This article first ran in Middle East Collective and is published here with permission of that publication and the author. The university’s response to the incident described here is at the bottom of the blog. It’s important to read both, the blog and the response.
Living in Cairo can be wonderfully exciting and unbelievably magical. Then there are those incredibly unfortunate days when, as a woman, you want to curl up inside of your home and never leave due to the intolerable behavior that the male Egyptian society often exudes. During my last semester at the American University in Cairo (AUC) I experienced sexual harassment in the cafeteria, just before I attempted to go to the library to work on my master’s thesis.
The day was scorching hot and I went to get water from a cooler. I was sliding the cooler door open when I heard the “normal” kissing and sucking sounds, that every woman regardless of race, size or clothing style hears constantly on the streets, coming from the food service workers behind me. I initially ignored the sound, not wanting to make a scene or get myself all riled up before studying. However, I heard the threatening, haunting noise again as I bent down to pick up a bottle. I turned around and saw three men staring with wide eyes, and one of them had come around the food counter and was pursing his lips at me. I thought to myself,God, is this seriously happening? Do you think I’m going to go over there and kiss you, you disgusting excuse for a man?
I couldn’t keep in my anger and embarrassment any more. I exploded.
I marched over to what looked to be the manager and explained to him what happened, by stating that I shouldn’t have to deal with this sort of harassment on campus. The man wouldn’t make eye contact with me and started laughing, looking down at his leathered hands while he counted money. Further ridiculed, I quickly become even more upset and told him,Do you honestly think I like being harassed on campus? Do you think it’s okay for me to hear these noises as I am trying to eat and learn?
Again, the manager said nothing, so I demanded to see the manager above him. Thankfully an extremely kind student, Hossam, came to my aid while I was waiting, as my angry tears boiled over. Hossam helped me translate what happened and his fury grew as he realized I wasn’t being taken seriously. Numerous students began to surround us, there was yelling and chaos, and I felt so small and insignificant as the service workers and the first manager began to deny everything that happened.
The incident escalated until the AUC managers started lying about their names, so I couldn’t properly record them for the sexual harassment file Hossam suggested I document. Some witnesses tried to walk away hoping I wouldn’t talk to them, the food service workers disappeared so I couldn’t “blame” one of them (Hossam made sure these men were all accounted for later), and other manager-types asked if I had any proof to validate my statements. Perhaps the most shocking moment of all was when a male student told me,Tolerate the harassment because someone could lose his job because of your issues. Meshy (Okay)? Are you sure that he harassed you? Maybe he was just calling you over? Khalas (Enough).
I looked him in the eyes, with Hossam by my side, and said, “To hell with that”.
The AUC is supposed to be a place where examples are set, where “model citizens” are molded, and where men aren’t suppose to act with vulgar animalistic manners. Unfortunately, AUC was not the safe haven I hoped for and it certainly was not exempt from the sexual harassment epidemic in Egypt.
Similar to many universities in the Western world where female students and staff members experience rape, sexual assault and harassment (i.e. Emma Sulkowicz’s case at Columbia University and the case of “Emily Doe” at Stanford University), the AUC still has a very long way to go before it can say it has rid itself of rape culture and sexual violence against women.
I filed a sexual harassment report, with the support from close friends and students who pushed me to believe that I was right and sexual harassment is wrong.
* Whitney Buchanan, is an American analyst on gender issues and MENA Affairs, currently based between Cairo and Berlin. She is also the founder of Middle East Collective.
The American University in Cairo has sent the below response to Al-Fanar Media:
“A complaint was filed with the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA), which investigated the incident and found the worker to have acted inappropriately. The worker, who was among the housekeeping staff, was sanctioned at the time. He is no longer employed by AUC.”