An interesting article to add to the hijab debate…

Veils fuel harassment in Egypt, some say

CAIRO – In a Muslim country where the numbers of women wearing the veil are rising, and so – by most accounts – are incidents of groping and catcalls in the streets, the message in ads circulating anonymously in e-mails here in Egypt is clear:

“A veil to protect, or eyes will molest,” one warns.

The words sit over two illustrations, one comparing a veiled woman, her hair and neck covered in the manner known to Muslims as hijab, to a wrapped candy, untouched and pure.

The other picture shows an unveiled woman, hair flying wildly and hip jutting, next to a candy that has had its wrapper removed and is now covered in flies.

No group has claimed responsibility for the online ads, which so far have drawn little attention outside Egyptian blogs.

But the campaign comes at a time of converging debate on two keenly felt issues in Egypt: the growing social pressure on Muslim women to veil themselves and the rising incidence of sexual harassment of women by strangers.

Surprisingly, some Egyptian women say their veils don’t protect against harassment, as the ads argue, but fuel it. A survey released this summer supports the view.

“These guys are animals. If they saw a female dog, they would harass it,” Hind Sayed, 20, a sidewalk vendor in Cairo’s Mohandisseen district, said, staring coldly at a knot of male vendors who stood grinning a few feet from her.

In accord with her interpretation of Islamic law, which says women should dress modestly, Sayed wore a flowing black robe and black veil. They covered all but her hands and her pale face with its drawn-on, expressive eyebrows.

Still, Sayed said, she daily endures suggestive comments from male customers and fellow vendors.

“I think a woman who wears hijab can be more provocative to them,” Sayed said. “The more covered up you are, the more interesting you are to them.”

Zuhair Mohammed, 60, a shopper on the same street who stopped wearing the traditional covering long ago, agreed: “I feel like with the hijab, it makes them wonder, ‘What are you hiding underneath?’ ”

Mona Eltahawy, 41, an Egyptian social commentator who now lives, unveiled, in the United States, said she was harassed “countless times” while wearing hijab for nine years in Egypt. Eltahawy has concluded that the increase in veiling has contributed somehow to the increase in harassment.

“The more women veil the less men learn to behave as decent and civilized members of society,” Eltahawy wrote in an interview via Facebook. “And the more women are harassed, the more they veil, thinking it will ‘protect’ them.”

Female travelers consider Egypt one of the worst countries in the world for harassment on the streets – second only to Afghanistan, where the Taliban forced all women behind the veil and into seclusion in their homes.

The United States and Britain both warn female visitors in travel advisories of possible unwanted attention or sexual attacks in Egypt.

This summer, Egyptian lawmakers called Britain’s advisory a slur; Britain responded that more female British tourists were harassed, assaulted, and raped, while in Egypt than in any other country.

A new survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights makes harassment on the streets appear not a risk but a virtual certainty: 98 percent of the foreign women and 83 percent of the Egyptian women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed in the country.

About half of all the women said they were harassed daily on the streets. Foreign women identified Egyptian policemen and other security officials as the most frequent harassers.

The survey polled 2,020 Egyptian men and women and 109 non-Egyptian women.

Two-thirds of the Egyptian men surveyed admitted to harassing women, in actions ranging from staring openly at their bodies, shouting explicit comments, touching the women, or exposing themselves.


12 responses to “An interesting article to add to the hijab debate…

  1. I would have to add Yemen to the list of ogling men…There the full regalia of abaya, scarf, niqab, gloves, sock and shoes all in black is an explicit invitation…and since 99% of the women wear it…it’s duck season…which is exactly what women do…they are completely covered and they also have to duck and hide…

    Don’t take a taxi by yourself in Sana’a- or you’ll think you were a walking advertisement for Playboy! -that is how bad it can get…

    Could it be the water; the food men drink that gives this metabolic need to harass women? Ya Allah they are in Muslim countries acting like animals…Then of course they blame it on the outside world…But I have lived most of my life outside Muslim countries and I don’t ever fear getting into a taxi, riding the train, getting into an elevator with other men…but the moment I go to a Muslim country I dread going outside unless its with my husband and even that doesn’t stop men!

    Why? Because we are more enticing covered than uncovered? Now there is a turn for the worse, if ever I’ve heard one…Or do we teach them as children to do this in adulthood? Those advertisements in Egypt are targeting women- but I haven’t heard of the same being advertised to men…

    “Men Lower thy Eyes, Or have Them Plucked out”

  2. ASA Inal,

    Seriously, I wonder if the rigid, strict seperation of men and women causes some of these men to behave that way. I personally believe that Islam allows for a healthy interaction between men and women. However, some Muslims want men and women to be completely seperated; no talking (not even a salaam), no working together (in a respectful manner), no courting, NOTHING. I’ve also heard that it’s difficult for many Egyptian men to get married because of the excessive Mahr requirements and expensive wedding expectations placed on them by their families and society.

    What’s amazing to me is that some Muslims believe America is “the great Shaitan” but in many Muslim countries women have no protection against groping and other sexual attacks. I remember a couple years back there was a story in the news where groups of Egyptian men were ripping the clothing off of any woman they happened upon and groping them. (It was right after Ramadan too!)

    May Allah save us!

  3. My mother is 59 years old, she went on a trip with my Aunt (her sister) last summer and they were both harassed on the streets. My mother is nearly a senior citizen, and she wears a traditional veil, so does my Aunt. She told us she heard the most vulgar comments from the men. She was never once sexually harassed in North America or anywhere else (and she’s gone to alot of places). She told us that when she went to Egypt 20 years ago, it was never this bad. This is unacceptable. My mother doesn’t want my sisters and I to go to Egypt, she’s afraid if this is the treatment an elderly women received what about the young girls.

    Let’s be clear, sexual harassment and assualt is a problem every community faces. However, the Egyptian community has waited until the problem has raised new lows before dealing with it.

    Their process of solving the problem through the veil is offensive to me as women, as a Muslim, as a human being, and it also a lazy idea. Maybe if they legislated sexual harassment or assualt laws and enforced them, perhaps the problem would not have been this great. Beside hasn’t ther lazy idea blown up in there face already, most women are already veiled and they still face harassment.

    And those online ads of women as Candy would NEVER fly here. lol

    Interesting is to say the least girl. lol.

  4. This kind of thinking is ridiculous – the way a woman dresses does not justify a man’s lack of adhab. Let’s say, **ONLY for the sake of argument**, that her not wearing hijab is a sin (I’m not saying this is true). But does this then excuse the catcalls and other forms of abuse (including fondling) that occurs? Can any of those men say, “Oh, Allah – I did it for Your Sake because I thought it would be pleasing to you.” Please – people should check themselves and worry less about forcing others to wrap up.

  5. Assalaamualaikum-

    I think the premise of the article falters in it’s over emphasis on the veil. Mona Elthawy’s quote is also strange. Its not the veils that cause the harassment it is the promotion of a culture of female sexual objectification.

    Yet I also think a interpretation of the veil (as the sole barrier for male & female modesty) is to blame. We as Muslims expect a piece of clothing to work magic when a culture has completely misogynistic ideas and unjust notions about women’s sexuality.

    I also think that it is the lack of investment in advocating male modesty and normalizing a shaming attitude towards men who do not give women their rights to walk the streets unmolested.

    Unfortunately, I grew up around a lot of sexual harassment here in the United States. From butt smacking to cat calling to desire turned to aggressive anger when a guy is turned down I’ve seen it all!

    Yet it is so normalized that it becomes the stuff of comedy (look how hooting construction workers became the punchline for jokes and tv ads). I also remember the whole Puerto Rican Day parade fiasco years back.

    My husband is a counselor in a high school and believe me there is so much sexual harassment and physical aggression between the boys and girl. My husband has had to intervene because of boys sexually touching girls, talking about body parts and being violent with them like they are fighting another boy. AND they do it to older female teachers and aides in the building.

    I am pointing to the United States not to shrug off Egypt’s problems and the ubiquitous obsession with Muslim women’s sexuality in our communities-I just wonder how much we underplay what goes on right under our noses because it is so much a part of our culture.

  6. This Washington Post article addresses a serious problem within this particular city (and maybe elsewhere). I spent time in Cairo studying Arabic in 2007. My wife and I traveled with MSA members from college. The sisters on the trip did not have an enjoyable time in Cairo…to say the least. One of their major concerns was the HARASSMENT they received by the some of the Muslim men. I would often listen to some very explicit stories of taxi drivers exposing themselves, brothers touching them, or men suggesting inappropriate things to Muslim females.

    As we began to learn more about Egyptian culture, we learned that there are way too many SINGLE brothers in Cario. I found myself asking why? Why don’t they just get married? If it were only that easy for the average Egyptian brother.

    I may be off on a few details but generally this is what I find the problem to be:

    Most Egyptian men are not married because in Egyptian culture the men often have to provide large dowries consisting of (for example) a FURNISHED apartment, money, rings, etc. Not only that, they often have to be very much “accepted” by the bride’s family. Most Egyptian men are not that financially stable in a city who’s population and cost of living mirrors that of NYC for the average Egyptian man.

    This is in no way an excuse for the above described behavior. However, a society of Muslims who value family as much as they do, Cairo and much of Egypt should really look at the problems arising within their cities and come up with Islamic solutions. The hijab is more than an article of clothing (which is never referred to as such in the Qur’an), it serves a serious purpose. WE should, at the very least, respect modesty.

  7. I lived in Yemen and it is like INAL described it. There is not one single cause but i believe it stems from a culture that views women sexually only. A woman from a young age is judged only through her sexuality. Excessive segregation and unatural sexual repression adds to the problem.

    In Egypt the problem is not largely Mahr and expensive weddings but basic things such as having an apartment and being able to furnish it. Weddings are ofcouse necessary and part of the culture.

  8. ASA to all:

    There is one thought that keeps recurring in me- that of a conversation with a non-Muslim who was not attacking Islam; but did point out something that gives me pause.

    Will we end up like the Victorians of England? Their strict social rules created a few major problems – sexual perversity and depravity; a prostitution boom; hysterical and even maniacal citizens; and a whole host of diseases, among other things whose legacy is still felt today…

    Under the facade of total respectability the Victorians were sexual fiends and hysterical women according to Freud…

    What will it take to stop this- Hijab or veiling is definitely not the end all solution… and how do we normalize the view of a woman’s place in society away from the only place she is given? Or in some cases where she has no place- St Augustine wrote that women were the scourge of the Earth and should be killed at birth- of course he wasn’t accounting for the need of women to give birth to men…

    In Yemen it seems more often than not, judging by the child marriages (of boys and girls)- celibacy is not the issue…

    In Pakistan and Afghanistan (the last especially) the mere sight of a woman in burqa can cause deadly consequences…

    Or like a town in India where the baby girls are killed at birth and the men have to bring women from outside to be able to marry…

    So what is the root cause of such hatred, loathing, and disregard?

    And what would happen to a society of men – go extinct pretty quickly–The Children of Men revisited?

    I despair of seeing a solution in my lifetime, because as the years pass things get worse- and no amount of money or education seems to stop this upward trend…

  9. Assalam-alaikam Sister Samah,
    A good post and intriguing comments.

    I was interested to note your comment:
    “What’s amazing to me is that some Muslims believe America is “the great Shaitan” but in many Muslim countries women have no protection against groping and other sexual attacks”

    Here in the UK I have never had any trouble and people treat me with a lot of respect because of my hijab and abaya. I can tell that some guys are curious/attracted because I cover, but they have never bothered me – here the message seems to be that hijab means don’t touch.

    My experience in Pakistan has been different. Staring, comments, songs and on one occasion being grabbed (he’ll never do that to anyone again after my husband’s little lesson).

    But unlike in Arab countries there is no marriage issue. The woman’s family pay for the wedding, the dowry, everything, having a son get married is like hitting a jackpot (cash, furniture, jewellery and clothes for the grooms family), so what’s their excuse then?

    I don’t agree that the wearing of hijab should be a condition for wome to be safe from harrassment
    because I strongly believe that every woman has the right to be free from sexual harrassment regardless of what they wear. Men have sense and self-control, even if some choose not to exercise it. Many non-Muslim friends have expressed indignation at the “hijab saves you from harrassment” philosophy and I have had to explain that first and foremost its a command from God.

    The answer – I am not sure, except we have to educate our sons to respect women and perhaps learn to defend ourselves? In Pakistan the pervo’s live in perpetual fear of women like my aunty who has been known to take off her shoe and beat the heck out of a guy for touching her.

  10. Salaam Alaikum,

    That was a rather interesting article?

    “Surprisingly, some Egyptian women say their veils don’t protect against harassment, as the ads argue, but fuel it. A survey released this summer supports the view.”


    Modesty is a commandment in all three Abrahamic revelations; a command is an act of worship or an act of submission to the Almighty.

    If an individual is wearing hijab for any other reason the problem is not our Master or the command to be modest (and we know the word Modest is subject to various interpretations and debates) the problem is their intention.

    I’m totally convinced I’m not reading the same Qur’an…

    The act of worship of wearing hijab is a totally different issue to me than a group of people who lack home training, and socialization. I do not understand why the two issues are being intertwined when worship something that is SACRED is being considered along with sexually perverted behavior something that is PROFANE?

    @ Inal

    “St Augustine wrote that women were the scourge of the Earth and should be killed at birth- of course he wasn’t accounting for the need of women to give birth to men…”

    May I ask what book you read this in? Was this an English transliteration of his confessions or the one in Latin or Greek? I’ve never herd this before in my life. I personally do not believe Augustine wrote such considering the vow of poverty, and suffering to the degree that he literally was a servant to his people and died as a result of serving them-men and women.

    Mary Ann

  11. It’s not the veils that cause the harassment it is the promotion of a culture of female sexual objectification. Baitunjamil

    Bingo! Nail it on the head! : )

    We as Muslims expect a piece of clothing to work magic when a culture has completely misogynistic ideas and unjust notions about women’s sexuality. Baitunjamil

    You go girl! : )

    I also think that it is the lack of investment in advocating male modesty and normalizing a shaming attitude towards men who do not give women their rights to walk the streets unmolested. Baitunjamil

    Go head with ya bad self! : )

  12. Hijab doesn’t spur harassment, I think that premise is really off based. But because hijab is so normalized now, where almost all Muslim women in Egypt wear it, they may assume a woman who doesn’t wear it is non-practicing (and therefore easy), Christian (and therefore easy), or foreign (and therefore easy).

    I’ve been living in Egypt for 7 months and I’ve worn hijab so I know first hand that it doesn’t protect you from harassment. Not even niqab keeps women from getting bothered. If you walk down on Abbass al Akkad street wearing an all Black abaya people may mistake you for a prostitute. I know of a girl who walked down that road and cars were pulling as guys were trying to get at her.

    I also don’t agree with the argument finding the root of the problem in the challenges of Egyptian men being unable to marry. I’ve gotten harassed by dads in front of their children, by married taxi drivers, and adolescent boys selling fruit. Nor is it a Muslim thing because I’ve had a Christian Egyptians co-worker get all harrassy too. The thing is that the broader culture tolerates this behavior and then they put the onus on the women .
    I think the men should be shamed for this behavior. They also need to be taught from a young age to take pride in themselves for their public conduct and the ways they deal with others (including women). I think the harassment dehumanizes the perpetrator and the victim. But it is really hard to check, since most do it in passing, saying some annoying or dirty thing, or in crowded places where someone tries to press up or grab something. The good thing is, that if someone is bothering you and you start screaming or yelling in any language, other Egyptian men will run to your aid and probably beat the guy up.

    I’ve also lived in Kuwait and Morocco and not every Muslim country is the same I’d say that Egypt is less harassy than Morocco, but it is still bad. Kuwait, it depends on where you go, but for the most part the harassment wasn’t bad at all.
    It varies from country to country, but I see this pattern of harassment in like Black American, African, Mediterranean, Arab, and Latino/Hispanic/Chicano cultures. What do they all have in common? Machismo.

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