Sexual harassment across the Arab world

From the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf, Arab women are humiliated. It seems that sexual harassment functions as an outlet for the repression suffered by Arab men at the hands of their politicians and for their suppressed sexual instincts.

In cooperation with the United Nations Population Fund, and the Swedish International Development Agency, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights organized a regional conference titled “Sexual Harassment as a Form of Social Violence, and its Impact on Women in the Arab Region”. Women from 16 Arab countries attended the conference. The female activists and leaders came to Egypt to tell their stories of sexual harassment. The same stories were told across the entire region, as all sorts of women have fallen victim to harassment, regardless of their age or the way they dress. The participants called for a unified law on sexual harassment, which they believe is the most prevalent crime today. In fact, some 80 per cent of Arab women admitted they have been subjected to some form of harassment.

Although sexual harassment seems to be a pervasive phenomenon in all Arab countries, only a handful of them have legislation addressing the problem. One of those is Algeria whose delegation did not come to Egypt, sending instead the draft Algerian law on sexual harassment which was drawn up by Nehad Abul Qumsan, the Center’s director. In her sizable study on harassment, which she submitted to the conference, Abul Qumsan said, “Harassment is a global societal phenomenon that all human communities suffer from, whether advanced or developing, and Arab countries are no exception. Twenty-seven per cent of female Algerian university students affirmed they were harassed physically by their teachers, and 44.6 per cent said they were verbally abused…”

Some 20 per cent of girls in Qatar admitted to having been exposed to the same problem. In Saudi Arabia 22.7 per cent of children have been sexually harassed. Official reports and statistics in Saudi Arabia point out that in 2002 there were 9580 incidents of moral-related crimes, out of which 997 were sexual harassment. In Yemen, 90 per cent of women reported having been harassed, whether in public places or at work. A recent study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights showed that 83 per cent of Egyptian women were subjected to one form of sexual harassment or another.

Official responses to the problem varied; with some regimes denying sexual harassment happens on a large enough scale to merit further attention. Others have worked to raise awareness, and yet others have addressed the issue through special legislation. However, the problem is still not receiving adequate attention in Arab countries. Reports and studies examining the problem, its causes, and the methods to combat it are still lacking. The study titled “Sexual Harassment is a Social Cancer”, which surveyed a sample of 2800 women, and the study titled “Clouds in Egypt’s Sky”, which included a sample of 2020 men and women, both issued by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, are among the limited studies addressing the phenomenon in the region. Both studies exposed the dangers this phenomenon poses to the victims of harassment and Egyptian society in general.

In her study Abul Qumsan then adds, “There are a number of psychological effects a victim of harassment suffers from, including frustration, agitation, bouts of fear, stress and nervous tension, little sleep and nightmares, a sense of guilt and stigmatization, headaches, fatigue, problems organizing time, stomach problems and indigestion, eating disorders (increase or decrease in weight), anger and hatred of the perpetrator, a feeling of weakness, hyperglycemia, a low self-esteem, distrusting others, problems developing sexual relationships, genital problems, isolation, and even a desire to commit suicide.”

The problem is exacerbated when the victims realize that the laws do not support them. The study “Clouds in Egypt’s Sky” found that 59.4 per cent of the sample group felt extremely angry when they were being harassed, 19.5 per cent said they were scared and hurt and felt they could be subjected to harassment anytime. Almost 13 per cent said they were embarrassed and shameful. Another 5.6 per cent said they were disturbed (had headaches, trouble sleeping, and nightmares), and an additional 3 per cent of the women blamed themselves for the incident. Slightly more than 41 per cent of foreign women said harassment seemed to be everywhere, and 35.5 per cent of those foreign women said they did not know how to act. Finally 9.2 per cent of Egyptian women said they were depressed.

On the social level, insecure women who feel threatened by sexual harassment are unable to trust others or deal with men, and are thus incapable of adapting, which could limit their participation in public life. Indeed, 43.7 per cent of the women in the sample said the harassment to which they had been subjected affected their lives, and slightly more than half of the sample said the incidents of harassment negatively affected their trust in others. Forty-two per cent said harassment has affected the way they deal with others.

Regarding how safe women feel in public and private places, the study found that 83.9 per cent of the women in the sample group do not feel safe on the street, 83.8 per cent do not feel safe on public transportation, and 27 per cent do not feel safe at their workplaces.

In Oman, the image does not seem to be any brighter. Mariam Abdallah el-Nahawy, a researcher concerned with women’s and children’s affairs, said in her study, that sexual harassment is widespread in most gulf societies, including Oman. She divided sexual harassment into two categories; the first occurring within the family, mainly in the form of incest and harassment by servants and drivers, and the second type occurring outdoors, which is remarkably widespread, specifically in the workplace.

A lawyer from Yemen, Eshraq Fadl, said Yemeni women have had to struggle to gain their human rights, as they are frequently subjected to all sorts of violence. A certain level of violence is known and socially acceptable, which is violence inflicted by husbands upon their wives. There is also another kind of violence that is not spoken of, violence inflicted by relatives, family members, coworkers and managers.

Although there are not any accurate statistics on the number of women subjected to sexual harassment and abuse in Yemen, it is safe to say the phenomenon exists in this crowded country which is plagued by poverty and illiteracy. In her study, Eshraq said men will expose their sexual organs in public places, touch the bodies of women, use indecent sexual language or ask women to have sex with them. Women are also chased by cars and harassed at the workplace and in universities.

The situation in Lebanon is not much better, as statistics suggest that one-third of Lebanese women have been subjected to harassment, assault or verbal abuse.

The main problem is the absence of social regulations and legislation that protects women from the various forms of harassment. Eshraq’s study emphasizes that most women cannot report incidents of harassment, as society tends to blame the women, especially for sexual harassment. El-Zahraa Forat, a lawyer and deputy coordinator of a Moroccan forum for women affirmed rape and sexual abuse are the most frequently occurring sexual crimes.

According to statistics by the United Nations and a report from the Permanent Arab Court To Resist Violence Against Women, illegal migration has led to the trafficking of women in the sex trade. Moroccan authorities label prostitution as a form of sexual abuse and thus combating sex tourism is a necessity to protect the lives of Moroccan citizens. Morocco has dismantled some 2800 foreign prostitution rings targeting Moroccan girls.

Sexual harassment is spreading in closed Saudi society, said el-Jawhara Bent Mohamed el-Wabel, head of the board of directors of el-Malek Abdel Aziz Charity Organization for Women. He said that children, especially girls, are frequently subjected to harassment, with a considerable percentage of children being ill-treated, abused, emotionally abused and sexually harassed.

Rates of sexual harassment seem to be higher in extremely insular societies, which strictly separate the two sexes, as well as in very open societies. However, because the topic is viewed as taboo, it is shrouded in secrecy and there are not any precise statistics available. In fact, everyone seems to become angry when groups try to shed light on this dangerous phenomenon. Calls to raise awareness of the issues in the media and in schools are often frowned upon. There is a need for a greater number of campaigns aimed at reducing sexual harassment, providing hotlines for victims seeking help and helping victims of family violence.

Translated from the Arabic Edition.

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