Page last updated at 10:15 GMT, Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Egyptian women learn to fight back

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Cairo

Karate practice
The women's practice can even include contests against male colleagues

In a dojo, or martial arts training area, in a poor working class suburb of Cairo, women in karate uniforms and tracksuits are learning to fight off an assailant.

In this male-dominated society it is unusual to see these women in their headscarves sparring with men, but such is the concern here at the rise of sexual harassment cases that the number attending this class grows every month.

Shaza Saeed, 14, is one of the new recruits.

"I was on my way home from school and I was attacked - I didn't know what to do," she said.

"But now I have learnt how to defend myself so I am not afraid any more. I think every girl should go to self-defence classes like this."

At the back of the gym, the mothers, some in all-covering Islamic dress, look on with admiration.

In the past some of have even joined in. There are women of all ages taking part. They fight each other and sometimes they fight the men.

Restraint technique

The instructor Redo Fathy says it is now incumbent on every woman to protect herself from the unwelcome advances of Egyptian men.

"The girls face a lot of problems," he said. "Especially the teenagers that attend high school. Some of them have long distances to travel."

Karate practice
Modest Islamic dress may be less of a deterrent than an expert karate move

"Our job is to give them the skills they need to protect themselves should something happen.

"One of our girls was attacked on the way home. A boy on a bus grabbed her from behind. She used a technique we had taught her to restrain him, until other people on the bus gathered around to help. He was later handed over to the police."

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

Sexual harassment is not usually a subject openly discussed here. But a recent survey carried out by the Egyptian Centre For Women's Rights has lifted the lid on an alarming trend.

Of just over 2,000 questioned 83% of Egyptian women said they had suffered some form of harassment.

Even more startling, nearly two thirds of the men they surveyed freely admitted they had abused a woman at one time or another.

Landmark case

The author of the report, Nihad Aboul-Qumsan, says too often it is the woman who is blamed for dressing provocatively.

"Most of the people we questioned said there wouldn't be such harassment if women dressed in a modest way. But when we questioned women on what they were wearing when they were abused more than 70% said they were wearing a headscarf.

Noha Ostadh
Noha Ostadh fought back and then went public about her ordeal

"It is no longer acceptable to blame the victim."

Egyptian women rarely report these attacks to avoid the public embarrassment or dishonour to their family. In any case there is usually very little sympathy shown by the police.

But in a landmark case last year a judge handed down a three-year sentence to a man who had repeatedly groped a woman pedestrian as he drove alongside her in Cairo.

The victim, Noha Ostadh, initially held onto her assailant's vehicle and finally succeed in dragging him to a police station.

Since that case came to light the topic has been more openly discussed in the media.

The government belatedly has recognised they have a problem. There is new legislation passing through parliament that would define sexual harassment as a crime and make it easier for women to report it.

But the women in the karate class say it will require a more concerted effort from Egyptian society, and a backlash from men themselves, if they are to win on the street the honour and respect they are afforded in the dojo.

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