2.17.2011

Been grabbed on the breast lately?

Like Egypt, the United States has a lot of problems to be solved, but women here can walk down the street without the EXPECTATION of being grabbed on the breast.

DemWit, for the sole purpose of sharing information under the “Fair Use Notice” in my sidebar, calls readers’ attention to the following commentary:

Egypt's harassed women need their own revolution

By Mary Rogers, CNN
February 17, 2011 4:58 a.m. EST

CNN Editor's note: CNN producer and camerawoman Mary Rogers has lived and worked in Egypt since 1994. She joined CNN in 1981 and has covered conflicts in Somalia, Sierra Leone, the Congo, Iraq, Chechnya, Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Recently she filmed the uprising in Tunisia.

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- Several months before the revolution, I wrote a piece for CNN.com on the sexual harassment of women in Cairo.

News of the chilling attack on CBS reporter Lara Logan, as well as other sexual assaults against women during Egypt's uprising, show that attacks against women have not gone away.

I speak from experience. While most of my days covering Tahrir Square during the last few weeks were free from harassment, there was one day when I was groped. Another colleague almost had her pants ripped off by a gang of thugs.

According to a 2008 survey of 1,010 women conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed.

It happens on the streets, on crowded buses, in the workplace, in schools, and even in a doctor's office.

I was walking home from dinner recently when a carload of young men raced by me and screamed out "Sharmouta" (whore in Arabic.)

Before I could respond, they were gone, but I noticed policemen nearby bursting with laughter. I am old enough to be those boys' mother, I thought.

This incident was minor compared to what happened in 1994, shortly after I moved here. It was winter, and I was walking home from the office, dressed in a big, baggy sweater, and jacket. A man walked up to me, reached out, and casually grabbed my breast.

In a flash, I understood what the expression to "see red" meant. I grabbed him by the collar and punched him hard in the face. I held on to him, and let out a stream of expletives. His face grew pale, and he started to shake. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he whispered.

But the satisfaction of striking back quickly dissipated. By the time I walked away, I was feeling dirty and humiliated. After a couple of years enduring this kind of harassment, I pretty much stopped walking to and from work.

Of course, harassment comes in many forms. It can be nasty words, groping, being followed or stalked, lewd, lascivious looks, and indecent exposure.

At times it can be dangerous. This is what a friend told me happened to her: "I remember I was walking on the street, when a car came hurtling towards me. Aiming for me! At the last minute he swerved, then stopped, and finally laughed at me. I learned later that it was a form of flirting."

Why is sexual harassment in Egypt so rampant? There could be any number of reasons, but many point to disregard for human rights.

Before the uprising, Nehad Abu el Komsan, the Director for the Center for Women's Rights, told me that Egypt was more interested in political than public security. She said that often meant that officials focused more on preventing political unrest than addressing social ills.

Some also blame the spread of more conservative interpretations of Islam from the Gulf over the past 30 years. They say such interpretations demand more restrictive roles for women and condemn women who step outside of those prescribed roles.

***

“Perhaps it will be people power, the same people power that brought down a regime, that will successfully combat sexual harassment.”
- Mary Rogers

***

"Four million Egyptians went to the Gulf," el Komsan said. "They returned with oil money, and oil culture, which is not very open, related to the status of women. All of this changed the original culture of the Egyptian," she adds, "which included high respect for women."

Sara, a young Egyptian activist, told me that the concept of respect for some reason doesn't exist any more. "I think Egypt has lived a very long time in denial. Something happened in Egyptian society in the last 30 or 40 years. It feels like the whole social diagram has collapsed.

What is being done to raise awareness and combat such behavior? A law regarding sexual harassment will have to wait. The country has greater concerns now -- forming a new government; writing a new constitution; getting Egypt's economy going again and dealing massive unemployment, among other things.

The military is in charge now, and who knows when Egypt will get a new president, or parliament.

In the past, women who have been sexually harassed here have been too afraid or ashamed to speak up. That is changing slowly. In 2008, in a landmark court case, a man was sentenced to three years of hard labor for grabbing the breast of Noha Rushdi Saleh, a brave woman determined to seek justice.

The trial was covered extensively in the Egyptian press, and brought the problem of sexual harassment out in the open.

A group of young idealists are taking a personal initiative in trying to combat sexual harassment.

They are handing out pamphlets now saying: "Don't take bribes, don't drive the wrong way on a one way street, and don't sexually harass women." Perhaps it will be people power, the same people power that brought down a regime, that will successfully combat sexual harassment.

But the only real protection women can have is when the attitudes of men change.

BJ NOTE: CNN.com ran this at the end of the commentary:

"The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mary Rogers."

And maybe a whole lot of women.

UPDATE: I've been snowed under with inbox activity and wrote a friend last night that I had not checked news headlines in three days. That's why I missed the story sent by that same friend and read immediately AFTER publishing this post. I would be remiss not to include it here:

"Lawsuit Says Military Rife with Sexual Abuse," The New York Times, 15 February 2011

While I stand by my premise that most women can walk down the street here in the U.S. without expecting to be sexually molested, this lawsuit filed against Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld claims the U.S. military created a climate of permissiveness by ignoring military rapes.

As my mother used to say, maybe we had better "clean up around our own doorstep."

7 comments:

Tiny said...

Tiny thinks the problem is not just in Egypt. Everyday there is news of assults on women and children on TV and/or in the papers. Everyone has to be on guard and be ready to defend and protect. Tiny thinks readily availabe porn has contributed to this escalation of such atrocities against people, and children of both sexes.

B.J. said...

Tiny: Of course, there are sexual assaults every day, but as the commentary points out, these attacks are not accepted and laughed at by police. Do you really expect to be sexually assaulted when you go to lunch with a friend, got to the grocery or walk down the main street of your town with people and police around? It was NOT my intention to suggest sexual assault does not exist in the U.S. BJ

Tiny said...

Tiny's intent was to say this is a world wide problem. Most of us would like to feel that we are safe in public places as well as in our own homes. But there is a segment in all societies that is going to prey on innocent people. It isn't confined to just one or two countries. Nor is it ever acceptable at any time any where.

Ahab said...

Accountability is key to stopping violence against women. If predatory men (in any country) believe that they can commit these crimes with impunity, stopping these acts is that much harder. Bystanders and law enforcement MUST hold them accountable.

B.J. said...

Tiny & Ahab: You are both right. The essence of the commentary, in my opinion, is the diffeence in ATTITUDE toward sexual harassment and attacks.

Mary Rogers concludes: “But the only real protection women can have is when the attitudes of men change.”

I would assert that when bystanders and law enforcement stands by or even laughs at such practices, the attitudes of a society must change as well.

BJ

Octopus said...

I just want to offer a few remarks about less obvious examples of sexism and misogyny in America.

What anti-abortion right-wingers want: To limit CHOICE while conferring legal rights to blastocysts; to disregard life or death medical decisions as reasons for terminating a pregnancy; to force underage victims of rape and incest to carry to term without regards to mental health and personhood; to incite vigilantism at women’s clinics and deny access to reproductive healthcare.

Even the labor union dispute in Wisconsin has elements of sexism: Police and firefighter unions (read: male dominated) are exempted from cutbacks; whereas other public service unions (read: women workers) are under threat. If the proto-fascist governor wins, women will be more economically disadvantaged than before.

I am astonished at how callous and savage our own country is becoming. It feels as if civilization itself is unraveling.

Ahab said...

Octopus -- Amen!