Feminist Theory: A New Take on Sexual Harassment

Hani Henry: "Cracking down on sexual harassers never changed this problem; psycho-education might do that"
Hani Henry: "Cracking down on sexual harassers never changed this problem; psycho-education might do that"

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. Examining how the act of sexual harassment is perceived by male harassers, Hani Henry, associate professor of psychology and chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology, uses feminist theory to provide a deeper understanding of sexual harassment, looking at it as sexist – rather than a sexual – act.

“Feminist theory posits that sexual harassment should be treated as a sexist act that aims to subjugate and disempower women, and punish their efforts to compete with men over jobs and status,” said Henry. “This theory challenges the idea that sexual harassment is a sexual act and invites scholars to see it from a gender-based angle that reflects male dominance and women's subordination, which are constantly condoned by society.”

In his recently published paper titled “Sexual Harassment in the Egyptian Streets: Feminist Theory Revisited,” Henry is guided by feminist theory explanations of sexual harassment to provide a deeper understanding of this problem and the sociocultural factors that contribute to it. For the study, Henry employs a qualitative approach 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. These are acts:

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.
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 stated. “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.”

To eliminate extremist religious rhetoric, Henry noted, “It’s really important to do a major overhaul of the rhetoric that perpetuates gender role stereotypes and encourages gender-based violence,” he said. “Of course, I don't call for censorship, but we have to revamp the curricula of some religious institutes that have produced many militant preachers who constantly advocate violence and intolerance toward women and religious minorities. Bad ideas can only be fought with good ideas.”

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.”

For Henry, this research project provides an alternative to the narrow legal approach that has been taken to tackle sexual harassment in Egypt. “Cracking down on sexual harassers never changed this problem; psycho-education might do that,” he explained. “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.”