Being a woman in a third world country is very difficult. Being a woman in a Muslim country is not only difficult but dangerous as well. Being a woman in a Muslim country where fundamentalists are on the rise is perhaps the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being.
This is my third article on Muslim Sexual Harassment and will focus on Egypt.
On Monday (1 Nov 2010) CNN published Why is sexual harassment in Egypt so rampant? (1) And noted: "According to a 2008 survey of 1,010 women conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women's rights, 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed."
One of the reasons for the increased disrespect of women in the past 30 years in Egypt can be blamed on the spread of Saudi interpretations of Islam from workers returning from the Gulf.
An article from the NY Times last August disputes the oft-repeated lie that Muslim women wear the veil because they choose to.
NY Times, 10 Aug 2010, What the Head Scarf Means, When Everyone Wears One
Zeinab Magdy, 21, started wearing the veil when she was a senior in high school. “Up until today I really don’t know why I put it on,” she said. “But a lot of it was peer pressure. A lot of people were starting to wear it; it felt like fitting in or belonging.”
She cried profusely the first day she wore it because halfway through the day she wanted to take it off, but felt trapped.
Fearing the social stigma associated with taking off the veil, Ms. Magdy continued to cover her hair for two and a half years, until she summoned the courage to reverse her decision halfway through college. She had joined a creative writing class, and by beginning to discover what she loved to do, she felt more sure of who she wanted to be.
The veil was simply not a part of it, she admits. “I remember the sensation of the air in my hair,” she recalled with a twinkle in her eye.
Ms. Magdy, like others in her social stratum, was lucky to be able to choose relatively freely. Some young women who come from a less privileged or less educated background or live in more conservative neighborhoods and cities are a lot more bound by tradition. They do not have the luxury to be different.
Then there is the story of Marwa Muhammad, 26, a manicurist in a hair salon who has worn the veil for nine years:
... she removes the veil for a stretch of time when she goes to the beach in Alexandria every summer, where no one would be able to recognize — or judge — her. “I’m wearing it because I can’t walk in the street without it,” Ms. Muhammad said. “I’m wearing it, but it’s as if I’m not.”
In 1958 no Egyptian women wore the veil (2) and now, according to the NY Times the veil is "worn by more than 89 percent of Egyptian women from the ages of 15 to 29." About 5% in the same age group wear the niqab.
Last year, the Egyptian government tried to ban the wearing of the niqab on college campuses and at university exams, but sadly were overturned.
The casual visitor to Egypt will look at all the women in Egypt wearing the veil and honestly believe they all choose to do so voluntarily. In another decade, unless something drastic happens in Egyptian law to allow them to ban the niqab in all public life, it will grow to 50% or more. Eventually all Egyptian women will be wearing burqas.
As they accept their inferior role in society, as their faces slowly disappear from public view, so too will respect for their femininity and value as a human being.
I started this series of articles to investigate country by country a claim made by a reader that women choose to wear the hijab in Muslim countries and that Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are the only countries that enforce a dress code. For the premier article please read Muslim Sexual Harassment in the Jordan.
CNN Inside the Middle East, Why is sexual harassment in Egypt so rampant?
Young, old, foreign, Egyptian, poor, middleclass, or wealthy, it doesn't matter. Dressed in hijab, niqab, or western wear, it doesn't matter.
If you are a woman living in Cairo, chances are you have been sexually harassed. It happens on the streets, on crowded buses, in the workplace, in schools, and even in a doctor's office.
According to a 2008 survey of 1,010 women conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women's rights, 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed.
Why is sexual harassment in Egypt so rampant? There could be any number of reasons, but many point to disregard for human rights.
Some also blame the spread of more conservative interpretations of Islam from the Gulf over the past 30 years. They say such interpretations demand more restrictive roles for women and condemn women who step outside of those prescribed roles.
"Four million Egyptians went to the Gulf," el Komsan says. "They returned with oil money, and oil culture, which is not very open, related to the status of women. All of this changed the original culture of the Egyptian," she adds, "which included high respect for women.”
"The concept of respect for some reason doesn't exist anymore," says Sara, a young Egyptian activist. "I think Egypt has lived a very long time in denial. Something happened in Egyptian society in the last 30 or 40 years. It feels like the whole social diagram has collapsed."
Downtown Cairo is one of these hotspots. In 2008, during the Eid holiday, which marks the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, gangs of young men went on a rampage, groping women and, in some cases, ripping off womens' shirts.
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 26 Jan 1958 - Page 15