Kelly (a friend of mine) just sent me this article ... and yeah .. it's about time!
June 24, 2009
Letter from Egypt
Covered Up, and Harassed, in Cairo
By DANIEL WILLIAMS
CAIRO — At the Embaba Youth Center in Cairo, teenage girls in headscarves that signify Islamic modesty whack at each other with deft karate moves.
It’s fun, they say, but also a defense against nasty boys and men on the Egyptian capital’s mean streets.
“No one is going to touch me when I can hit them real hard,” said Nada Gamal Saad, 16.
The training is a grassroots reaction to a problem Cairo women’s groups say is growing: public verbal insults, groping and even rape. Such harassment contrasts with emerging signs of female political advancement in Egypt and other countries across the Middle East.
“Changes for women are surface improvements,” said Madiha el-Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. “There is a deeper cultural problem: male hostility toward women who want to do more than stay at home.”
In his June 4 speech in Cairo, President Barack Obama said that women’s rights constituted one of six friction points between the United States and the Muslim world. “I am convinced that our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons,” he said. “I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles, but it should be their choice.”
There are some baby-steps of progress. Last month, four women in Kuwait were elected to the country’s 50-member Parliament, four years after women were first given the vote. Saudi Arabia pledged to the United Nations this month to end the requirement that women get permission from a male relative to work, travel, study or marry.
In Iran, Zahra Rahnavard became the first candidate’s wife to participate in her husband’s campaign when former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Moussavi ran for president against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on June 12. Mr. Moussavi lost and has claimed the voting was rigged.
On June 14, Egypt’s lower house of Parliament agreed to provide women with 64 guaranteed new seats in future elections. Eight women currently sit in the 454-member assembly. The government’s Justice Ministry is also reviewing a proposed law to expand a statute that prohibits unspecified “physical sexual offenses.” The new measure would detail actions considered sexual harassment, including public indecency and any kind of sexual touching.
Still, chronic offensive behavior suggests the horizon for equality in Egypt — where government statistics say that women make up about 25 percent of the work force — may be far off. Eighty-three percent of Egyptians and 98 percent of foreigners in a survey of 1,010 women last year said they were insulted or groped on Cairo streets.
“We’re going backwards,” said Rasha Hassan, a researcher at the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, an independent civil-liberties monitoring group in Cairo that conducted the survey.
A half-dozen girls in the working-class district of Embaba practice karate at the youth center, even though it cannot afford mats.
“At least, this will help me to look confident and maybe keep bad people away,” said Nourhan Nasser Sayed, 16.
Since March, Community Times, a monthly Cairo magazine, has run testimonies from women about being harassed. In the June edition, an Egyptian said she was walking with a female friend in Maadi, an upscale southern suburb, when a man reached out from a car and grabbed her companion’s buttocks.
Fifteen sexual harassment cases have been filed since October, when a man was sentenced to three years in jail for grabbing a woman’s breast on the street. The conviction was Egypt’s first on harassment charges, Ms. Hassan said. “Before, no one would bother” going to court, she said. That case “helped encourage people who want to speak out.”
Ms. Safty recalls that women wore sundresses and miniskirts no more than two decades ago in Cairo. Now most sport long sleeves, trousers and headscarves. Even the scarves, mandated by some Muslims as a sign of piety, are no defense: Seventy-two percent of women in the survey reported wearing them when the inappropriate behavior occurred.
“Our grandmothers had more freedom than we do, without the harassment,” Ms. Safty said.
She blames the change partly on frustrated young men who lack jobs and money and get their kicks insulting women. Another influence is “wayward” Islamic teaching that defines women as sexual objects to be confined at home, she said.
Mohamed Nasef, spokesman for the government’s National Council for Women, said that reports of harassment were “exaggerated.” Anyway, “it happens everywhere,” he said.
His office is headed by Suzanne Mubarak, wife of President Hosni Mubarak, who played down incidents that emerged in November, saying “Egyptian men always respect Egyptian women.”
Down the hall from Mr. Nasef, Samah Said had a different perspective. “There’s really a regression here,” noted Ms. Said, who runs the council’s department for combating violence against women. “Gallantry is dead.”
Do Egyptian men care? Last week, a reporter approached a group of eight who were making vulgar catcalls to a woman boarding a taxi in Tahrir Square in central Cairo. Asked what they were doing, they responded that they were just admiring the lady. (Bloomberg)
Daniel Williams is a Bloomberg News columnist.