Since the first days of the Egyptian revolution, sexual harassment was a focus for Western media. Although the issue is important, it was dismissed and denied for a long time in Egypt. Yet a lot has happened since last year, with more activism and work being done in that regard. Egypt finally acknowledges the existence of this phenomenon and the denial of the state is no longer effective as women go on TV and narrate their stories as victims of harassment or rape.
When it comes to Egyptian women, the state often blames them for the sexual violence. They are asked to fit the mold of an “ideal” woman, one removed from public and political spaces. When football Ultras were protesting against the military junta, they segregated women from men and commanded women not to smoke cigarettes. Those football Ultras, who are foolishly called “the revolutionary army,” represent just one of the macho faces of society.
With foreign women living in and visiting Egypt, the equation differs to some extent. Egypt is now not only promoted as a country that provides zero security for tourists, but also as a misogynist space. The 99 percent figure keeps coming up in the conversation on sexual harassment in Egyptian streets. This is a street-phenomenon that keeps growing as the state ignores it and blames it on women. It is also a complicated performance of masculinity.
A few days ago, a tweet from journalist Anita McNaught was shared by Egyptian men, among others. She did not provide much details, but stated:
“@anitamcnaught: Leaving #Egypt after 2 months. The solidarity & kindness of women a credit to the nation. The vile sexual harassment by its men a disgrace.”
The statement hit me in the face for its problematic logic. Going through the experience of sexual harassment and feeling the insecurity of standing vulnerable in public space is painful and needs to be dealt with considerately. That being said, narratives and discussions of sexual violence should not pass unquestioned out of sympathy and solidarity with the victim. The way she understands sexual harassment and bases her conclusion on the two genders is not something to ignore.
To show Egyptian women in this pure heroic image is not a thing to celebrate. In the Western imagination, Egyptian/Arab/Muslim women are always glorious because they have put up with those violent, dominant, controlling men. The sympathy is already there and easily offered in any situation.
On the other hand, Egyptian men who are not assaulters are viewed as exceptional, educated, or “good” men. The Egyptian man as an assaulter becomes the representation; the front face of a whole “national gender.” The thought of “Egyptian men” and “Egyptian women” is really ridiculous: how incidents of sexual harassment can create an image for millions of Egyptian men; how sexual harassment has become the “essence” of an invented idea called “Egyptian men.”
The US has one of the highest rates of rape. Actually, up to 20 percentof American women have been raped. This is in a country that has laws against sexual violence and many campaigns to push women to report sexual violence. However, we do not hear about American men being a “disgrace” for their nation, and surely, the US is never listed in any of those silly indexes on “the most dangerous places for women.” If a Western woman is a victim of sexual violence in an Arab country that does not legitimize a statement against Egyptian men that hyper-sexualizes and portrays them as sexually violent.