I recently gave a talk about the Arab Spring at a college in the Pacific Northwest and met a young female journalism student who said she was envious that I’ve been to Cairo. She considers herself something of an Egyptologist and can’t wait to go there herself.
She was blissfully unaware of how badly women are treated in Egypt, including foreign women like herself. I’ve heard one extreme sexual harassment horror story after another from women I know who have visited Cairo. I don’t personally know anyone who has been sexually assaulted in Egypt, but from my informal survey of female travelers there it appears the likelihood of a foreign woman experiencing extreme harassment approaches 100 percent.
So I’m not remotely surprised to find out about this:
A mob of hundreds of men assaulted women holding a march demanding an end to sexual harassment Friday, with the attackers overwhelming the male guardians and groping and molesting several of the female marchers in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
From the ferocity of the assault, some of the victims said it appeared to have been an organized attempt to drive women out of demonstrations and trample on the pro-democracy protest movement.
The attack follows smaller scale assaults on women this week in Tahrir, the epicenter of the uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak to step down last year. Thousands have been gathering in the square this week in protests over a variety of issues — mainly over worries that presidential elections this month will secure the continued rule by elements of Mubarak's regime backed by the ruling military.
Earlier in the week, an Associated Press reporter witnessed around 200 men assault a woman who eventually fainted before men trying to help could reach her.
I have no idea why this is such a huge problem in Egypt. It’s not because Egypt is Arab or Muslim or Middle Eastern. Lebanon isn’t like this. I understand Syria isn’t either, though I’m less certain. My wife has been to Morocco, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Libya. She experienced minor sexual harassment in Tunisia and Libya, but it was the sort that was annoying rather than horrifying. She wants to revisit both countries despite it.
The stories I’ve heard from women in Egypt, however, involve harassment that is aggressive, physical, and sometimes terrifying. I will never take my wife to Egypt. Never.
I won't presume to tell women I don't know that they shouldn't go there. For years I've had people tell me I shouldn't visit places like Lebanon and Iraq. It gets old after a while. But women who want to visit Egypt need to know what they might be in for.
Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English