Last week, Egypt was rocked by a mass sexual-harassment incident that took place in the halls of Cairo University’s law school. A girl with long blonde hair and tight clothes was followed by a mob of male students who kept harassing her until she escaped and hid inside the women’s bathroom. But the mob kept waiting outside. The university’s security guards had to escort her off from the campus because she was still followed by that same undaunted mob of harassers. The guards got her into a taxi and sent her home.
While sexual harassment is an epidemic in Egypt, this particular incident shocked people for two reasons: One, it took place in the law school, whose purpose is to train its students to defend the rights of the accused as lawyers or enforce the law as public prosecutors in the future. Two, in a statement, the university president, Gaber Nassar, blamed the incident on the way the girl was dressed, calling it provocative and unfitting for the university environment.
Facing a huge wave of attacks on social media, Nassar issued a public apology the same day, but that did little to quiet down the media frenzy that followed. Almost every talk show host on Egypt’s various TV channels discussed the incident and most of them to some degree adopted the “blame the victim” narrative. Tamer Amin, a famous talk show host on the Saudi-owned Rotana Masrya channel, referred to the victim as dressed in a “whorish manner,” which “clearly invited” the harassers to act this way. Also facing a public backlash, he issued an apology the next day, but still couldn’t help but advise the girl to watch what she wears the next time, for her own safety of course.
There has been numerous attempts to study the roots of sexual harassment in Egypt, with the Egyptian conservative misogynistic patriarchal culture usually regarded as being to blame. However, given how engrained the act of sexual harassment is in Egyptian society, specifically how for the past 10 years Egypt has been mostly plagued by harassers no older than children, some people started looking towards public education and were shocked by what they found in the curriculum. A favorite example is widely shared picture of a page in a fourth-grade schoolbook containing an exercise that asks the student to
circle the animal that lays eggs, with a woman being one of the options, alongside with chickens and cows.
Textbooks are naturally only one of the factors, but I believe the real issue stems from the public schools usually separating girls from boys. Not only does this separation prevent the healthy interaction between boys and girls during their formative years but it also engrains the culture of “the other” for both genders. Universities become the two genders’ first chance at intermingling and interacting with each other. Male students who have had almost no interaction with women due to society’s enforced segregation are completely dependent on the hormone-driven fantasies that their equally clueless compatriots provide about them. Men not used to being around women suddenly are interacting with them on a daily basis. While there are many positive possible outcomes to such interaction, one big negative outcome has been sexual harassment. (See a related article “The Fight Against Sexual Harassment on Arab Campuses.”)
While there are social and religious components to this phenomenon, one organization that could tackle the problem could be the educational system itself. Although little doubt exists that the whole educational system needs a complete overhaul, one cannot afford to wait for an entire generation to test whether such an overhaul will work. In order to reach quick results, the re-education efforts of men’s attitudes to women will have to fall on the shoulders of higher education.
Given that higher education is where the two genders first interact, specific classes should become fixed requirements for all freshmen students in the first semester to smooth the transition. Classes that teach gender studies, women’s studies, critical thinking and human rights should become part of the orientation process for newly admitted students in public universities. It should be considered a part of the rehabilitation process for both genders to become healthier participants in an otherwise rapidly decaying society and an integral part of readying those students to the real world after graduation.
Sexual harassment should be no more welcome in the workplace than it is on university campuses. Students should be educated so they do not make their inappropriate behavior a problem of their future employers. Such classes would not be a panacea, and cannot possibly end sexual harassment on their own, but they could definitely reduce the harm that sexual harassment causes and limit its occurrence among educated young people. We need to fight the social narrative that aids the existence of sexual harassment and drive it off university campuses all together.
Mahmoud Salem is a writer, columnist and social entrepreneur. You can follow him on twitter @sandmonkey.