Sexual terrorism: what an irony!

Sexual terrorism, what an overrated notion!

I used to think so.

Yet, I never really thought it through except when I was walking through Downtown Cairo around the same time last year late at night in an area I’m not familiar with, unable to find a taxi, on alert, browsing people, as if anyone might ambush me, harass me, or even worse.

At the end of the day I’m a woman lost at night in one of the most crowded places in Cairo. That’s what I was thinking. It was pretty ironic given that I just finished a meeting talking about the status of gender in Egypt.

Living in Cairo my whole life, I am exposed to sexual harassment in my everyday life. In fact, me and around 99% of Egyptian women according to the well-known United Nations study from 2013. It is perfectly normal for any woman residing in Egypt regardless of her dress code.

I was pretty acquainted to sexual harassment. But sexual terrorism sounded like an overstatement. I work in the field of women’s rights; I’m a hardcore feminist advocate. It was ironic once again to be afraid from the things I work to counter.

Thankfully, I found my way and the day was saved. Thinking it through, I fully grasped the notion. As a woman I thought of myself as a target for harassment. I was scared of assault, any sexual or physical assault.

Sexual terrorism is defined by academics as “a system by which males frighten and by frightening, control and dominate females.”

It is necessary to adjust the definition to be society not males. It is the society that control’s women’s bodies, that treats them as inferior, objects, and subordinates. Women’s sovereignty over their bodies is constantly violated by society.

They are always told their body is their biggest asset. Women’s value is reduced to their bodies, to their sexual and reproductive abilities. Hence, girls and women grow up in a culture that endorses their insecurity; resulting in the multi layered dimensions of women’s relationship with their bodies. Lama Abu Odeh eloquently puts it in her paper “Post-colonial feminism and the veil: Thinking the difference,” the double construction of female bodies is illustrated as: the traditional construction of female sexuality which views women bodies as propertised by the family and trusties of the family’s sexual honor and the capitalist construction where the female body is embarked upon as sexualized and objectified.

Such social constructions demonstrate how women in both contexts are perceived as erotic sexual beings. Such construction does not only impact society’s views on women, but more importantly women’s self image. It sets the premises for women to even blame themselves for any act of harassment.

Such culture deprives women from their right to participate in the public sphere; right to education, to work, to economic independence. It deprives women from their basic right of security.

That’s our dominant culture, and that is why I was scared. Being aware of it, knowing that it isn’t only me, enables me, in fact empowers me, to counter it. Such moments, as scary, strengthens my belief in the pressing need for pursuing women’s rights in Egypt. To assert women’s basic and central right to access to the public sphere.

The impact of sexual harassment is far-reaching, it’s terrorising and so the necessity to counter such an epidemic is more than ever. As a result of civil society’s efforts, the law criminalizing sexual harassment in 2014 was such a win. For the first time, sexual harassment is defined as”gestures or words or any modern means of communication, or any other action that carries sexual or pornographic hints” and is punished with a prison sentence, a fine, or both.

Yet, a lot more efforts are needed to engage all Egyptian women, to tell them they are not alone if they are scared, to embrace their fears but should not let it get to them, to tell them that they are strong, to tell them it’s their right.

After all, the streets are ours.

A contribution from Mariam Mecky

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