CAIRO (AFP) — From lewd looks to inappropriate touching, experts say Egypt's growing street harassment of women is a deep-rooted and largely ignored problem shackling the country's progress.In the Arab honor/shame culture, it is inevitable that men with low self-esteem will try to boost their egos by degrading women. People who are mentally healthy have no need to put others down but those living in cultures where honor is more important than life need to feel superior to others - whether the "others" are women, Jews or infidels. Any admission that they are no better than women is a fatal injury to their bruised self-esteem.
Sexual harassment in public areas is not limited to a specific age category or social class, says the independent Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR), which is spearheading a campaign against this "social cancer" in Egypt.
Nor does an outward expression of piety protect from sexual harassment, generally defined as "all unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature, making women feel uncomfortable and unsafe."
"As soon as I step onto the street, I am surrounded by sexual predators," Rasha Shaaban, 23, from the Mediterranean city of Alexandria told AFP. "I don't feel safe, the problem is getting worse. It has become so bad that I want to leave Egypt."
According to the state National Centre for Social and Criminal Research, sexual crimes are on the rise but while they give no official figures, ECWR says that two women are raped every hour in this country of 80 million and that 90 percent of offenders are jobless men.
There are many contributing factors to the increase in sexual harassment. Rising unemployment may push some men to display their machismo on the streets. The huge cost of marriage and the fact that sex outside marriage is forbidden may also explain the behaviour, experts say.
"Men take out their frustration, not just sexual, against women," Engy Ghozlan, who runs the anti-harassment campaign at ECWR, told AFP.
But some men, who believe a woman's job is to look after the home, say that those out on the street are fair game.
"When (a woman) walks out into the street in tight trousers and tight belts, she deserves what she gets," said Mohamed al-Sayyed, 32, who works as an assistant at an upmarket hairdresser in Cairo.
"The women who come here are different from the ones in my village," he said.
Sayyed grew up in a village near Menya, in the conservative Egyptian south. "My female relatives would never be seen swaying in the street like this," he said, defensively explaining the occasional wolf whistles "and more" he directs at Cairene women.
One sociologist, Dalal al-Bizri, sees a strong link between growing religious conservatism and sexual harassment.
She told AFP that a puritan view of Islam brought over from religiously strict Saudi Arabia is partly responsible for the "culture of hate" against women.
"In the sermons of wahhabi (ultra-conservative) preachers on satellite television, we hear the worst things about women, like the fact that they should not be on the street but at home... that they have an inferior status," Bizri said.
See also my posting that 40% of all Egyptian women have been sexually harassed.