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Egyptian women say even veil can't stop harassers

 

Sunday, August 24, 2008

By Ellen Knickmeyer, The Washington Post

 

CAIRO -- In a Muslim country where the numbers of women wearing the veil are rising, and so -- by most accounts -- are incidents of groping and catcalls in the streets, the message in ads circulating anonymously in e-mails here in Egypt is clear:

"A veil to protect, or eyes will molest," one warns.

The words sit over two illustrations, one comparing a veiled woman, her hair and neck covered in the manner known to Muslims as hijab, to a wrapped candy, untouched and pure. The other picture shows an unveiled woman, hair flying wildly and hip jutting, next to a candy that has had its wrapper stripped off and is now covered in flies.

No group has asserted responsibility for the online ads, which so far have drawn little attention outside Egyptian blogs. But the campaign comes at a time of converging debate on two keenly felt issues in Egypt: the growing social pressure on Muslim women to veil themselves; and the rising incidence of sexual harassment of women by strangers.

Surprisingly, some Egyptian women say their veils don't protect against harassment, as the ads argue, but fuel it. A survey released this summer supports the view.

"These guys are animals. If they saw a female dog, they would harass it," Hind Sayed, 20, a sidewalk vendor in Cairo's Mohandisseen district, said, staring coldly at a knot of male vendors who stood grinning a few feet from her.

In accord with her interpretation of Islamic law, which says women should dress modestly, Ms. Sayed wore a flowing black robe and black veil. They covered all but her hands and her pale face with its drawn-on, expressive eyebrows. Still, Ms. Sayed said, she daily endures suggestive comments from male customers and fellow vendors.

"I think a woman who wears hijab can be more provocative to them," Ms. Sayed said. "The more covered up you are, the more interesting you are to them."

Zuhair Mohammed, 60, a shopper on the same street who stopped wearing the traditional covering long ago, agreed: "I feel like with the hijab, it makes them wonder, 'What are you hiding underneath?' "

The United States and Britain both warn female visitors of possible unwanted attention or sexual attacks in Egypt. This summer, Egyptian lawmakers called Britain's advisory a slur; Britain responded that more female British tourists were harassed and assaulted, even raped, while in Egypt than in any other country.

A new survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights makes harassment on the streets appear not a risk but a virtual certainty: 98 percent of the foreign women and 83 percent of the Egyptian women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed in the country.

Two-thirds of the Egyptian men surveyed admitted to harassing women, in actions ranging from staring openly at their bodies, shouting explicit comments, touching the women or exposing themselves.

"It makes a woman happy when I call to her. It makes her know she's attractive," Alla Aldin Salem, 20.

"The woman herself is the one who makes men harass her," said Fawzi Tahbet, 50, who was selling kitchenware on another stretch of the sidewalk. "If she's walking, swinging as she goes, of course it will happen."

First published on August 25, 2008 at 9:11 am

 

 

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08237/906348-82.stm

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