October 21, 2008 was a victorious day not only for 27 years old filmmaker Noha Ostaz , but for all Egyptian women. For the first time in the history of the country’s judiciary system, the man who had sexually harassed Noha a year earlier, as she walked down a street, was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labor; a verdict that came as a surprise even to the lawyers.
Sexual harassment has become an epidemic that is spreading like terminal cancer into the society. An earlier incident of a notorious mass sexual harassment that rocked Egypt in 2006 made head lines in the New York Times.
On that national day celebrating a religious holiday, mobs of men gathered in front of movie theaters. As women exited after the shows were over, the chaotic downtown Cairo became a scene of a mass sexual frenzy. That took place in broad daylight in front of the eyes of the policemen. They not only didn’t come to the rescue, but as witnesses they reported that women were to be blamed for the incident because of their provocative dressing. That was far from the truth because the attackers targeted both veiled and unveiled women. The policemen’s reaction didn’t come as a surprise to anyone, for they had been accused themselves of sexually assaulting women in a demonstration that took place months earlier. Women who were assaulted were denied the right to report the incident.
I am not in a comparative mode here, but laws in America that protect women from sexual harassment didn’t come from thin air. The movie North Country not only inspired me to write this article, but it again proved that women have to fight their own battles. What happened to the characters of the women in the movie, which was inspired by true events, still happens to women in Egypt, at work and in the streets. But unlike the women in the movie, Egyptian women still have to take the initiative to protect themselves.
Believing that men would voluntarily issue laws against themselves to protect women is a myth. And sadly enough as I had seen in the movie and in real life, most women who are abused and harassed become submerged in their own fears and wouldn’t stand up for their own rights.
After the movie theaters’ incident in Cairo, television screens were swarmed with people who had solution. Religious groups always have the easiest, fastest and most effective one; veil the women. And if there was no need for them to be out, might as well lock them up. Once the streets are cleared men won’t find anyone to grope. Psychologists said their words, and so did the social workers, and lawyers. Great shows were produced, but the real reason was never addressed.
I believe such incidents happen because men are let to do what they want and get away with it. There are no drastic solutions based on dialogue, education or religion. Those who assault women in any shape or form should be punished. If severe laws were issued to protect women, men will think twice. The Egyptian government, by implementing high fines, was able to enforce the seat belt law in three months. And it makes me wonder why the safety of women walking on foot is not as remotely important.