Faculty Experts Dissect Sexual Harassment at Media Roundtable

“[To combat sexual harassment], we really need to start early with children. I truly believe that gender segregation has created gaps between the opposite genders and led to their mystification,” said Hani Henry, associate professor of psychology and chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology.

Henry spoke as part of the Behind the Headlines media roundtable series titled “Sexual Harassment in Egypt: Causes and Solutions.” Other faculty members who participated in the panel discussion included Helen Rizzo, associate professor of sociology, and Anne Justus, associate professor of professional practice and psychology. The roundtable was moderated by Amina Khairy, editor and columnist of Al Hayat newspaper and an AUC alumna.

According to a survey conducted by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, 99 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. With its prominence in Egyptian society and deeply harmful impact on survivors, Justus cited the loss of self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth as some of the negative effects of sexual harassment on survivors. “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,” said Justus.

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 and lack of sleep.

Discussing findings of his research, “Sexual Harassment in Egyptian Streets: Feminist Theory Revisited,” Henry brought to the table the perspective of sexual harassers, looking at the issue through the lens of sexism rather than sexuality. He noted that his study takes into account Egyptian cultural factors and themes that surfaced from in-depth interviews with perpetrators of sexual harassment to reconstruct feminist theory. The five major themes that emerged from Henry’s study whereby participants gave their justifications for engaging in sexual harassment 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.”

Focusing on raising awareness of the issue, Rizzo highlighted organizations like Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) that work to produce knowledge and document sexual harassment. “The biggest success of these initiatives is to break the taboos where women can talk about their experiences to family and friends,” she said.

Rizzo has also been involved with HarassMap as a research consultant for several years now, helping to combat the social acceptability of sexual harassment and its perception as a crime. Since incidents are more likely to be reported to HarassMap than to others in interviews, Rizzo noted “they [want] to see that the data they have collected could be useful to social scientists.”

Additionally, Justus touched on ways to help survivors of sexual harassment, emphasizing the importance of providing support and building trust. “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,” she explained. “This will help them feel safer and more secure to continue to tell you what is happening.” 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.

 “We have to help them take the perspective or the position of the other,” Henry said, delving into how Egyptian society should tackle the harassers themselves in consideration of the sexist motivations behind acts of harassment. “It is important to introduce the idea of equality to them, “he explained. “Unfortunately, many men are socialized to learn that women are deficient and subordinate objects. They also need to understand the psychological damage they inflict on the women they harass.”

The government, Henry proposed, should concentrate on building prevention programs and campaigns to work toward eliminated sexual harassment. He and Justus both suggest that psycho-education may offer help in decreasing sexual harassment. “Teaching men about empathy and fostering a sense of equality may help them see women as equal and respected partners. Helping men see the negative psychological consequences of sexual harassment might change their hearts and minds,” said Henry.