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 fa├žade 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.

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