Page last updated at 16:24 GMT, Friday, 18 July 2008 17:24 UK

Egypt's sexual harassment 'cancer'

By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC News, Cairo

Noha Ostath
Noha Ostath's ordeal became a subject for discussion in the national press

Sexual harassment of women in Egypt is on the increase and observing Islamic dress code is no deterrent, according to a survey published this week.

The Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR) describes the problem as a social cancer and calls on the government to introduce legislation to curb it.

The findings contradict the widely held belief in Egypt that unveiled women are more likely to suffer harassment than veiled ones.

Experienced by 98% of foreign women visitors
Experienced by 83% of Egyptian women
62% of Egyptian men admitted harassing women
53% of Egyptian men blame women for 'bringing it on'
Source: Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights
Participants in the survey were shown pictures of women wearing different kinds of dress - from the mini skirt to the niqab (full face veil) and asked which were more likely to be harassed.

More than 60% - including female respondents - suggested the scantily clad woman was most at risk. But in reality the study concluded the majority of the victims of harassment were modestly dressed women wearing Islamic headscarves.

ECWR head Nihad Abu El-Qoumsan said that even veiled women who were victims of harassment blamed themselves.

Western women who took part in the study demonstrated a strong belief in their entitlement to personal safety and freedom of movement, she says, but this was totally absent among Egyptian respondents.

No-one spoke about freedom of choice, freedom of movement or the right to legal protection. No-one showed any awareness that the harasser was a criminal, regardless of what clothes the victim was wearing.

Shocking attitude

The centre is campaigning for a new law that clearly defines sexual harassment as a crime and makes it easier for women to report it in Egypt - women like Noha Ostath.

Egyptian street scene
Women are targets for harassment whether they are fully covered or not
The young film-maker told the BBC she was repeatedly groped in broad daylight by a van driver in a Cairo traffic jam as she walked on the pavement.

His behaviour made her so angry she ran after the van and held on to the side mirror to force the driver to stop so she could take him to a police station.

She was equally shocked by the attitude of other passers-by. Some tried to dissuade her from going to the police - others blamed her for what she was wearing (a baggy sports outfit).

In the end, after a tussle with the man that lasted for more than one hour, the strong-willed Ms Ostath dragged the man to the police station.

But even there, police officers refused to open an investigation and insisted on the presence of her father despite the fact that she is not a minor - she is 26.

Impudent allegation

After Noha's story was published in the Badeel daily, editor-in-chief Muhammad El Sayyed Said wrote that the behaviour of the crowd was characteristic of oppressed societies, where the majority identified with the oppressor.

He blamed the increase in sexual harassment on what he said were "three decades of incitement against women" from the pulpits of some of Egypt's mosques.

"This verbal incitement is based on the extremely sordid and impudent allegation that our women are not modestly dressed. This was, and still is, a flagrant lie, used to justify violence against women in the name of religion."

The British foreign office says Egypt is one of the countries with the highest number of cases reported to embassy staff regarding sexual offences against visiting women.

It warns them to be extra cautious in public places especially when alone because of the risks.

Ms Abou El-Qoumsan says Egyptians need to re-evaluate their value system and school curricula and to ensure that the rule of law prevails and prevents offenders and criminals walking free because of a breakdown of basic notions of right and wrong.

Thanks to surveys like this, one encounters an endless number of newspaper articles reflecting the feeling that Egypt is in the grip of a moral crisis.

Perhaps nothing illustrates Egypt's loss of a moral compass than the responses of some men in the ECWR study.

Some said they harassed a woman simply because they were bored. One who abused a woman wearing the niqab said she must be beautiful, or hiding something.

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