If there ever was a case that demonstrated the sheer senselessness of victim-blaming in sexual harassment, it is that of Egypt. In a recently released video, in which a mob at Cairo University surrounds and hurls profanities at a female student, it is not the girl’s attire, nor the young men’s response, nor even the respected institution where the scene occurred that is striking. It is the fact that, for many, this will be the first they have heard of what can unquestionably be considered a national crisis, hopelessly sidelined following recent political upheavals.
In spite of the Egyptian women’s movement in the early twentieth century, which involved some rejection of notions of modesty regarding women’s dress, the majority of female students in Egypt still wear the hijab. Some have adopted the niqab [a veil covering the face] or the abaya [a long, loose cloak]. How, then, to account for the fact those according to a recent UN survey, over 99 per cent of Egyptian women and girls have still suffered sexual harassment?
It is fundamentally absurd to suggest that, in any political climate including our own, a woman’s clothing singles her out for abuse. To do so is to confuse the symptom with the disease. In Egypt, the frequency of such assaults – and they are assaults, however you look at them – likely has more to do with male students’ social conditioning and inadequate education. There are no laws against sexual harassment, hence, largely, no repercussions. Strikingly, the majority of data on the topic comes from NGOs and international organizations, for the simple reason that many women do not report such events to the police for fear of further abuse.
My own brief experience as a female student in Alexandria was peppered with such encounters, from the innocuous – waking up on a train to find your hair being stroked, catcalls in the streets – to the traumatic. Girls from our cohort were followed home, groped, and exposed at by men in the street, without provocation and with alarming regularity. After two separate events involving our doormen, both of whom had daughters my age, I was forced to consider moving to another apartment block where getting into the lift might prove less of a hazard. Despite doubtless drawing further attention for the colour of our skin, I still believe we were the lucky ones: with well connected Egyptian friends, the money to take taxis everywhere and the safety of the school, our experience was probably a relatively sheltered one. And yes. We, too, were "covered up".
The above should not be construed as a sneering attack on a foreign culture. The behaviour of these men is not the norm, and reflects appallingly on those not involved. Nevertheless, some things are patently unacceptable no matter what lens they are viewed through; sexual violence against women, shockingly still perpetrated within the student community, is one of them.