WMC Women Under Siege

Why are we still surprised that Egypt’s women are not free?

Egyptians often tout their country as a beacon of culture, liberalism, and Muslim modesty in the Middle East. But in terms of freedoms for women, a recent study on how people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public showed that Egypt is significantly more conservative than its Arab neighbors. According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, 57 percent of people surveyed in Egypt believe a woman should fully cover her hair when out in public.

Many Egyptians on social media have criticized the controversial study, which found that only 14 percent of those surveyed in Egypt believe women should be able to choose their own clothing. Many Muslim or Arab males have dismissed the study as inaccurate. But if you’ve ever lived in Egypt or talked to average Egyptian men and women about their expectations for how a woman should dress, you would find the study to be shockingly representative of the situation.

Just because some Egyptians may believe the study is orientalist or that the Western world is overly obsessed with the way Middle Eastern women dress, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t something inherently wrong with the way women are viewed in the Arab world.

Women march to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2013 to protest sexual harassment. (Gigi Ibrahim)

Women who do choose to wear what they please in Egypt are sometimes viewed as social pariahs simply because they dare to express themselves in a patriarchal society. Whether physical or verbal, harassment affects most women in Egypt. A recent study by Reuters found that Egypt is one of the worst places in the Arab world for women to live. The United Nations reported that a staggering 99 percent of Egyptian females have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives.

Many on social media were shocked and offended by these stats just as they were surprised with the poll about how women should dress. But those who brush off recent findings as “orientalist” are simply refusing to air dirty laundry and doing nobody any favors. By ignoring these problems, we are continuously feeding the beast.

It is time for Egyptians to put their pride aside and realize that living conditions for women are really that abysmal.

Daily abuse

I personally know Egyptian women who have experienced nervous breakdowns as a result of sexual abuse. I know women who have shut themselves up in their homes to avoid assault. These women have told me that they try not to go out in public without a brother, father, or male companion. 

I have lived in Egypt for almost seven years. Like most women and girls, I’ve experienced verbal and physical abuse. I’ve been harassed so many times that I’ve developed a sense of paranoia when out in public. When I walk alone in the streets in Egypt, I look over my shoulders to make sure men aren’t following. Like most women, I am always in defense mode, and consequently I can’t express myself.

To divert attention from myself, I wear loose clothes, keep my face clean of makeup, and don’t let my hair down. Yet even with these precautions, I’ve had men and even young boys shout remarks about my breasts and body, remarks that have made me wish I wasn’t born a woman or that I didn’t speak Arabic. I’ve heard men mumble about how they’d like to insert their penis into my vagina or anus.

It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it is. This kind of abuse is meant to limit a woman’s participation in society. Unless you live in a bubble in Egypt, you can’t avoid it.

This kind of abuse that Egyptian women and young girls face literally on a daily basis is more than enough to inflict permanent emotional and mental damage. It is also more than enough to keep the strongest of women home. And, in all reality, this has become the norm in Egypt, yet many in the social media bubble are still somehow surprised by the statistics screaming at us that something is wrong with our society.

Is how we dress really still a choice?

Several men online said that the University of Michigan study on how people in the Middle East prefer women to dress overlooks the fact that many women “choose” to dress this way because it’s their culture.

In many cases, many women do choose to wear the veil to feel closer to God, and it is their personal right. But the veil in Egypt has become more than just a religious practice. I’ve met an endless number of women who told me they wouldn’t cover their hair if they didn’t have to. Many of these women were also told by their families, friends, and even police officers that they invite sexual harassers by wearing tight clothes, not covering their hair, or simply being out in society on a regular basis.

These women say they hope the veil could thwart off sexual predators. But that’s simply not how it works.

Then there is the seeping condescension toward women that has made its way into pop culture. Look at Donia Samir Ghanem, a young pop star who is part of the self-proclaimed liberal elite of Egypt. The singer, who is sort of Egypt’s Britney Spears, wrote a song in September about how she completely changed herself for her new beau. Ghanem proudly sings: “I’ve started to dress the way he wants, I never object to anything he says, and I see everything the way he wants me to see it. His orders I obey to the letter. I don’t speak to any other boys, and he even picks out my girl friends for me. With him, I’m like a first grade schoolgirl, and what’s weird is that I like it!”

While this may or may not be how Ghanem carries herself in her own personal life, her song is catering to a growing population of Egyptian girls who believe that this is how a woman should act to please her man. With this kind of mentality, a young girl is brought up to believe that she isn’t allowed to have her own opinion or make her own decisions.

Is it really so surprising then that the University of Michigan survey found that only such a small percentage of those polled believe a woman should be allowed to choose how she dresses?

Instead of telling women how they should dress, Egypt must start to confront its rape culture. The way a woman dresses shouldn’t be an excuse to abuse her. In fact, harassment isn’t just exclusive to non-veiled women. A 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 73 percent of the sexual harassment survivors it surveyed were veiled.

Instead of discussing these issues, blame is often thrown on radical Islamists who have corrupted the culture. Others put the blame on uneducated young men who are not able to get married because of Egypt’s ongoing economic crisis. This is not always the case and it’s no longer a valid excuse because married men harass women too. As Egyptians struggle through an identity crisis after the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi and the Islamist bloc, they refuse to realize that sexism is an inherent part of a culture that has been bolstered by a patriarchal military regime for more than 60 years.

The old guard, backed by the military, has refused in the last six decades to reform schools and the country’s education systems. By not doing this, they have in turn also limited free speech, children, freethinkers, and women. With the overthrow of Morsi, Egyptians say they have pushed aside radical Islamists, allegedly ridding themselves of backward and ignorant ways. But women are still being denied their basic rights even after the Arab Spring.

It is time to finally admit that the marginalization of women in Egypt goes beyond Islamism or an obsession with sex. Society’s problems are much bigger than that.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The text has been corrected to reflect that the study about how women should dress in public was conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, not the Pew Research Center.

More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Gender bias, Discrimination, Sexualized violence



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