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.

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