99% of women in Egypt are sexually harassed. This is not an attention-grabbing hook, this is a documented study from 2013 by the United Nations. 64% of Egyptian men have admitted to sexual harassing women on the street in 2017. A poll conducted by the Thomas Reuters Foundation in 2017 placed Cairo as the world’s most dangerous city for women, based on sexual harassment, access to healthcare, damaging cultural practices and inequality in economic opportunities.
The statistics are harrowing, but my first reaction upon seeing them was ‘Sounds about right.’ We have been systematically desensitized through the sheer number of encounters that we face on a daily basis.
For women in Egypt, harassment is a part of our day-to-day life, to the point of it becoming a mundane occurrence. The off-handed comment as you’re crossing the street, the car that slows down next to you on the sidewalk and honks, trying to have eyes everywhere on public transportation and even the invasive eye contact that makes you duck your head and cross to the other side of the road, hoping to blend into the crowd and step outside the radius of the male gaze. It’s all part of city living.
It’s never about the statistics
Shock value has proven itself useless in the face of decades and centuries of unrelenting patriarchy and internalized misogyny; I’m not concerned with numbers on a page, I am concerned with the real life, everyday effects of living in a society built on layers of microaggressions that keeps trying to position women as second-rate citizens.
The real issue here is the way a culture of sexual harassment shapes and impacts generations upon generations of women growing up in the city.
Because despite the increasing rates of awareness and access to information, it is still being treated like a controversial topic and a gray area at best. During the last week of June, in alignment with the start of AFCON and amidst impressive talks of cooperation and solidarity among African countries and unyielding support for the Egyptian team to take the cup, one woman stepped forward to shine the spotlight on sexual harassment. The woman, a British-Egyptian model named Merhan Keller, spoke out regarding persistent, sexually inappropriate texts and intimidating threats that she received from one of the players on the national football team, Amr Warda.
Despite Amr Warda having a long complicated history and several accusations aimed at him when it comes to sexual harassing women, including minors, both on the national and international scale, the public were quick to jump on attacking the model instead. The sentiment on social media channels highlighted how she did not have enough evidence, how she was timed the accusation to grab her own slice of fame, and worse yet, how she is ‘too unattractive’ to be hit on in the first place. Countless memes were created to humiliate and insult her, most of which focused on degrading her looks. These comments came from both men and women. With the topic gaining viral status across the nation, the Egyptian Football Authority (EFA) stepped up and made the decision to eliminate Amr Warda from the national team for the duration of AFCON, a decision that I and many other women received with cautious optimism and a sigh of relief. Finally, an influential authority in our society took direct action to condemn sexually inappropriate behavior.
Mixed reactions surfaced on social media, with people feeling outraged regarding his dismissal and once more calling the model, along with other girls who stepped out to share their own experiences with Amr Warda, attention-seekers. Their defense is that it was just one error of judgement, that everyone deserves a second chance, and that the punishment is just ‘too harsh’ in comparison to the crime. Sounds familiar? Yes. It couldn’t have possibly worked? It did.
It lasted for a whole day, until Amr Warda issued a short apology video to teammates and fans, claiming that he is sorry for disappointing his teammates, his family and his fans. The EFA accepted his apology and immediately reinstated him into the team to continue playing for the AFCON.
The cautious optimism was promptly replaced by the heavy, familiar weight of disappointment. And the cycle began again; for all women, particularly women of color in developing countries, we are living with the constant affirmation that speaking out will be met with shame, defamation and humiliation, and that the male perpetrator will always have more rights and deserve more sympathy in the eyes of the public – especially if they are famous.
This is not a trend. This is not a fluke. This goes deeper.
This incident garnered media attention only because the accused is a public figure, however, we’re still nowhere near scratching the surface. It is even worse in areas that lack attention from media and the public. In 2015; a study was conducted in the Menoufia University regarding the sexual harassment of female-identifying students. The study was published in 2017 and showed that 65% of the women in the study have experienced sexual harassment on campus; a percentage that aligns with the overall statistics of sexual harassment in Egypt mentioned in the beginning of this article. This has a gruesome effect on the learning experience for these students; a university is supposed to create a safe and curated environment for students to focus on their education, not a place where they have to worry for their safety and fend for themselves.
The life-altering effects of sexual harassment
Sexual assault has been linked with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, eating disorders, and anxiety. The lack of support and belief from friends, family and community has been attributed to further worsening the effects of mental health of victims of sexual assault. Even though the effects of sexual assault on mental health may not show up instantly, they are detrimental to the quality of life of the victim and can lead to impairment of daily functionality, unhealthy relationships and coping mechanisms, and inability to fully integrate into society – to name a few.
To this date, there is still little conversation in the digital space when it comes to linking the effects of sexual harassment on the overall mental health state for women, much less for Egyptian women.
While I find myself alternating between states of anger, fear, disappointment, and plain exhaustion on any given day, I still cling on to the hope that manifested itself in the voices of everyone who spoke out in defense of sexual assault victims and expressed their anger towards the lack of serious consequence for sexual predators.
They are where the movement starts, but the fight is nowhere near over. It is our duty to listen to women whose stories didn’t make deadlines, and build a borderless, global space for them to speak out without being subject to ridicule or threats, because none of us are free, till all of us are free.