CAIRO — It wasn't funny.
Al-Masry al-Youm, the most widely circulated privately owned newspaper in Egypt, sparked outrage when it published a cartoon that many viewed as condoning sexual harassment.
The cartoon depicted a man meeting with a woman’s father to ask for her hand in marriage. He told the father that he should feel grateful that he is asking to marry his daughter after “half the young men in the neighborhood sexually harassed her during" the Muslim holiday of Eid, which ended over the weekend.
All this unfolds while the smiling woman peers from a doorway.
Egypt has historically experienced surges in sexual harassment during Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday marking the end of of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. But the targeting of women is a serious and endemic problem throughout the year: According to a study by U.N. Women, more than 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have experienced either verbal harassment or physical assault. Mob harassment and attacks are particularly common during Eid.
Egypt's National Council for Women, a governmental organization, announced that there were 91 incidents of harassment reported this Eid. Another group, Infrad, a privately owned news portal, has the number of reported incidents at 200, citing data issued by Egypt's Interior Ministry.
Activists sharply criticized the cartoon for making light of the issue.
One prominent grassroots group called the Anti-harassment Movement, one of many organizations working on countering sexually based gender attacks, described the cartoon as “disgusting” and said it promoted “the idea that the victim should be blamed.”
A prominent gender rights activist, Dalia Abd el Hameed, condemned the cartoon as “attacking one of the most important achievements we have achieved, which is that women can speak up without fear or shame.”
The backlash prompted Al-Masry al-Youm to remove the cartoon from its website. It also issued an apology, saying that it was “against stigmatizing the victim” and “committed to fighting this crime by all means possible.”
In Egypt, sexual harassment is punishable by prison time and hefty fines.
Authorities say that incidents of mob harassment have declined, especially in urban areas, as police increase their presence in these areas. More specifically, female police officers from a special unit to combat violence against women have been deployed.
But activists are skeptical. The data, they contend, is not sufficient to back the claims of the government and police. As the cartoon revealed, sexual harassment remains widespread.