Sunday, April 12, 2009

It’s a Shame Culture, Stamp Sexual Harassers

Sociologists consider Egyptian society a 'shame culture,' in which the status of people as perceived by others counts for almost everything. In contrast to a 'guilt society,' where people feel guilty about their wrongdoings even if they are undetected by the society, in the 'shame culture,' the opinion of the group is very relevant. Because of the widespread belief that "there is no smoke without fire," people are keen not only to 'be' innocent, but also to be perceived as such by others. Suspicion is sufficient to ruin one's reputation, even if he/she are not proven to be guilty.

For millennia, Egypt has been a hydraulic society, with most of its population relying in subsistence predominantly on the River Nile. Egypt is a huge desert, except for the banks of the Nile and the tightly-packed Delta region and this is where life could have been sustained. Until modernity, which brought massive immigration to cities, the village has constituted the prime unit of Egypt's society.

By virtue of immigration from the countryside to the city, the ethos of village life has permeated urban life, whether in values, mentality or language. In Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? Changes in Egyptian Society from 1950 to the Present, prominent thinker Galal Amin provides several examples of that infiltration.

The term 'Rayyis' (commander or leader) is traditionally used to refer to craftsmen, but has been frequently used in modern times in reference to the Egyptian President. Men salute by kissing each other's cheeks, even if they have just departed, is another village ritual that has become prevalent in the city.

In the some 5,000 villages of Egypt, the individual is subservient to the needs and wants of the group. Family and clan matters become, automatically, of direct concern to the individual and mutual interdependence in daily life and business matters is the norm. Conformity thus is imperative. Describing life in the countryside, pedagogy expert Hamed Ammar writes that the compelling moral in the village is that "the individual, to be in line with the group, should express group sympathy; if the group is angry, he should be angry, if it is insulted, he must feel that he is insulted."

In other words, group opinion is not only crucial, but also binding. In the case of deviation, punishment through humiliation is the group's instrument in exercising control and eliminating dissent. Being shamed by the group is thus avoided at all costs. A man's reputation is his Achilles heel; he would go to great lengths to preserve it.

That is why Egyptians, when asked about their life ambitions, say that they want nothing from life but 'elsatr' (literally, cover or protection). In effect, what is sought is protection from poverty, from being scandalized, from losing face in community.

Having said that, and in light of the growing rates of sexual harassment in Egyptian society, one can devise a remedy that takes advantage of that preoccupation with one's image in the eyes of the community. Stripping harassers of dignity and respect – or 'blackening their face' as the Egyptian expression goes – could frighten them and dissuade them from committing these disgraceful acts.

That could be effectively done by stamping sexual harassers on their face with an ink that leaves no permanent marks, quite similar to the blue ink in which voters dip their fingers to avoid double voting. The effect of that ink could last for days or weeks, depending on technical feasibility and the judgment of legislators. It is reasonable to believe that, technically speaking, the mass production of that ink at low costs is not impossible.

To avoid defamation in the eyes of neighbors, work colleagues, relatives and the society at large, stamped harassers may well choose to stay at home until the effect of the ink withers away. This could be a very powerful deterrent.

Theorizing about the idea is certainly much easier than its actual implementation. A long list of legal and operational considerations should be carefully checked before enforcement.

But the idea is still worth consideration. The English writer Arthur Clarke says: "new ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can't be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along." The initial reaction might not necessarily be the final one.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on April 9, 2009.