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.


Tinkerbell said...

A fine idea that could possibly be realized. However I don’t think it should compliment a law-enforced punishment.

Dedi said...

Well Nael,

That's not a bad idea at all. Actually if you remeber too, a similar thing was done in the late seventies and early eighties of the last centurey. Young men who were caught while doing
"Mo3aksa", which was much more innocent, were taken to police stations where their hair gets shaved. Ofcourse this haircut was completely unfashionable during those days.

Want more imagination?! Police soldiers in the streets, according to your idea, could carry such stamps. It may be done like instant traffic fines :).

Poldeve said...

I don't agree in general with "shaming sentences", and even more so if police officers were to be given the right to punish suspected offenders. Only judges should decide if accused persons are guilty or innocent.
But, given the severity of the sentence imposed last october on Sherif Goma'a (a truck driver who had grabbed a woman's breasts) - three years in prison with hard labor - public humiliation of some kind would be a lesser evil, and a strong deterrent.
We have suggested making the perpetrator apologize to women on TV, or clean the streets in his hometown, carrying a sign "I have harassed a woman sexually" etc.
Men who harass women sexually love to humiliate them, but they would hate to be humiliated in public.
Hard labor sentences would then be reserved for repeaters.
One more thing: here, in France, sexual harassment is punished by the law, but, strangely enough, it is more or less tolerated during "hazing", or "ragging", sessions, eventhough hazing, known as "bizutage", has been illegal since 1998.
Jean-Claude Delarue
- our website,, has a section in English.

Tayseer said...

this idea is completely similar to the same idea of ( elwasm ) , mentioned even in qor'an in one of the punishment ways ( sanosemoho 3la alkhortom) . meaning he will be marked on his nose like the animlas for his evil deeds
most appealing is real physical mark appearing even on the face.
as the injuries ,humiliation and despaire of women get rapped or even sexually hurrased is very deep scare in the soul and mind of each one passed through this very painful scene.
not to forget the ataba girl, god only knows where she is now
& how she is viewing ppl n life in general.
beleive me thats the least to do with any one who attakes ladies or rap a little girl, young lady or even old women.although it sounds very aggressive but either doin this action under drugs effect or suber it doesnt make a difference , the victims would rather kill those animals kill themselves after than be kept in silence & fear from being ashamed for the rest of their lives. may god protect us all .BR.

Poldeve said...

We have the same problem in France, especially in areas with a high proportion of immigrants, mostly from North Africa, whom our country has been unable, or unwilling, to integrate.
Young men suffer from job discrimination, police harassment etc., but of course, you are well aware of this.
Quite a few turn to violence, or to sexual harassment of women, mostly of those who want to dress like other French women. In many housing projects, public housing, a woman who wears a skirt is insulted, called a "prostitute", has to submit to "unwanted touching", or worse.
Efforts have been made at the top, and Sarkozy's government includes women of north African or African origin. But this doesn't solve the problem of mass unemployment and racial discrimination among young men. And action is also needed NOW to protect women.
For instance, several women who live in small towns in the south of France, with a high proportion of immigrants - the problem is not as well-known as in the "banlieues" around Paris - have joined my association (sos usagers) to press for prevention and punishment of sexual harassers. Some are women of foreign origin, others, like my friend "melusia" (not her real name, fear of reprisals), a former student of mine,are Europeans, and they call for immediate action.
I have told them about Sherif Gomaa's punishment, they are interested and they want the French governement to take drastic steps, like these Egyptian courts. France being invited to follow Egypt's example in that field, doesn't it sound a bit odd?