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Originally published Sunday, October 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Sexual harassment intensifies in Egypt

Egyptian women face more harassment as Islamic fundamentalism and Western cultural influences collide

The Christian Science Monitor

CAIRO — As May Zayed gets ready to leave for her downtown office, she tries to prepare for the harassment she'll face on the street. The 20-something member of Egypt's large working class says she has learned to tune out most lewd comments. But it's impossible to ignore everything. "There is no way to get ready for it," she says. "It just becomes part of your normal life."

According to a study released in July by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR), 62 percent of Egyptian men admit to sexually harassing women, and 83 percent of Egyptian women reported being harassed. Half say it happens every day. It was the first study of its kind.

"Harassment is a real issue here, and it has gotten worse over the last 10 years," says Rebecca Chiao, international relations coordinator of the ECWR. "A lot of people say that up until the 1970s there was very little harassment in Egypt, but things are very different now."

Egypt's parliament is expected to consider a measure in its next session, which convenes in November, that would make harassment a crime and make it easier for women to report it to the police. Specifics on the law have not been made public.

On the street, some women are fighting back. Fatma Abdel Raziq is broad-shouldered in a black cloak and a veil that covers half her red hair. She sells knickknacks on a street corner and says harassment seems to gets worse every day, "especially from men with some money."

"If someone comes up and says something inappropriate to me, I curse at him or head-butt him in the face," she says. "I stand up for my rights, but I don't think college girls know how to do that."

Experts say social trends are exacerbating sexual harassment on the street here.

The ECWR blames economic deprivation and even the growing conservative religious trend that promotes a restricted social role for women and rebukes those who step outside it. Some see a broad cultural shift over the last generation, when young women rarely wore veils and Cairo was more of a secular city.

"Religion itself is not the problem, but the issue here is this conservative trend that has been influenced by the Wahhabi trend in Saudi Arabia," says Chiao, referring to the austere form of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia.

Premarital sex is strongly condemned in Egypt, as is dating, but the country's grim economic situation means most young people cannot afford to wed. Some say that is leading to frustrations that materialize in the form of harassment. The growing traditionalist view of women's roles compounds the problem.

Amna Nosseir, a professor of philosophy and former dean of Al Azhar University in Cairo, one of the centers of Sunni Islam, says Egyptian culture has changed since her youth.

"Look at our boys today," she says. "They have nothing to fill their lives except TV and the Internet, and now we have this problem of late marriage. When you combine it all, you will have social problems like harassment."

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On TV and online, cultural influences of the West duel with those of the conservative states of the Persian Gulf. Egyptians watch American actors do things that they cannot, such as date or have premarital sex. That in turn influences Arab pop culture, which often features scantily clad divas and remakes of Western TV hits.

But for an earlier generation, life was a different story. Since the early 1970s, millions of Egyptians have migrated to the booming Gulf states for work. The number peaked in 1983 at over 3 million. When they returned, many adopted the conservative interpretations of Islam popular in the Gulf and brought them home. These religious ideas were new to Egypt.

Nosseir calls these ideas "nomadic jurisprudence," in reference to the Gulf's tribal cultures, and derides them as "un-Islamic and not part of our Egyptian civilization."

Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, a board member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's main opposition group, says these ultraconservative religious attitudes inherently degrade women and have created the environment in which widespread harassment can flourish. "These religious discourses do not treat women as complicated human beings with minds and souls, it says they are just bodies," he says. Many of the scholars who lead prayers in Egyptian mosques have digested these attitudes, Houdaiby says, "and they have been able to influence thousands, maybe millions, of people."

For many women, nostalgia for the relative freedom of the 1960s and '70s is strong. Zayed says she sees photos of older relatives wearing things "I never would, veil or no veil."

Nosseir remembers it well, too. "Before, we never had to cover ourselves from head to toe, and before my son was born I was not veiled," she says. "If a woman was harassed on the street, all the men around would come to chase her harasser. That is unrecognizable now."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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