The recent sexual assault of CBS news correspondent Lara Logan in Cairo has sparked heated debate in the American media regarding women’s issues in Egypt—in particular that of harassment.
Reactions to the attack have run the gambit, with some—like right-wing blogger Debbie Schlussel—blaming Logan for bringing the attack on herself, and others blaming Muslims and Islam. “She knew the risks,” wrote Schlussel. “And she should have known what Islam is all about. Now she knows…”
As Rachel Newcomb rightfully pointed out in the Huffington Post, “blame the Muslims” is not an acceptable response to the Lara Logan story. What happened to Logan is terrible and reprehensible, but it is not representative of Egyptian men or the Egyptian revolution. In fact, many of the reports we have received from Egyptians over the course of the protests have pointed to a decreased incidence of harassment in the streets.
Brown student Andrew Leber spoke with Radwa al-Barouni, a translator and professor at the University of Alexandria, who reported the following:
“I’ve never seen anything like it, Andrew, not in 10 years of living here. It’s beyond what you could imagine…It’s an amazing sense of community, it’s like the government has been bringing out the worst in people for so, so, long, and this is finally bringing out the best in people. I mean, there’s no sexual harassment – nothing! Can you imagine that? I finally feel safe walking around the people I’ve been afraid of for most of my life. I’ve been walking in a crowd of men all day, and not a single person has touched me, or grabbed me.”
When asked if there was anything particularly memorable about the protests in Alexandria, Dr. Wessam Elmeligi, chair of the English Department at Alexandria University commented on the prevailing atmosphere of peace and camaraderie.
“People behaved themselves. I mean even harassment, which is an increasingly serious problem in Egypt, seemed some other country’s problem. Men and women, veiled and not veiled, walked together like family although they had never met before.”
No one can deny that sexual harassment is a problem in Egypt. During my short time in Alexandria, I myself experienced the harassment that all women—Egyptian and foreign—are subject to regardless of religion or style of dress. According to a widely cited 2008 study by the Cairo-based Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, 98% of foreign women and 83% of Egyptian women reported being harassed.
However, it is important to note that within Egyptian culture, the crime of harassment is a shameful one that many men abhor. It is not uncommon for men to intervene on behalf of a woman that is being harassed and say things like “Hey! You should be treating her like she’s your sister!”
Furthermore, to suggest that Lara Logan’s attack is somehow unique to Egypt because of its large Muslim population is absurd. Violence against women—whether in the form of verbal harassment or rape—is present in every part of the world. The harassment I experienced in Egypt is not entirely unlike that I experience on a regular basis walking to my local drugstore in Miami, FL.
The fact that Lara Logan’s physical attractiveness, political correctness, and professional ambition—Simon Logan of LA Weekly suggests that she was “asking for it” by taking tough assignments—are being offered up as reasons for Logan’s assault is indicative of the strides that women have yet to make in every part of the world.
As reported by Jack Scheckner in Thursday’s issue of The Guardian, the reality is that most Egyptians, especially pro-Democracy activists, condemn the attack. Ahmad Fahm, one such demonstrator, wrote “we should have continued guarding Tahrir even in the day of celebration. I don’t know what to say. Nothing we can do or say can make up for what happened. I guess for now I can just say ‘Sorry’ to Lara and for all women Egyptians or non-Egyptians who were harassed or assaulted in Egypt before.”
Some Egyptians, including Nehad Heliel, Director of the Middlebury School in the Middle East, believe pro-Mubarak thugs—whose use of sexual violence to intimidate political dissidents is widely documented—perpetrated the attack.
“I don’t think any of the protestors did this…I’m not denying or undermining the problem of harassment in Egypt but it was very obvious for all that there was no harassment amongst the protestors, not one incident.”
Like many revolutions before it, the Egyptian revolution is more than just a political upheaval—it is also a cultural one. With the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian people have been given a unique opportunity to renegotiate the social and cultural boundaries of their country. As one Egyptian put it, “yesterday we demonstrated, today we build Egypt,”—an Egypt to be proud of. The Egyptian people have demonstrated that real change can only come from within—this is as true for political change as it is for attitudes toward women. As Egyptians continue to debate a new national identity, we can only hope that women will be among those present at the negotiating table. That would be the greatest victory for the many women whose voices rang out in demonstrations across Egypt in unison with their male compatriots.
Written by Nicole Jimenez*** a student at Brown University who was studying at the C.V. Starr Middlebury School Abroad in Alexandria.