At the Media Roundtable Discussion series “Behind the Headlines,” titled, “Sexual Harassment in Egypt: Causes and Solutions,” faculty members at The American University in Cairo (AUC) discussed their latest research on sexual harassment. Speakers were AUC professors: Hani Henry, chair and associate professor of psychology; Helen Rizzo, associate professor of sociology and Anne Justus, associate professor of professional practice, psychology. The discussion was moderated by features editor and columnist at Al Hayat newspaper and AUC alumna Amina Khairy.According to a survey conducted by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, a staggering 99 percent of Egyptian women surveyed said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. In highlighting the importance of addressing sexual harassment faced by women and girls, Jutsus explained that the impact of sexual harassment on survivors included, “decreased self confidence, self esteem and self worth, and these are feelings that are very difficult to build in the first place, so when you are building them in the first years of age, especially with young women they get almost irreparably damaged.” Survivors of sexual harassment might also start to withdraw from family, religion and at times from their ability to care for their children, in addition to suffering from high blood pressure, heart disease, not having a good night sleep, all these are reasons that could make them miss work.
Examining how the act of sexual harassment is perceived by male harassers, Henry used feminist theory to provide a deeper understanding of sexual harassment, looking at it as sexist – rather than a sexual – act.
In his recently published paper titled “Sexual Harassment in the Egyptian Streets: Feminist Theory Revisited,” Henry employs a qualitative approach, for his study, that uses feminist theory to explain incidents of sexual harassment by self-professed sexual harassers. Conducting in-depth interviews with nine male participants from the streets of Cairo and Giza, five major themes emerged, whereby participants gave their justifications for engaging in sexual harassment.
According to Henry’s study, these themes are: Sexual harassment is a normative act; sexual harassment is women’s fault; sexual harassment is due to women’s desire to work; sexual harassment is God’s punishment to women; and women are harassed due to societal oppression.
“My study attempts to reconstruct feminist theory by considering certain Egyptian cultural factors that might refine this theory and make it more culturally relevant,” Henry noted. “Interviews with self-professed sexual harassers reveal that some of them blamed women for sexual harassment because they disobeyed God by leaving home and seeking jobs. These strict interpretations of religious texts were culture-specific and seemed to corroborate and refine the aforementioned assertions made by feminist theory.”
Rizzo, on the other hand, shed the light on the initiatives that highlighted the problem of sexual harassment in the streets of Egypt, most importantly, the pioneering work of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) which started highlighting the issue since 2005. As Rizzo became involved with HarassMap in December 2010 and joined them as a research consultant from 2012 to 2016, she said that “the biggest success of these initiatives is to break the taboos where women can talk about their experiences to family and friends.” She praised how the ECWR produced knowledge and documented the issue, and how the survey they developed in 2005 revealed the staggering information that 70 percent of the women who have been harassed wore some sort of a veil, which addressed the stigma that all women are harassed.
Rizzo also highlighted the work of HarassMap which aimed at focusing on sexual harassment and the social acceptability of the problem and on harassment as a crime. “They wanted to see that the data they have collected could be useful to social scientists, for example more violent incidents were more likely reported to HarassMap than in surveys or interviews,” said Rizzo. She explained that HarassMap has also been trying to work with universities. They are helping Cairo University write their sexual harassment policy, and their biggest success is working with UBER on their sexual harassment policy.
On the other hand, Justus discussed ways that could help survivors of sexual harassment, “if you or someone you know has been on the receiving end of sexual harassment, you need to believe them when they tell you they were verbally or physically harassed, this will help them feel safer and more secure and to continue to tell you what is happening,” said Justus. Offering unconditional love and support is not only important for family and friends who have been harassed, as Justus explained, but also for coworkers, to have a much better psychological outcome.
Addressing the lack of understanding of sexual harassment in Egyptian society requires sexual harassers to be taught how to empathize, Henry added. “We have to help them take the perspective or the position of the other,” he said. “It is also important to introduce the idea of equality to them. Unfortunately, many men are socialized to learn that women are deficient and subordinate objects. In addition, they also need to understand the psychological damage they inflict on the women they harass.”
Eliminating sexual harassment and educating society on the consequences of such acts is not an easy process, but it can be achieved if initiatives are carried out the right way, Henry affirmed. ”Prevention programs and campaigns should become the government’s central focus,” he said. “We really need to start early with children. Helping children of opposite gender understand each other might help. Gender desegregation might also help. I truly believe that gender segregation has created huge gaps between the opposite genders and led to their mystification.”
Justus and Henri both agreed that psycho-education might help in limiting sexual harassment since cracking down on sexual harassment in Egypt didn’t change the problem.
“Teaching men about empathy and fostering a sense of equality may help them see women as equal and respected partners. Helping many men see the negative psychological consequences of sexual harassment might change their hearts and minds,” said Henry.