Anyone with a vagina best come prepared for battle necessitating the disdain, haughtiness, and intimidatingly ferocious temper of an ice queen.
Going about daily activities garners unsolicited harmless appreciation, condemnation to hell, and more lecherous suggestions from various charmers who have felt compelled to sidle up to me on foot or in their car and say something. I’ve had boys, no older than 13 at best, aggressively get in my face with a litany of inappropriate comments. I am twice their age.
Initially this caused a destructive spiral of self-evaluation: was I wearing something wrong? Doing something incorrectly? Walking in a provocative way? Bad idea. As long as you’re respectful of context, don’t go down this path. You can be a ninja (i.e. niqabi) and at some point you’ll get harassed.
To keep perspective, I have been lucky enough to avoid any sort of physical harassment, although I have heard awful first and second-hand stories. (Harassment is common enough here that women regularly trade stories and tips on how to avoid it.) However, even having to make the distinction between physical and verbal harassment and count it as a blessing is unacceptable.
Now the rage has set in, and I’m on the warpath.
I have been told to respond with a graceful, matronly “respect yourself” to shame the harasser. However, most of these men are not overly earnest, harmless youth intoxicated on the freedoms of fluttering away from the mother hen; nor, are they middle-aged men being daringly forward just for a day. For the few who are one timers, it’s generally apparent from their timid demeanor. These men are serial harassers who take an obvious sense of entitled enjoyment in their behavior. A reminder of moral integrity has leverage when they acknowledge that their behavior is shameful to begin with, but most harassers are unconcerned. Well, that is, until you make enough ruckus to scare them off.
What these serial harassers don’t expect is for you to fight back. And definitely not loudly. Make a scene. Yell back. Throw things. Throw water. Just do enough to make clear that you were wronged and will not tolerate it. Draw attention to the harasser from anyone nearby. Having ignored it in the past, now I make a point to stop, turn back and belligerently address anyone who makes comments while I’m walking past. So far, I’ve been met with blank faces, wide-eyed with surprise that I didn’t just skulk away. Likely inappropriate, but, I’ve also started to deliberately seek out eye contact with harassers who slow down in their cars to mutter something, murder in my eyes, and then throw up my middle finger. Not a big deal in the States, but here, this has elicited double takes and hopefully deterred further behavior, though one can never be sure.
Amid the incorrigible behavior of these men, the reputations of kind, respectful, decent men suffer and all Egyptian men are unfairly debased. While I have never experienced this extent of harassment, I have also never been as well taken care of by men who are true gentlemen (except, perhaps, in Sudan). Aware of the harassment faced by women, they have helped to deter it whenever they can by going out of their way to walk or drive me somewhere, or calling to make sure I have arrived safely.
That male friends, acquaintances, and colleagues – not just family – feel compelled to protect women from other men reflects how tautly the social fabric is stretched as trust between the sexes ceases to exist. Boys learn by example that it is ok to debase women, to infringe upon their sense of safety. Erring on the side of caution, women are always on their guard. Society further instills a divide between the sexes, to, among other reasons, protect women’s chastity from ravenous, opportunistic men. Not only does this create temptation of the forbidden, but it limits the opportunities for respectful, friendly interactions between the sexes. And the cycle of harassment continues.
Every day women re-engage in the battle to establish their right to be safe in the public space. Every day the gains of yesterday must be defended and reinforced today.