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Monday, August 18, 2008

Egypt: Hijab women get more harassment

The Sacramento Bee has a fluff piece about an Islamic booth at the California State Fair:
"Just out of curiosity – and I don't mean any disrespect," asked Cassidy, who lives in Cool, "but why do you (Muslim women) cover your heads?"

Salihah Bustamam, 25, smiled and answered that it is wrong to think that their religion subjugates women.

"It holds women in high regard," said Bustamam.

According to the WhyIslam Web site, for Muslim women who veil themselves or practice hijab, it represents an act of obedience to God. It also represents a step toward freedom from being judged by their looks rather than their intellect.

Well, this might not be quite true. From the Washington Post:
Surprisingly, some Egyptian women say that their veils don't protect against harassment..., but fuel it. A survey released this summer supports the view.

"These guys are animals. If they saw a female dog, they would harass it," Hind Sayed, a 20-year-old sidewalk vendor in Cairo's Mohandisseen district, said, staring coldly at a knot of male vendors who stood grinning a few feet from her.
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In accord with her interpretation of Islamic law, which says women should dress modestly, Sayed wore a flowing black robe and black veil. Together, they covered all but her hands and her pale face with its drawn-on, expressive eyebrows. Despite her attire, Sayed said, she daily endures suggestive comments from male customers and fellow vendors.

"I think a woman who wears hijab can be more provocative to them," Sayed said. "The more covered up you are, the more interesting you are to them."

Zuhair Mohammed, a 60-year-old shopper on the same street, said she long ago stopped wearing the traditional Islamic covering, in part for that reason.

"I feel like with the hijab, it makes them wonder, 'What are you hiding underneath?' " Mohammed said.

Mona Eltahawy, a 41-year-old Egyptian social commentator who now lives, unveiled, in the United States, said that as a Muslim woman who wore hijab for nine years and was harassed "countless times" in Egypt, she has concluded that the increase in veiling has somehow contributed to the increase in harassment.

"The more women veil the less men learn to behave as decent and civilized members of society," Eltahawy wrote in an interview via Facebook. "And the more women are harassed, the more they veil thinking it will 'protect' them."

Female travelers consider Egypt one of the worst countries in the world for harassment on the streets -- second only to Afghanistan, where the Taliban forced all women behind the veil and into seclusion in their homes.

And it's not just women's perceptions. The United States and Britain both warn female visitors in travel advisories that they may face unwanted attention, or sexual attacks, in Egypt.

When Egyptian lawmakers objected to Britain's advisory this summer, calling it a slur, Britain responded that more female British tourists were harassed and assaulted, even raped, while in Egypt than in any other country.

A new survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights makes harassment on the streets appear not a risk, but a virtual certainty. According to the center, 98 percent of the foreign women and 83 percent of the Egyptian women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed in the country.

About half of the women, Egyptian and non-Egyptian, said they were harassed every day as they went about the streets. The survey polled 2,020 Egyptian men and women and 109 non-Egyptian women.

Foreign women identified Egyptian policemen and other security officials as the most frequent harassers.

Two-thirds of the Egyptian men surveyed admitted to harassing women, in actions ranging from staring openly at their bodies, shouting explicit comments, touching the women or exposing themselves.

"It makes a woman happy when I call to her. It makes her know she's attractive," 20-year-old Alla Aldin Salem said on the sidewalk in Mohandisseen, after going out of earshot of the glaring fellow vendor in hijab.

"The woman herself is the one who makes men harass her," said Fawzi Tahbet, a 50-year-old man selling kitchenware on another stretch of the sidewalk, under the shade of a tree. "If she's walking, swinging as she goes, of course it will happen."

In fact, the survey's results challenged a stereotype, according to Nehad Komsan, chairwoman of the women's rights center.

While both men and women surveyed said that short skirts and tight clothes triggered harassment, the survey found that women in hijab were the most frequent targets of unwanted comments and touching on the street.

Among Egyptian women, 72 percent of those who described incidents of harassment said they were veiled at the time.

"It surprised me," said Komsan, who wears hijab. "It doesn't matter what you wear."

Egypt's most notorious case of harassment occurred last year when two fully veiled Gulf Arab women were surrounded by dozens of men on a street and molested.