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Don't be silenced by shame, Stand Up and Speak Up!

A few weeks ago I was on a walking tour with some my colleagues in Islamic Cairo on a chilly and somewhat gloomy Saturday morning. I was the youngest female in the group and the only one who had lived in the Middle East for 3 decades. Pete, one of the people on the tour approached me and asked me how I cope with living in Egypt and how do I handle ‘the men’ and being harassed on the street. I told him that I had written an article about Sexual Harassment and it had been published in Community times. Interested in my views and article he asked me to send him a copy and if I would consider being a guest speaker and give a talk to High Schoolers, I agreed.

I am always willing to share my work with others and get their feedback, but as the date for the talk loomed closer I wasn’t so sure if I could follow through. The memories and the feelings of the experiences I had and trying to find the words to describe the situations and how it affected me wasn’t as easy as I had thought it would be. I found myself in a tug of war ‘don’t do it, you don’t need to go through all this again, it’s in the past.’ ‘You have to do this, you have to speak up and let the younger generation know that this isn’t acceptable and that women and men shouldn’t brush this under the carpet any longer! Women have been silenced long enough; you need to speak up and out about it.’ My worry was resurrecting and awakening the emotions that I had worked so hard to tame and keep locked away. Would I be able to handle it even after all the time that had passed?

The voice of reason won the battle and I didn’t bail out. To help me I wrote out key points to help me stay on track as a guide line to the discussion and talk. I knew that if I let my emotions get the better of me; it may turn out to be a bawling session and a mockery of something that I feel very deeply about.

The day of the talk, I had butterflies in my stomach and when I saw the young faces of Egypt’s future I became more nervous, my face flushed a bright red and my skin burned, my voice quivered and my hands shook, but I kept going.

After introducing myself to the class, giving my nationalities and making sure that they knew that although I am of mixed ethnicity that I was also ‘ONE OF THEM’, an Egyptian woman. This seemed to wake them up a bit and grab their attention. I discussed the different forms of sexual harassment (Degrading and graphic terms said, the skin crawling looks of being undressed and devoured by the other person and the physical (which on its own comes in many forms))

I told them that most people assume that women or teenage girls must have done something or dressed provocatively to have provoked or asked for the attack to happen. I then told them that my earliest memory was between the ages of 10 or 12 and I was in a shopping mall with my family when I had my first experience and that is when I saw the students get their wake up call! I had reached them; they were seeing it not only from an Egyptian woman’s point of view but from a kid’s point of view. They knew that there was no way at such a young age I could have provoked an attack or had known what sexual harassment was.

Unfortunately children here lead very sheltered lives and do not know what dangers await them outside their apartment doors. They know that there are bad people and that there are thieves but they aren’t made aware of the others that are lurking about. Our girls are clueless and defenseless, I am certain that none of them would know what to do if they were put in a situation like that.

There are many subjects that are taboo in this part of the world and have been locked away in a dark corner of everyone’s mind, simply because they choose not to believe it exists and it will go away on its own. In a perfect world, perhaps it would work, but we do not have that privilege.

Not talking about ‘Sex’, ‘The Body’ and ‘Sexual Harassment’ makes things worse, the predators and prowlers who take advantage of the women walking in the street minding their own business may not have been made aware of what some people will do and how they may violate them. They mightn’t understand or know what their instincts are telling them when they sense an intruder in their personal space. Women being shamed in to guilt and silence just make the offenders more powerful and willing to repeat their acts on other innocent and unsuspecting women?! How can we condone such a thing? We need to arm these women with knowledge of how to recognize a potential offender and how to fight them off. Letting them walk around unarmed with the basic knowledge is just as bad as the person committing the acts themselves.

I know full well what goes through a woman’s mind and the mental torment that follows after an attack. The incident replays itself over and over in your mind, you wonder what you may have done to have provoked the attacker, what you could have done differently. How dirty you feel and no matter how hard or many times you try to wash yourself, the dirt doesn’t seem to go away. It seems to linger on and beneath the skin. You just want to curl up somewhere dark and hide away, BUT if we do that, they win and they strip us of our dignity.

After one of my attacks, I said enough is enough, I will not be silenced! I am not doing anything wrong and I certainly DON’T WANT this to happen! I am going to fight back and I will not let them silence me. This is MY body and they have NO right to touch me!

The examples I gave not only hit home with the girls in the class but it also hit home with the boys. Especially when I told them that on more than one occasion there were men who saw what happened and did nothing. No one came to my aid and I had to fight the sicko off myself!

It isn’t only the women who have to stand up but it’s also the men who have to as well.

I am grateful that the school and the teachers are broaching the subject and are discussing it openly and honestly with the students. I feel that more schools and homes should do the same, If we are ever going to make the streets safer for women to walk down without constantly having to be alert of everyone one around her.

After the talk, four of the staff members who had been present for my talk said that not only were they moved by the talk, but that the students seemed to really relate and were fired up about bringing about change and doing something to make more people aware.

I know I had my doubts about giving the talk, but I am glad that I did. I may have reached someone that day and given them some tips to recognize the warnings and let them know that they are not alone in this.

I have been a victim of Sexual Harassment, I will NOT be silenced and I AM speaking out against it.

NB: My Mom just called me in a panic, because she thought that I had been raped and not told her about it. Sexual Harassment doesn’t have to be an assault to that degree. No, I have not been raped, but I have had men full clothed try to force themselves on me and touch me in places that is in appropriate. That is also sexual harassment and it isn’t right!

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A strange name for a movie title, but once you watch the film, you understand why it is so aptly named

Let me first say, that I am not the biggest fan of modern Egyptian cinema, I find most of them a waste of a cinema ticket because they lack quality and originality, but there are a few that are worth seeing. This movie is one of the exceptions, it is a must see and I think every male in Egypt should go and watch it to know what women have to put up with on a daily basis, when they leave the safety and sanctity of their homes, just to go to school, work, visit a friend or meet up with friends.

The movie sheds a bright light on Sexual Harassment of women in Egypt and how it is brushed under the carpet like it doesn’t exist. The movie shows the life of three very different women, from different classes and backgrounds in Cairo.

The first of the three women that we meet is a veiled woman, who works in a government office and lives in what looks like a council building. She develops a fear of taking the bus, (public transportation) because some of the men on the bus tend to use the crowded bus as a cover to rub themselves up against a woman. With her limited salary she ends up spending it on taxi fare to avoid the harassment. Her shame and disgust of what men do, causes her to make excuses and push her husband away.

The second of the three women, is an affluent woman from high society and is an artists. She started giving talks of how women need to stand up against this kind of harassment and tried to encourage them to speak up and defend themselves. Her experience of sexual harassment was of the worst kind. She had accompanied her husband to the stadium to watch a football game between Egypt and another country. When the team won, she and her husband went out in to the street to celebrate with everyone else. She was snatched away by a man in the crowd and raped.

The third is a young girl in her early twenties who is from a middle class family. She had a funky but conservative way of dressing. Her Fiancé was dropping her off across the street from where she lives, when a man driving a pick up truck grabbed her by the breast and pulled her along as he drove.

Fate brings the three women together and a kinship forms between them. There is more to the movie than that, but I don’t want to spoil it all for you.

What I like about this movies is that it shows that even if you’re hair is covered and you dress very conservatively you can still be a target. For a change it shows that the women are not trying to provoke the men in any way, that it is the men, who launch themselves at women. It shows how humiliating and degrading it makes women feel, when men touch them,

I have lived in Egypt for close to 20 years now and I can tell you many stories of my own personal experience of harassment. My earliest memory was when my sister and I were walking home from one of the small shops. I must have been around 13 at the time which would have made my sister 8. I was talking to my sister as we walked and when I turned to look at her, she was gone. Some guy had just grabbed her by the arm and pulled her from my side. I turned in his direction and started yelling and screaming profanities at him, which caught people’s attention and the guy, was then beaten by shop keepers and other people in the street.
Almost two decades later, if a woman screams for help, she has a better chance of people coming to her aid if she yells ‘harami’, which means ‘thief’ than if she yelled help, because a man is attacking her. Why, well because, no one would come to her rescue, they would just think to themselves, ‘she deserved it’, ‘she provoked him’ or ‘of course he would she isn’t veiled. If she covered her head, he wouldn’t do that.’

Having lived in both in Alexandria and Cairo, I have found that the harassment is worse in Alexandria. I can’t go anywhere without hearing cat calls, having someone attempt to pinch my behind or to invade my personal space. I have learned to march not walk, wear an expression on my face that reads, ‘touch me and I’ll break your hand’. I wear sunglasses to cover my eyes so I don’t make eye contact with any of the men, so they don’t get the wrong idea or interpret it as an invitation. I make sure that I am conservatively dress, and that my clothes don’t cling to my body as another precaution.

I applaud the script writer for having written the story. I also salute the producer and director for bringing it to the big screen and creating awareness.

BE WARNED, THIS IS A LONG POST.

I have seen the “Marriages from around the World” segment on OPRAH twice now. I have to say that I am happy that Egypt was represented but I think that one of the Egyptian representatives, Heba, an interior designer in Cairo, didn’t paint a clear picture of what life is really like here in Egypt, While Inji the journalist was more realistic.

There were a few things that really ruffled my feathers when I watched the show the first time and the rerun. I took notes when I watched the show the second time around so that I could remember the points that I wanted to refer to. (I can be such a nerd at times!)

I- Safety for Women

When Nana, the Danish representative asked Heba if Egypt is a safe place and she answered, ‘Yes, it is very safe” I couldn’t help but cackle in disbelief.
If I was to compare Egypt to Iraq, Afghanistan or Harlem, then I would whole heartedly agree, but if I was to compare it from where Nana is from, the answer would be ‘NO’!
I don’t know the women in that interview but from the way they held themselves and the way that they spoke I think it is safe to guess that they aren’t considered ‘common folk’; they are higher up the ladder than most of the population of Egypt. I am also willing to wager that most of them rarely walk the streets of Cairo and commute 96% of the time in their privately owned cars.
I walk both in Cairo and in Alexandria and I can tell you that it is a man’s country. If a woman is or isn’t veiled but looks nice, 99 times out of 100, you will either hear a crude comment or be harassed in some shape or form.
Let me give you an example of a well know incident that happened in Cairo about three years ago. It was during Eid El Fitr, (the celebration after the holy month of Ramadan, where Muslims fast) and in down town Cairo a mob of men had been to see one of the newly released Egyptian movies and they were wired! They were so tightly strung that they attacked innocent women who just happened to be passing by the cinema at that time. How bad the attack was, the news papers didn’t report. A taxi driver tried to save one of the women by pulling her in to his cab and driving away but the mob jumped the car and proceeded to attack them both. Not long after the incident and the story came to light, Imam’s in mosques didn’t condemn the mobs behavior, but they blamed the women who were innocently minding their own business!
A more recent story was published in The Community Times magazine about two girls who almost got harassed after one of the matches played by Egypt and Algeria. They had to seek refuge in a shop until the group of men gave up waiting.
These two examples are extreme cases of what may happen here in Egypt. It is more likely to happen to natives than it would be a tourist or a foreigner living here because they know that the police and the embassies would get involved.
So, I have to say that Nana’s intuition was spot on.
She probably felt even more insecure because she’s fair skinned and a blond.
What happens abroad happens here to, but it is kept very quiet.
If anyone wants to dispute this then, I am willing to provide examples from my own personal experience as well as examples that have happened to people I know.

A word to the wise;
The best way to avoid situations like these is to dress modestly, not to walk in dodgy streets alone, it is best to have a couple of male friends with you when you are out walking, try your best not to be out walking on your own late at night and never sit next to a taxi driver.

II – Conservativeness and the veil.

I loved Nana’s observation of how some of the veiled women were dressed ‘women who are covered and walking around in tight clothing and make up, it makes it very contradicting”

 I personally think Nana hit the nail on the head. There are lots of contradictions in our expectations of behavior and society and for an outsider to notice it should ring some alarm bells.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been absolutely gob smacked by the double standards that exist here.
I have seen veiled women at night clubs, drinking Stella (local beer), dating men and holding hands and some times going further than second base (if they are religious and conservative this is a big NO! NO!), go into a changing room and come out wearing a bikini in front of men in public! Who are they fooling might I ask?
Granted, some girls have been forced by their families to wear a scarf on their head, so I can understand them rebelling behind their parents backs, (I’m not saying I agree with it, I’m just stating I understand it), but what excuse do grown women who made the choice have?

I have the utmost respect for the women who chose to wear the veil as a devotion to their religion and their beliefs. It is admirable when I see women who are doing it for the RIGHT reasons. It takes a lot of will power and devotion to be able to wear it.

III- Tension between veiled and non veiled women

If memory serves me correctly Oprah asked if there was tension between the veiled and non veiled women. Nana who hadn’t been here very long said she did sense it.
Again, I would have to agree.

When I first moved to Egypt in the early 90s the ratio of veiled to non veiled women was below par. There were hardly any menaqaabeen (completely veiled with only their eyes showing). It’s with in the past decade that more and more women are veiling. Some of it has to do with many Egyptians returning from the Gulf States and bringing their new-found religious beliefs that they picked up from there, back to Egypt. The second is it is the fashion, “everyone is doing it so, I better do it too so people don’t think any less of me”. The third has to do with the economic situation in the country, when the poor get poorer and the middle class is heading towards extinction many people turn to religion for solace and comfort.

My sister and I are unveiled and we have experienced quite a few things in recent years.
We would step out of our apartment building and some times a men who would happen to be walking past our building door would swerve away, turning his head in the opposite direction, whilst uttering ‘Astaghfar Allah’ which is a term said when asking God for forgiveness’ and all because our hair is showing!
 (for further translation of the phrase go to the following link,  http://shiastrength.blogspot.com/2010/04/shiastrength-superiority-of-astaghfar.html)

My Mum would get the same reaction too when she used to take a taxi home from work. The cab driver would utter it under his breath when she got in and out of the car.
I remember a second incident that I found quite amusing. We were at a beach resort just outside of Alexandria. The place I’m referring to is Agami, it’s a well-known place where many people go to vacation by the beach for the summer months and people walk around in their shorts, t-shirts, swim wear and summer attire. Anyway my sister and were heading home after picking up some groceries for our Mum when this woman who was very conservatively dressed comes rushing up to my sister and I and tells us that we should be ashamed of ourselves and that we should cover up and veil. She made us feel like we were walking around naked, when we were in our mid-thigh shorts and T-shirt at a beach resort.
Some times at traffic lights there will be people handing out fliers or pamphlets that promote veiling ‘Naam lil Hijab’ which means ‘Yes, to veiling’.
My sister and I usually don’t wear any religious jewelry so people automatically assume that because we are not veiled then we must be Christian.

So, the answer is Yes, There is more pressure for women to veil today than 20 years ago.

IV- Marriages and Divorces

I wrote a post not too long ago about middle and upper class marriages in Egypt and I was recently contacted by a male reader who was able to identify himself with what I had written. Most middle and upper class marriages are based on business arrangements, (please note that I said, most and NOT all).

Marriages can also be formed as an escape from living with their parents and wanting freedom from all of their rules and expectations. Which is another myth, because their life won’t be about going out all the time and having fun, it’s about responsibilities, working and taking after the home. It can often be leaving regarded as leaving one dictating house hold for another, (demanding and controlling husband/wife).

Marriages solely to cure sexual frustration are another popular reason for getting married.
The fairy tale that has been repeated over and over again from one generation to the next about how marriage is a wonderful thing and that the girl will be the lady of her own home and can do as she likes is a sugar-coated illusion of what reality is. These girls by their late teens (17 on wards) are keeping their eyes open like a hawk for an eligible bachelor. When the wedding and honeymoon is over reality sinks in and the fights begin.

There are arranged marriages, where someone would suggest that perhaps two people would make a good union. So, a meeting with the two individuals is set, either at a neutral party’s home, where the individuals can meet under the watchful eye of their parents. A few meetings may follow so that they can get to know one another better, if a match is made then an engagement will ensue and wedding plans begin. One on one dating will not be prohibited there will be a chaperone with the couple when ever they meet or go out. This happens with more conservative and religious families.

Then there are marriages based on all the right things, finding a partner to be with because they are happy with them for who they are.

When the marriages are based on all the wrong reasons, how can you not expect the divorce rate not to be high here? During my Grandmother’s era it was almost on heard of and for a couple to divorce was a rare occurrence. Now it’s has become the norm.

I have a lot more to say about the topics mentioned in the segment but if I don’t stop my ramblings now, I would go on and on forever!
I will right more about at a later date in time.

          I have just recently become a fan of ‘Community Times’ a magazine published in English here in Egypt. It’s very informative and up to date with what is going on in the country, as well as being very well written. In the December issue of the magazine they have dedicated a section to ‘Standing Up To Sexual Harassment’.

        A little over a week ago I heard from a reliable source that Egypt is now the number one country in the world for crimes of rape and sexual harassment according to ‘The American Embassy’s’.

       I have to commend ‘Community Times’ for allowing women to come forward to speak up about the traumatic experiences that they have experienced. It is a subject that is shied away from and should never be spoken of. When a woman does make a complaint or try to press charges she is usually made to feel that she provoked the attack by ‘asking’ for it some how. ‘Community Times’ is trying to change that so that eventually enough voices will be heard so that it will cause a change and authorities will have to listen!

       Having lived here for as long as I have, I have unfortunately had more than my share of ‘Sexual Harassment’ experiences.

       I remember walking home from school one day with my mother and sister and this car pulled up next to us and the driver called out to my mother ‘how much you want?’

       On another occasion I was walking next to my sister and talking to her when she was next to me one minute and gone the next. A man had grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to his side.

     As I got older, I dressed more conservatively to try to draw less attention to myself. Being fair-skinned with freckles, colored eyes and straight hair doesn’t go un-noticed here. It didn’t always work though.

        Of the many incidents I will share two. I was returning from University and had just parked my car in the garage across the street from where I live and as I was walking towards where I lived and about to round the corner, some guy pushed me against the wall of the Lebanese Consulate building, behind the guard post and tried to press his mouth against me. I couldn’t find my voice to scream or yell, but my instinct of trying to throw the person off me. What seemed like ages they guy eventually ran off.

       Another instance I had a late night lecture at university, when for some unknown reason the security guards kicked us off campus. I was sat in my car right out side the University gate, waiting for a colleague to come back from making a phone call. When some guy jumped in through my car window and tried to put his hands all and lips all over me!

    Every time something like that happened I would feel dirty and have moments of doubt that perhaps I had some how provoked an attack and that I deserved it. The incidents would be on auto replay in my mind and when I’d close my eyes to sleep, I would relive it over and over again. I didn’t ask for it and I certainly didn’t want it to happen to me.

In every instance I wasn’t dressed provocatively; I was dressed modestly and by no means inviting a violation of any kind.

I have decided to take a different approach and NOT let these men win and make me their life time victim. I won’t let what happened to me imprison me in my mind or my house. I won’t put my life on hold and sink back in to the shadows. I pick myself up and hold my head up and continue to strive forward. I have also learned some defense techniques to help me if I am ever faced with another situation again.

I decided to write a piece for the Community Times and to assist them in their quest to give women a voice. Revisiting the experience brought back memories that I had tried to lock away and feelings that I had hoped I would never feel again. However, reliving the memories for this cause was worth it. It’s high time that ‘we’ come out of the shadows of shame and speak up, to try to stop men from disrespecting woman and mistreating them and being able to walk away without knowing what pain, trauma they have inflicted on the women that they targeted.

I AM STANDING, SPEAKING UP AND SPEAKING OUT AND SHOUTING OUT NO MORE!