Sisters – and brothers – #talkaboutit in Egypt, Lebanon – and Sweden

Update: Follow this link for the page where all blog posts on “End sexual harassment day” where collected. More than 150 stories from men and women.

He comes off as a regular businessman – suit and briefcase – when he walks towards the western lady in downtown Cairo, holding the briefcase in front of him. Then he removes it. And reveals an open fly with you-know-what hanging out. When she starts to scream and gathers the attention of by-passers he simply puts the briefcase back in place, and innocently pretends to be eager to help. “Feen ya madame?!” – where is the scoundrel that offended you?

When I grew older and started discussing the matter of sexual harassment I realised that everyone had a story. Most relatives my age are guys. When I was a teenager the only younger women I knew in Egypt were all expats and foreigners. Therefore I wrongfully drew the conclusion that all the comments I was getting in the street had to do with me despite my semi-Egyptian genes being identified as a “slutty” foreigner. I tried dressing down in baggy T-shirts, long skirts, a bandana over my hair – that didn’t help of course. Sunglasses and a “walkman” became a standard way of trying to block the nuisance. And I learned the hard way why you should avoid crowded places or -during eid el fitr – any public places what so ever.

It wasn’t until i did my first internship in Cairo in the early 2000’s that I got to know colleagues – veiled and not – that explained that this happens to everybody. And since then the stories keep piling up.

My middle-aged friend from Europe, a long term resident of Egypt, was once walking in the street when a very proper gentleman starts walking next to her saying “I want to fuck you”, repeatedly, when she doesn’t understand what he said the first time. Her rare reaction – just cracking up with laughter at the absurdity – actually sends the confused guy off.

Or the numerous stories of guys flashing or touching themselves openly in public! This I haven’t been exposed to – yet – but so many friends, relatives, colleagues have. Cab drivers on the way home or to the airport – while driving! Guys following someone in the street – while going at it. Ladies in their 60’s having their buttocks grabbed.

Funny anecdotes when retold, but demeaning and humiliating when experienced.

How did we get here? When I ask my aunts, their cousins, they don’t recall this disrespectful behaviour when they were young, despite the fashion being sleevless or short dresses and a minority of veils (or perhaps because of that). Neither my mum when she first came here in the early 70s and moved about with her strawberry blond female friend recalls this. And why Egypt? I have visited Syria twice, once walking with a Syrian female friend in Damascus from the hammam to the hairdressers, and from there to the shopping street. Not a single comment. It could be coincidence – today’s #EndSH-blogging occurs in Lebanon as well while I personally never got these comments in Beirut either.

On the other hand, as with a lot of phenomena, it only gets worse once you have passed the tipping point and the peer pressure supports the harassing majority. One common reason for harassment in the much  quoted survey of ECWR was showing off in front of friends.

I guess that the first step, as has been the case with other topics in Egypt such as police brutality or Female genital mutilation is to start talking about it, exactly what is done today with the hash tag #endSH. It is good to see men taking a stand as well, at least on twitter. They were on the 8th of March as well, when other men are told to have been chanting “ElSha3b yurid eskaat el nisa” (the people want the downfall of the women).

Talkabout it… Exactly what women in Sweden did last year as well. Although public harassment isn’t this common in Sweden, there are still many sexual situations where women don’t speak up instead of feeling shame. This was organized in a campaign called #talkabout it (#prataomdet) – sharing stories, blogging and publishing columns in mainstream media for those many that had a platform.

Action will follow sooner or later, once you have started to #talkaboutit.

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