Tuesday, December 05, 2006

If I told you that you've got a lovely bosom, would you hold it against me?

AUC today held its discussion on the Eid downtown sexual harassment, and it was lots of fun. There were four speakers, flanked on one end by a veiled woman, and on another by a decidedly unveiled woman wearing a racy shirt and skirt number. They were the moderators. Why two moderators were needed I don’t know, but the contrast between them made me wonder whether this was an attempt to Represent the Full and Rich Spectrum of Egyptian Womanhood in all her manifestations.

The problem was examined from socio-economic, legal and advocacy perspectives with a view to formulating possible solutions. Galal Amin, professor of Economics and a man who doesn’t like to be interrupted, spoke engagingly about the rampant unemployment strangling Egypt and the concomitant despair, disillusion and alienation which he thinks explains the lack of respect for anyone or anything (including themselves) amongst Cairo’s disaffected youth. He was going to explain how the situation in Egypt mirrored the Latin American pattern of development or lack of it, but was interrupted by not one, but two pieces of paper (from the two moderators) telling him that his time was almost up. I assume that the second piece of paper concerned his time limit, but judging by his indignation and petulant announcement of “THAT’S IT!!” (after which he folded both his notes and his arms and lapsed into a sulk) the missive might have had “you’re rubbish” written on it. He perked up subsequently during questions, with jokes and insightful observations.

After an awkward silence during which the panel regrouped and pretended that Amin’s tantrum wasn’t happening, Mariz Tadros pointed out that the conspicuous absence of a police presence during the events downtown reflects a general policing policy of suppressing individuals and groups perceived as a threat to the regime, rather than a ‘protect and serve’ philosophy. Hence, if one of the women attacked had shouted anti-regime political slogans during her ordeal she would have found herself instantly surrounded by an intense and unremitting security presence. Tadros also pointed to the fact that reporting an assault to the police is not an option for many women given that in entering a police station a woman is exposing herself to a further risk of assault or mistreatment at the hands of the police. Law professor Amr Shalakany also pointed to the difficulties inherent in the complaint process; the need for the victim to identify herself and the low to zero chance that the complaint will be pursued where the victim is unable to identify her assailant. ECWR representative Rebecca Chiao made the plain as the hand on my arse nose on my face observation that sexual harassment is not perceived as a problem by some men, but rather is seen as a demonstration of their machismo, and harmless fun.

Predictably, things became heated when questions were invited from the audience. After a series of questions, an American woman objected to what she perceived as women collapsing into the role of the victim rather than asserting themselves. This provoked Shalakany to suggest that women respond to verbal sexual harassment rather than staying silent, prompting another audience member to explain that nothing works - answering back, not answering back, hitting them – the harassment just keeps on a-coming. She also startled all those with a reasonable command of Arabic by saying the very rude equivalent of the C-word (which translates into ‘private parts of your mother’ and whose very mention makes me reach for the smelling salts). She used this word in the context of charming things addressed to her in the street, rather than directing it at Shalakany, but subsequent comments made by the professor clearly left many audience members wanting to say it to him himself. He put forward a weird ‘sexual harassment as empowerment’ theory, suggesting that women should enjoy the power of their sexuality and bask in the warm glow of compliments they receive in the street, blushing coyly and laughing like playful kittens behind their hands. He suggested to one woman complaining of her experience just to ‘get over it.’ He appears to think that sexual harassment consists of the occasional wolf whistle and well-mannered assessments of the beauty of, for example, the female shoulder. I wish! I wish that all Cairo’s sexual predators looked like the man with the green eyes who pursues Nancy Agram on a moped in the ‘Ah we Nuss’ video, and that their harassment was conducted in a calm and silent manner (while wearing vests) like the fit builder bloke in her 'Yay Sehr Ayono' clip. But I will heed his advice. Next time an overweight man stops picking his nose long enough to grab his crotch and compare me to a foodstuff of some variety (in front of a crowd of people) I will make sure to thank God that He made me a woman.

Relentless day after day comments are exhausting. While it might be the first time the bloke makes a spontaneous random comment that day, chances are the woman has heard it a thousand times before, and at least ten times on that day. These comments are at the relatively harmless end of a spectrum of offensive behaviour which includes at the opposite end violent sexual assault; hence why seemingly innocuous remarks are so threatening - because (apart from being bloody annoying) they are so intimately linked with more threatening and sinister behaviour.

Having said that (and this is where the sisters will disown me) I personally find the occasional imaginative compliment welcome. Note that this does not include mere lascivious humiliation. The best one I have received so far was ‘meen mass2oul 3an el 7alawa deih’ [who’s responsible for this sweetness’] because the context was harmless, the bloke said it with a cheeky glint in his eye, and most importantly it made me laugh. But it is all about context and the way it’s said…most men lack the panache to pull it off without causing offence but, sigh, the buggers will insist on trying.


N said...

i wont disown you, i will actually agree with you! some of them are cute.

once in Sharm i was still in shorts at night and walking through the bazar and this guy said "allahoma la objectian" in the cutest way, i had to laugh!

of course the other 99% of these remarks are most unwelcome.

Anonymous said...

mafeesh 7ad mas2ool 3an the so called" 7alawa" , it is the result of pointless unsupervised evolution!that is why you turned out to be like this...:)

Everything's Eventual said...

I agree with you, some comments do make me laugh. But as you said its the sinister behaviour behind some comments that really sickens me. And as you know sometimes it doesn't even stop at comments. But I think that women are partly responsible by constantly putting emphasis and playing up on their physical appearances. The media is also hugely responsible by turning women into stereotypical beings that have to be specific shapes and sizes. Objectifying women in the media and society contributes greatly to sexual harassment in my opinion.

Amnesiac said...

I agree of course that the media and advertising industries are obsessed with their version of the (unattainable for most of us) ideal female form, and that this plays a part in some women’s unhappiness with their own bodies (as does the equivalent male version of the perfect body in men’s dissatisfaction with their bodies.)

I am not sure however, that such images inevitably and necessarily condition men into sexually objectifying women – I think this happens independently of the media, and that the process begins long before boys are conscious of such images, e.g. at home and at school. A good test of this would be (assuming this was possible) to compare the extent of the sexual objectification of women before the rise of the modern mass media, e.g. in the 19th century etc.

Also note that sexual objectification of women can exist alongside a situation where women are (relatively) empowered and enjoy (virtual) equality with men. Take for example the UK, where of course gender discrimination still exists, but where the situation is on the whole OK for women in the job market. There you can’t move for women’s bums, boobs, legs etc in the media and in adverts; but it is balanced by other images of women as politicians, lawyers, scientists, bus drivers, soldiers, builders, artists, writers…etc, i.e. anything that a man can do. It is where alternative visions of women are lacking that sexual images become dangerous, and it is this which explains why some women (J-Lo, Madonna etc) choose to exploit and profit from their sexuality. They are doing it in a context where it is but one aspect of the myriad female identity. If young boys in Egypt were socialised into seeing women as more than mothers and wives, I wouldn't see any objection to raunchy video clips etc other than on the grounds that they are largely stupid, and tasteless.

And you know men are also trapped in definitions of sexuality; I have often thought that it must be incredibly hard to be a father and husband in Egypt where they are regarded as 100 percent responsible for the family’s welfare, and where demonstrations of weakness are perceived as unmanly and therefore taboo. The pressure!

Bloody hell, I’ve just written another post :-)

Amnesiac said...

Doctor anonymous: I am just glad that the evolutionary experiment has not resulted in us all being genetically programmed to wear too tight trousers and be mosstafezz :-P

Forsoothsayer said...

you know, shalakany later redeemed himself somewhat in private conversation. he didn't mean 'get over it' as stop being upset about sexual harassment; he meant, get over your victimhood and do something about it, and made some interesting suggestions. similarly, it appears that he meant that sexuality can be empowering in the workplace only - which i suppose is true, although i would certainly have very little respect for a woman who employed such methods. he did, however, say "i would very much like to work in a place where all the women wear sexy dresses" or similar. he is clearly rather an unpleasant man.

Everything's Eventual said...

Totally agree with you amnesiac that that such images do not necessarily condition men into sexually objectifying women, but it's a part (even if small) of the problem because it encourages the men prone to sexually harass to actually do so - because in their own sick little minds they see the media telling them that that's what women are like and it's ok.

As you said men are indeed trapped in definitions of sexuality, but not to the same extent as women. Also men can have the freedom of overriding these definitions if they choose to. So women, too, should start overriding these definitions.

Amnesiac said...

Forsooth - Well the views he expressed to you afterwards should have been shared with us during the discussion - he did not at all make it clear that his 'get over it' meant empowers yourselves.
I think there were two problems with his approach:

1. He was trying to promote a postmodern clever-clever short skirt as feminism philosophy, but ended up sounding like an arrogant chavinist twat.

2. He possibly is just a twat, although he has a strong reputation as a lawyer. Shame really.

Everything - Yes I'm all for women doing what the hell they want in defiance of silly and pointless rules.
Without meaning to be obstinate, I really do think that Egyptian society's gender roles weigh as heavily on men as they do on women. The burden just feels lighter because they have greater freedom to e.g. stay out late and have sexual relations etc. But consider a trivial example such as men in Egypt who grow their hair long and the response and stares it provokes. At the other end of the spectrum is the situation of gay men, who flout every 'rule' of what it means to be a man and are cast out of society as a result. Yes they are a minority, but their treatment is symptomatic of society's refusal to tolerate any and all deviations from its definition of masculinity.