Many things have changed in Egypt since the Arab Spring uprising in 2011. But one thing that's remained a constant is sexual harassment. Egyptian women were harassed — and sometimes attacked — before the revolution, and they're still being harassed and attacked now.
A new survey of gender experts in 22 Arab states, conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, found that Egypt ranks at the bottom when it comes to treatment of women. And that's partly because of the pervasive harassment.
American reporter Julia Simon, who lived in Cairo for two years, says she was harassed every day.
"It's incessant," she says. "That's why it has such a big impact. Walking down the street, you feel stressed out all the time, you can't relax."
She points out that it doesn't just happen to young women or foreign women; it happens to all women.
"If you have two X chromosomes, you're going to get harassed. You could be any age. You could have dark hair, you could have blond hair, you could be wearing a hijab. It doesn't matter."
She says that the women she knows in Egypt have "built up a kind of armor" around themselves: "When we walk on the streets, we are constantly on guard."
One day, Julia Simon decided to try to interview one of the men who was harassing her. She chose to speak with a man whose name was Ahmed, because his comment wasn't especially threatening — he said, "you're like sugar." He agreed to speak with her on tape, and below is the transcript of a portion of their conversation, translated into English.
[If you have questions for Julia about her experiences in Cario, post them in the comments below. Julia will be online taking questions on Tuesday until 9pm ET]
JS: Do you think it's okay to talk to a woman and say she's like sugar?
A: Yeah, it's fine.
JS: In your life, have you ever put your hands on a woman? In Tahrir, some guys do that. You understand? Have you ever done that?
JS: Where and when?
A: Outside in a public place.
JS: A lot of times?
A: Not really. Just sometimes.
JS: Just sometimes. What do women do? Do they get mad?
A: There are ones that get upset and ones who don't — there are two kinds. It's not every girl.
JS: Which girls. Girls with hijab?
A: Not all of them, but yes, some of them wear the hijab.
JS: How old are you?
JS: Is verbal harassment forbidden by Islamic law?
A: No. Verbal harassment is not forbidden.
JS: Well I have to tell you, in my opinion, when I’m having a bad day and there’s a guy on the street, a guy like you, and he says to me, “you’re like sugar” or goes like “ssss sss" (hissing noise), it makes me very upset. I’m not happy. It makes me very sad. because you are treating me like I’m a tree, or a water bottle, as if I’m not a human being.
A: I'm sorry. Don't get upset. I'm sorry, it was just an expression, and I didn't mean any harm. There are others who do things in a very different way, not like me. There are girls who if I exchange words, then we become friends.
JS: When I was walking down the street, did you think I was a human being? What did you think of me?
A: Listen, I didn't expect you to talk back to me, so when you talked to me, I talked back.
JS: What did you think of me?
A: I didn't see you, you were wearing your sunglasses. I didn't see your eyes. You came back, took off sunglasses and talked to me.
JS: But before I came back to talk to you, just because I’m a woman, you harassed me?
JS: How long have you been doing verbal harassment like this?
A: Look, there are nice ways — it's like flirting, there's good flirting and bad flirting.
JS: What do girls do when you harass them?
A: Girls? Real girls? The majority of them reply back, but there are others who don't say anything.
JS: What are you feeling when you verbally harass girls?
A: I don't know. I told you it was just flirtation. Just flirtation, do you understand?
JS: If a guy did this to your sister, what would you do?
A: What I would do? If it was my sister, she wouldn't reply back. I'm sure she wouldn't reply. For me, it's just a simple expression. When I see a beautiful girl, I just say it.
JS: What would your parents say if they knew you said to me, “You’re like sugar”?
A: Well, they don't know.
JS: (LAUGH) Imagine!
A: Well if they knew, they would say, no, don't do this, it's like your sister, but they don't know! (LAUGH)
JS: Do you ever think about how your life would be different if you were a girl walking the streets of Cairo?
A: If I'm a girl? No.
JS: Do you think that this verbal harassment is okay?
A: This is how we are. Our people are like this. It’s normal, it’s everyday. It's just talking, it's just flirtation. Like I said, there are different kinds, there is good flirtation and bad flirtation.
JS: It's just normal? In America, there isn’t this prevalence of verbal harassment.* In Europe, there isn’t verbal harassment like this. Only in Egypt!
A: Only Egypt?
JS: In the Arab world, Egypt is famous for its sexual harassment, for the streets not being good for women. What do you think of this?
A: My opinion on what exactly?
JS: What do you think of the fact that Egypt is famous, Egyptian youth are famous for verbal sexual harassment?
A: All this because I flirted with you? We're not famous for this. There's politeness. I just like to do this, I like to say “you’re like sugar,” but I won’t do it anymore.
JS: Well, is there any thing else you want to say?
A: No, thank you. God keep you safe. Do you want anything else?
JS: No, thank you.
[*Update: An additional note from Julia Simon]
When talking about street harassment in the US I feel it is important to note that I am a white woman. I know that my experience of catcalling in the US is vastly different from the experiences of some of my friends who are women of color -- that is to say, I experience it rarely, they experience it frequently. The US has a long way to go to make our streets safe for all women and I hope to report on street harassment in the US in the future. For now, I'd like to share some links.
Here's an article in the Harvard Law Review by Cynthia Grant Bowman called "Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women". It's about the US. Also, be sure to check out the work of Hannah Price, a photographer who is taking the portraits of the men who verbally harass her on the streets of Philadelphia.