A recent front-page story in The New York Times about harassment and sexual assaults on women in Egypt, which have increased over the past two years, reminds me of my own experience there more than three decades ago.
I was a graduate student at the American University in Cairo in the late 1970s. From my arrival in Egypt to my departure, I can't remember a harassment-free day. Indeed, the harassment began on the day I landed at Cairo International Airport.
Arriving at the airport, bleary from a difficult overnight flight from London, I grabbed the only taxi at the outside stand. I spoke some Egyptian Colloquial Arabic and I asked the driver, Mohammed, to take me to the American University.
The sun had barely risen when I got into Mohammed's cab, but when he dropped me off at the university at closing time, I'd seen much of Cairo as well as the Great Sphinx and the pyramids of Giza. Throughout the abduction Mohammed would try to steer the car with his left hand, while trying to grope one of my legs with his right hand – a driving feat, considering I had pinned myself against the right backseat door.
Mohammed wasn't just running up the meter, he wanted to marry me. In fact, we stopped briefly at his uncle's souvenir shop and perfume palace near the pyramids and Mohammed told him that we were getting engaged.
“May God grant a successful conclusion [to the engagement],” his uncle said, handing me a small green glass vial of eye kohl through the cab window.
God, in his mercy, concluded this unwanted tour around 5 p.m. But Mohammed stalked me for another week, showing up at the university and at the apartment on the Nile River island of Zamalek, which I shared with two roommates. They had a head start on harassment management, and I seem to remember that they told Mohammed to hit the road.
The city bus we rode to the university was a daily opportunity for groping by Egyptian men. One morning, I remember getting on the bus which was overloaded with workers — especially men in drab pants and v-necked sweaters, mostly bureaucrats who worked in government administrative offices around Tahrir Square. I was clutching my textbooks and pocketbook, and trying to keep my balance.
As the bus sped along 26th of July Avenue, I heard a woman behind me say sharply to a man in his twenties who was standing close behind me, “You are very wicked.” I looked over my shoulder and saw that he had parted my wraparound skirt and had unzipped his pants. Caught almost in the act, he smiled that smile I came to abhor; the smile that said, “Don't blame me. You're a woman out in public and a khawaga [a foreigner, a loose woman].”
My roommates and I became inured to bad behavior by the boys (shabbab), who crawled under the seats in darkened movie theaters and grabbed our ankles, flashed us in street alleys in Alexandria, encircled us like sharks when we went swimming in the Mediterranean, and muttered ishta (cream) when we walked by them. We chalked it up to their sexual frustration due to the lack of socialization between the sexes, especially among the lower classes, starting at puberty.
“A dog's tail never stands straight,” says an Egyptian proverb about incorrigible habits, including the harassment and abuse of women by men.
In President Anwar Sadat's Egypt, which was opening to the West and modernizing, I was often harassed physically and verbally by men, but I never once feared for my life. Fear of Sadat's police and mukhabarat – the intelligence agents, who my roommates and I called the “green meanies” after the color of their uniforms — prevented men from public attacks on women, which are now so frequent and violent in the Arab Spring Egypt of President Mohammed Morsi.
Sexual assault of the kind that CBS News correspondent Lara Logan and many Egyptian women have suffered since the Jan. 25, 2010 revolution, which ousted President Hosni Mubarak, are the result of the general security breakdown. But they are also the result of a breakdown of human respect and decency, which is a growing worldwide phenomenon.
Innovation and modernization, including the empowerment of women and girls, is suspect and shattering for many men in Egypt, so they beat a dusty retreat into traditional mores. A substantial presence of women in public life in Egypt, and elsewhere in the world, might get the dog's tail to stand straight.