In Egypt, Some Women Say That Veils Increase Harassment

Egyptian women wearing the niqab, a face veil that leaves a slit for the eyes, chat in Cairo. An e-mail campaign urges women to cover up, saying, "A veil to protect, or eyes will molest."
Egyptian women wearing the niqab, a face veil that leaves a slit for the eyes, chat in Cairo. An e-mail campaign urges women to cover up, saying, "A veil to protect, or eyes will molest." (By Mohamed Al-sehety -- Associated Press)

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 17, 2008

CAIRO -- In a Muslim country where the numbers of women wearing the veil are rising, and so -- by most accounts -- are incidents of groping and catcalls in the streets, the message in ads circulating anonymously in e-mails here in Egypt is clear:

"A veil to protect, or eyes will molest," one warns.

The words sit over two illustrations, one comparing a veiled woman, her hair and neck covered in the manner known to Muslims as hijab, to a wrapped candy, untouched and pure.

The other picture shows an unveiled woman, hair flying wildly and hip jutting, next to a candy that has had its wrapper stripped off -- and is now covered in flies.

"You can't stop them, but you can protect yourself," warns another ad likening men to flies and women to sweets. Bloggers in Egypt have taken to calling such messages the "veil your lollipop" campaign.

No group has asserted responsibility for the online ads, which so far have drawn little attention outside Egyptian blogs. But the campaign comes at a time of converging debate on two keenly felt issues in Egypt: the growing social pressure on Muslim women to veil themselves; and the rising incidence of sexual harassment of women by strangers.

Surprisingly, some Egyptian women say that their veils don't protect against harassment, as the lollipop ads argue, 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.

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.


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