Doaa Kassem, like most Egyptian women, is used to being catcalled and grabbed at by men in the crowded streets of Cairo. The 24-year-old executive secretary is well versed in women's rights, having studied the subject in Sweden, and she is bolder than most when it comes to dealing with her harassers. "I'm brave enough to stop them and tell them [what they're doing is wrong]," she says. Sometimes she even chases them down.
Kassem may be brave, but she's under no illusions about the Egyptian government's attitude toward the issue. "The government has always denied sexual harassment [happens] in the street," she says. So when Kassem is shown the new government-issued pamphlet titled Sexual Harassment: Causes and Solutions, her eyes widen.
Last week, Egypt's Ministry of Endowments, the government division responsible for the administration of mosques, distributed the informational booklet to mosques across the country in what appears to be one of the first serious government responses to a problem that has become impossible to ignore. While Egypt's sexual-harassment epidemic has earned the country a reputation as one of the worst harassment locations in the Middle East, the government has gained notoriety among bloggers and human-rights groups for denying the very existence of a problem. Then, in 2008, the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, a Cairo-based NGO, released the first extensive report on the issue. Out of 1,010 Egyptian women surveyed, 83% said they had experienced sexual harassment. Nearly half reported being subjected to harassment on a daily basis, with abuses ranging from lewd comments to violent molestation.
The report, which also documented the widespread belief that women are largely to blame for their harassment woes, set off a debate in the Egyptian and foreign press over who is at fault and what steps if any to take. The government decided that one way to tackle the problem was to address it through the teachings of Islam. Sexual Harassment: Causes and Solutions, which was distributed to 50,000 imams nationwide, lists five causes of harassment, including weak religious awareness and mental and cultural emptiness. It also suggests ways to tackle the problem. "When the imams realize that sexual harassment is a social hazard, and they understand the reasons behind it, then they start spreading the message," says Salem Geleil, Egypt's Deputy Minister of Endowments and the booklet's editor. "Egyptians are very religious ... So when you approach a cause from a religious point of view, the response is very strong."
It's not the first educational pamphlet of its kind. In the past, the ministry has offered mosques similar guidebooks on issues ranging from terrorism to women's dress. And the solutions proposed in the booklet which range from a greater adherence to religious and family values to better law enforcement don't necessarily match the advice preached by women's groups, which focus primarily on drafting formal legislation on the matter and promoting female empowerment. Nevertheless, the ministry's decision to address the issue at all, and on such a scale, may indicate a marked shift from the government's stance just last year: that sexual harassment is the problem of just a few individuals. "It's a big change," says Rasha Hassan, the main researcher at the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR). "Of course, the government still needs to do a lot. But nowadays we can see some change in the ministries."
And there have been other indicators of change as well. Last fall, an Egyptian man was sentenced to three years in prison in the first known conviction on sexual-harassment charges in the nation's history. In November, the police initiated a harassment crackdown, arresting more than 500 men in a single day although since then, action to combat the problem has been inconsistent. Women's rights groups are urging that more women take matters into their own hands and file formal complaints a daunting task, especially as women point to police as being among their daily harassers. "There is a culture here: when someone goes to the police to file a report, it is considered scandalous, so for that reason, women stay home to avoid scandal," says Geleil.
But tackling sexual harassment also means addressing the wider issue of Egypt's social malaise. When looking for the roots of the problem, sociologists and community leaders point to a generation of underemployed, frustrated young men struggling against the backdrop of a worsening economy, in a culture that frowns upon premarital relationships and demands that a man reach a certain level of economic stability before considering marriage. "We have been discussing the issue of harassment for years, because it's an old phenomenon," says Sheik Ahmed Turky, an imam who leads a congregation of several thousand at one of Cairo's largest mosques, Masjid al-Noor. Still, he says, "the pressures of living and the costs of marriage" have added to it.
There are calls for the government to draft a law specifically aimed at curbing sexual harassment, but even that may not be enough. "I think that any law against sexual harassment in the streets or in the workplace is a good step forward," says Nadya Khalife, a Middle East expert in the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch. "However, [it] still requires the government to effectively enforce the law by creating mechanisms to ensure that women do report sexual-harassment incidents and that these incidents are dealt with appropriately."
Change may be slow to come, but in Egypt some activists are encouraged by the small signs of progress. "We can't change the culture or the people in one day," says ECWR's Hassan. "But we are trying to do a lot of things ... We try to make changes with the government first, and then the people."
Says Kassem, examining the pages of the government's first-ever sexual-harassment pamphlet: "It's a step."