Egyptian women have something to celebrate: yesterday the first man in Egyptian history was sentenced to jail for sexual harassment. And not just any sentence: three years in jail with hard labor in addition to an LE 5,001 fine (approximately $1,000). An unexpected, but very welcome sentence.
27-year-old filmmaker Noha Rushdie Saleh was groped last June by 28-year-old van driver Sharif Gomaa as he drove alongside her, who grabbed her breasts so forcefully she fell.
But Noha didn’t ‘let it go’ as so many Egyptian women do—the most recent Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) survey says that only 2.4% of the 1010 women surveyed who experience sexual harassment filed reports of the incident.
Instead, as Noha recounts in a great interview with the weekly Egyptian independent Al-Yom Al-Sabe’ (The Seventh Day, unfortunately not available in English), she kicked up a fuss by holding on to the van’s side mirror before Gomaa could drive off. An hour later she managed to drag him into the police station with the help of one passerby, to the disapproval of many onlookers, some who told her it was her fault for what she was wearing (a baggy sports outfit). The police refused at first to listen to her, and advised her to accept the driver’s apology to avoid “scandal.”
Sexual harassment in Egypt and many other countries, as we’ve discussed many times here on MMW, is often perceived to be the fault of the woman—that she someone ‘wanted it’ or provoked it. I won’t go into an analysis of the Egyptian psyche when it comes to harassment here, and instead offer you this great post which analyzes the reactions of the onlookers in Noha’s case.
The sentence is believed to have been so harsh to set an example. Egyptian law does not address the issue of sexual harassment, though it does address Hatk el ‘ard, proved sexual assault, which carries a maximum one year jail sentence and an LE 100 ($20) fine, in Article 306 of the Penal Law.
Gomaa’s sentence, according to an ECWR press release:
“Will restore confidence in the legal system’s ability to defend women subjected to such crimes, in every step of the process – from filing police reports, to investigation, to sentencing. [It] sends a message to all segments of Egyptian society that sexual harassment is a crime and will not be tolerated. The sentence will also encourage participation in the dialogue on developing a legal definition of sexual harassment and the need to formulate laws criminalizing it in the Egyptian Penal Code. The success of the victim in this case will encourage others to report incidences of sexual harassment. For potential harassers, the sentence will deter them from abusing women’s rights to personal safety and freedom from sexual harassment.”
According to Al-Masry Al-Youm, (The Egyptian Today), a daily independent Egyptian newspaper:
“The victim asked that the session be made public since it was an issue of ‘public opinion.’ The defense refused, calling the case ‘trivial.’ The court decided to keep the session private, in order to prevent ‘tarnishing public modesty’ with the phrases mentioned in the harassment incident and to preserve public morals.”
I think I barfed a little there. And a bit more when I see how they contrast the victim’s mother as “wearing her abaya and veil,” with Noha’s “half-sleeved jeans shirt and blue jeans.” (pictured right)
The ruling was covered in both international and local press as well as all over the blogsphere. But what I found to be very revealing was reading the hundreds of comments on local press websites, and seeing what the public really thinks.
Of course, a lot of comments were happy for Noha, and applauded her actions. I thought it was doubly interesting to see that a lot of men out there were also applauding her, given that a large percentage of Egyptian men (and this is not just generalizing, statistics confirm this) think there’s nothing wrong with sexual harassment. Some men were even critiquing not only the harasser but also the police men who did nothing to help Noha.
But there were also many troubling comments, especially the ones that weren’t openly hostile, but the ones agreeing that the man was at fault, but saying so was Noha. Here’s a very small selection (translated):
“Just like terrorists in Afghanistan are victims of their communities, so are sexual harassers. With what logic do we take a person into account for stealing when their community doesn’t provide food?” Mounir Nabil (Facebook).
“Even though I do not support any rape or harassment of any women I still put part of the responsibility on women as a result of their lack of modesty in dress and their walk, and not considering the circumstances youth go through in that there are no jobs for marriage. Look at university students wearing T-shirts that show half their naked stomachs. Does this mesh with out traditions and religion?” An Egyptian Citizen. (Al-Masry Al-Youm).
“An unfair ruling. Now any woman any man talks to will say he’s harassing me” Amir (Al-Masry Al-Youm).
“Cover yourself with the hijab. I don’t deny that what happened to you was sad in a community that has lost its values and manners but you as you appear in your picture with hair uncovered are one of the factors that helped the person harass you. Have we heard of harassment of a covered woman? Of course not […] So cover yourself before you live in the role of the hero who showcased her body so the misguided wolves devoured her.” Mahmoud Abo El-Kheir. (Al-Yom Al-Sabe’).
“Everyone must respect themselves. The man should have been executed. But just like the judge punished the man he should have punished the woman because just like all the other girls in the Egyptian streets she was wearing scandalous clothing. I hope we fix the problem of women’s dress before we fix sexual harassment.” Anonymous (Al-Masry Al-Youm).
“You aren’t brave. You exploited the circumstances so you could be a media entry where satellite [channels] could speak about you. You are looking for fame and found out that being a producer was a long way so this was your chance. If there is harassment in the society then you are a reason because I do not see in you shyness and the religious girl. […] One of your interviewers [asked you] how were you harassed? You said: “He held me from my breasts!!!” Did you have to clarify completely? Did the society forget what sexual harassment was? But in this way you became famous. May God guide you […] It is impossible for a veiled women who sticks to manners to be harassed. Fathy Mahmoud Morsy. (Al-Yom Al-Sabe’).
“I swear to God if I was the judge I would have said [Gomaa] was innocent and given him a reward. Those girls are a bunch of human rights animals. A group of women who leave their husbands and flick through satellite channels. [They] leave their husbands [alone]. What can they do except harass another woman? I swear to god this is an unfaaaaaaaaaaaaaaair ruling.” Khalifa Al-Zaatary (Al-Masry Al-Youm).
“Is the problem with the youth in this country or the scandalous naked clothing which make men desire women?” Sayed. (Al-Masry Al-Youm).
Sigh. To repeat, for the 1000th time: Veiled women are harassed just as much as unveiled women do. In Egypt, a country where over 80% of the women are veiled, 83% of women are harassed. Harassment occurs for a multitude of reasons, not because of dress.
I’ll end with one quote I particularly liked:
” ‘And the defendant’s mother sat wearing her abaya and veil next to his brother, crying and saying her son is innocent and wouldn’t do such things.’ [quoting Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper]. I wish just once one mother of one of you of this country would admit she wasn’t able to raise [her kids] instead of them throwing their [misdeeds] on others and saying we didn’t do anything.” Amina Zaki (Facebook).
So true. I believe the way you are raised has as much of an impact on you as does your environment. If men in Egypt are raised to understand that women are equal and deserve respect, a lot less women would be harassed. But as long as the mentality persists that the women are to blame, we will remain as we are. Punishing the harasser is a great step, but it’s not what’s most important: we need to stop men from harassing women in the first place.