Sexual Harassment On Rise In Egypt

Despite its 18 million inhabitants, Cairo has long been considered one of the safer mega-cities in the world. But there is one troubling exception — the sexual harassment of women. Once largely verbal, it has grown increasingly physical, and the authorities have been slow to address it.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

COHEN: First, to Cairo. Home to 18 million people, Cairo has long been considered one of the safer mega-cities in the world with one troubling exception, the sexual harassment of women. It's become increasingly physical. The authorities had been slow to address it.

BRAND: Finally, last year, a first. An Egyptian court convicted a man of sexual harassment. Women's rights advocates are cautiously hopeful now. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON: Downtown Cairo by evening gives the impression of barely organized chaos, but not dangerously so unless you count crossing the street against the never-ending traffic.

(Soundbite of moving truck)

KENYON: Cairenes have long boasted of how safe their city is. And for men, that may be true. But when a reporter starts asking women what it's like for them, it takes no time at all for the horror stories to emerge. Twenty-three-year-old Ranyu Waket(ph), a slender woman in modest dress, including an Islamic headscarf, says she was taught that the veil would protect her in public. But now she knows better.

Ms. RANYU WAKET: (Through Translator) Forget it. A woman is still harassed. It doesn't matter if she is veiled or not, even if her face is covered. When I first got harassed, I was scared and would cry because it was new to me. Now, I can yell, but there isn't much more that I can do.

KENYON: Nearby, two teenagers slouch against a building, eyeing the passing traffic. Seventeen-year-old Mustafa says he's studying law. In what critics call typical blame-the-victim fashion, Mustafa says women get harassed because they're dressed provocatively. But a survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights found more than 80 percent of Egyptian women reporting harassment regardless of how they dressed. Mustafa considers this but can't explain it.

Mr. MUSTAFA: (Through Translator) Then, he's just like that. It means he's just weak in that area.

KENYON: Harassment isn't new here, but what shocked Egyptians were mob-related incidents that seem to explode at random from verbal harassment to full-on sexual assault.

(Soundbite of a YouTube video)

KENYON: This 2006 video posted on YouTube by an Egyptian blogger shows three men arm in arm attempting to keep a mob of boys and men out of a store while terrified women huddled inside. Suddenly, a young woman lurches in and falls to the floor. It appears that her top has been ripped off completely.

There were other such incidents. An amateur video showed policemen doing little or nothing. It was in this atmosphere that a young woman named Nuha Rushti(ph) was walking near her house when a passing driver reached out his window and grabbed her chest. Her attorney, Zayyid Allalaymi(ph), says instead of suffering in silence, as many Egyptian women do, Rushti flagged down another car, chased the offender down, and ignoring the offers of bystanders to beat the man up, dragged him off to a police station.

Mr. ZAYYID ALLALAYMI (Lawyer): (Through Translator) She went to the police. They basically told her the same way. We'll rough him up a little and send him on his way, and she said no. And if anyone lays a hand on him, I'm going to report that person as well. I want to take my rights through the law. So they said finally, why don't we call your dad and see what he says about this. And her father came and said, no, I also want to take this through the law system.

KENYON: Having achieved this improbable success, Rushti and Allalaymi were faced with a criminal code that doesn't mention sexual harassment. There are, however, statutes punishing the abuse of women, including improper touching, which somewhat bizarrely carries the same penalty as sodomizing a woman. Attorneys say Rushti was fortunate to appear before a judge who was happy to make an example of the offender and sentenced the man to three years in jail.

Since then, police have been arresting suspected harassers, and other cases have been brought. In an interview, First Lady Suzanne Mubarak deplored the coverage of sexual harassment, saying it didn't really happen that often. Former Member of Parliament Mona Makram Ebeid says if there is any newfound sensitivity within the government, she doubts it's towards women's rights.

Ms. MONA MAKRAM EBEID (Former Member, Egyptian Parliament): Why the government, I think, has woken up is because it is affecting tourism. A lot of foreign women tourists have complained, whereas before it was never a problem to walk in the streets even, you know, at midnight in the streets of Egypt.

KENYON: There are now three proposed laws criminalizing sexual harassment before the Parliament, but Ebeid and others doubt they'll pass any time soon. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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