Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sex at First Sight

The unprecedented court verdict that handed ten rapists the death penalty for kidnapping and gang raping a woman in the governorate of Kafr El-Sheikh revived once again the debate over sexual harassment in Egypt, the reasons behind it and the best means to combat it.

A plethora of explanations are provided to account for the rise of sexual harassment rates in Egypt. Sexual frustration, economic hardships, moral decadence, and gender inequality in addition to a myriad of psychological disturbances are all plausible explanations. It is certainly hard to attribute the phenomenon to one factor only; a combination of factors came into play over the past few decades to produce the ugly trend.

A number of assumptions are imperative here.

First, breaching the private space of individuals – both men and women -- has lately become common in Egypt. Admittedly, 'private space,' which is considered to be "the region surrounding each person, or that area which a person considers their domain or territory," is habitually contravened in public places (streets, governmental offices, queues, etc).

This development could be attributed to the population boom that Egypt has seen over the past three decades. Since 1981, Egypt's population almost doubled. Living in densely-populated environments produces a 'culture of crowdedness,' which promotes certain values and demotes others. Cairo's shantytowns are crammed with people, and homes are too proximate and in some cases overlapping; privacy is a nonexistent luxury. As a result, the sacredness of people's private domains has disappeared, giving way to a communal way of living, where property, showers, clothes, etc, are shared.

However, this type of involuntary communal living is not necessarily conducive to cooperation and harmony. In the crowd, and under harsh economic and social conditions, some people tend to believe that they are at war with everybody else. After all, an abundance of human souls are competing for scarce bread and medicine. Suffice it to observe the belligerent self-seeking attitude in queues or on the streets of Cairo to learn that conflict – perhaps, even, 'the war of all against all' – has become the prime form of interaction among Egyptians.

What is prevailing is a life outlook that is individualistic and materialistic. It is individualistic because the sense of the community has diminished, and has been substituted by a self-centered, interest-driven posture. It is materialistic because, beneath the façade of popular religiosity, the spread of corruption, aggression, intolerance, and bad demeanor attests to a serious degree of moral decadence.

Secondly, it could be argued that in such an environment, women are more vulnerable to breaches of privacy than men. In male-dominated societies, women are perceived to be both weaker and inferior. And religious texts are often misconstrued to prove this assumption right. The toll of the lack of privacy has fallen primarily on women.

Thirdly, women are predominantly seen through the prism of sex. Therefore, violating their private domains would, before anything else, impinge on their bodies.

Admittedly, the efforts of the National Council of Women and the state's feverish promotion of the role of women in public life did not change the notorious, deep-seated beliefs and perceptions of women. To many Egyptian men, the simple fact that a woman could be a good mother, a caring wife, a supportive friend, or a skilled manager does not really exist. Their minds seem to be fixated on the equation between women and all sorts of sexual nuances, hence the rise in sexual abuse.

According to the Ministry of Interior, twenty thousand women are raped each year in Egypt (i.e. an average of 55 women are raped every day). Since the victims are mostly reluctant to give an account of their ordeal, the numbers are estimated to be much higher. “If the Ministry of the Interior gets 20,000 then you should multiply it by 10,” Engy Ghozlan of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) told Middle East Online last year. Sexual harassment is also on the rise. In a study conducted by ECWR in July 2007, 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreigners reported being harassed, half of which described it as a daily occurrence.

In Egypt, the general outlook towards women has changed from 'love at first sight' a few decades ago to 'sex at first sight' today. The first idiom reflected the romantic and peaceful character of Egypt in the 1940's, 50's and 60's. The second reflects a lust- driven, animalistic approach that reduces the identity and role of women to the pleasure of sex.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on March 26, 2009.

Friday, March 13, 2009

In Defense of Terrorists!

Tolerance among the contending ideologies that dominate Egypt's political and cultural milieu is scarce. The major ideologies that battle for Egypt's mind and soul are marred by their tendency not only to claim that their version of truth is overriding, but also to rule out altogether the validity of 'different' interpretations than their own. For instance, many factions within radical Islamic movements curse the society, call its members infidels and boycott it. Likewise, the liberal intelligentsia, ironically, has a long record of emulating the attitude of its chief adversary. These so-called liberals curse the organizations that endorse violence, call their members 'terrorists' and dismiss any other explanation. The circle of exclusion is therefore firmly sealed.

Scientific analysis is the foremost victim in a milieu characterized by these dogmatic stances. Likewise, rational thinking is clouded by emotions; fear, pain, pleasure, etc, are believed to be the enemies of reason.

For one of these two motivations (whether ideology or emotion), the perpetrators of the recent assault on tourists in Al-Hussein neighborhood, and similar deadly attacks against civilians, are frequently dubbed as "cowards." In war, the enemy is commonly depicted as "coward," though that might not be the case at any epistemological level. That posture either mirrors state propaganda or is a reflection of the dominance of emotions in the processing and retrieving of information.

The theory of 'mirror images' maintains that in hostile relationships, each party holds a mental picture that is diametrically opposed to the picture held by the other party; each party has a positive, virile, moral and benevolent self-image and a negative and malevolent image of the antagonist. Overconfidence in winning military battles and lack of empathy for the other party usually ensues. This kind of black-and-white thinking, research discovered, leads to the prolongation and escalation of conflicts. The Arab-Israeli conflict and the American-Soviet Cold War are two cases in point.

The adjective 'coward,' and other degrading descriptions, conform more to the contemptible communiqués of ministries of interior than they do to scientific inquiry or even common sense. By undertaking the attack, the perpetrators have, obviously, antagonized the formidable Egyptian state and risked their physical survival, or at least became vulnerable to imprisonment, plus torture and minus the possibility of a fair trial and a just verdict, hence jeopardizing their present and future welfare. In addition, they rose for what they believe in, abandoned compliance and took a daring initiative to change what they perceived as unjust or corrupt.

Condemning the violent and callous method they used and the political ideology that sanctions shedding the blood of innocent people does not, however, negate the need to discard emotional and ideologically-based readings of social phenomena.

In life, grey is the dominant color; 'black and white' assessments are illusions produced by either ideology or emotion. Accordingly, in the quest for truth, hunters of logic are constantly tempted to rummage around concepts and judgments that are taken for granted. Unlike laymen, they search for the defects of one's self and the advantages of one's adversary.

Politicians act in a different fashion than scholars, however. The rapid increase in using the ambiguous and elusive term 'terrorism' is illuminating. To eliminate dissent and garner support, terms and phrases such as 'terrorism' and 'coward terrorists' have become commonplace in today's world, but that does not necessarily make them scientific or credible. To defame internal and external opponents, 'terrorism' is certainly a convenient affront. That is precisely why it became part of the political dictionary of all parties in the conflict-ridden Middle East. It is analogous to the opportunistic, interest-driven use of the term 'mob' by authoritarian regimes in description of anti-regime protests, though -- or perhaps because -- the term implies, as one scholar pointed out, "gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice, [and] lowness of state and habit."

There is a treasure of knowledge and wisdom in the closet of social sciences that could be used to assess political and social phenomena. In Social Movement (Key Concepts in Political Science), for example, Paul Wilkinson defines a social movement as "a deliberate collective endeavor to promote change in any direction and by any means, not excluding violence, illegality, revolution or withdrawal into 'utopian' community." Neither violence nor irrationality, he adds, deprives these groups of the label 'social movement' and, of course, no mention here of the terms 'mob' or 'terrorists.'

Condemning Al-Hussein attack, and attacks against civilians in general, is an imperative moral stance. But that stance should not impinge upon reason. This nation will arguably not progress before ideologically-free and emotionally-free assessments of social and political phenomena prevail.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on March 12, 2009 under the title "Enemies of Reason."