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In Egypt, Some Women Say That Veils Increase Harassment

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.

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.

Bystanders filmed the episode and posted it on YouTube. It became an embarrassment to Egypt's government and a spark for the first public debate on sexual harassment in Egypt. A female lawmaker now is pushing legislation that would allow jail sentences for some forms of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Anecdotes told by the women who were surveyed portrayed women choosing to give up jobs and education because of harassment, Komsan said. She presented Egyptian news media with the case of a 14-year-old girl who stopped going to school because of the harassment she suffered on a public bus during the daily trips to school and back. The girl's father had come to the women's rights center, seeking help in getting his daughter back to class.

An estimated 80 percent of Egyptian women now wear hijab. Pressure on the remainder to cover up grows every year, as fundamentalism gains influence in Muslim societies worldwide.

"Bravo, you've taken the veil," a popular Egyptian singer croons in one music video, which shows a previously neglectful boyfriend beaming and offering a wedding ring when his formerly uncovered girlfriend dons a head scarf.

Veiling parties laud girls who've covered up. Egyptian women who don't wear hijab say that, more and more, they encounter strangers urging them in the streets, "Sister, you'd be more beautiful if you veiled."

At the women's rights center, Komsan recounted a few of the many reasons, in addition to religion, that prompt women to veil: rebellion against a less openly devout older generation; a desire to demonstrate Islamic solidarity; a desire to show oneself a good girl who would make a good wife.

Asked how many women also wore the veil in hopes of protecting against harassment, Komsan smiled. "Most," she said.

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