Please Pay Attention To Egypt Again, For Its Women's Sake

Egyptian women have the chance to have their voices heard in government for the first time in decades, but only if people listen to them.
Publish date:
June 21, 2011
sexism, travel, feminism, egypt, equal rights

In Egypt, the revolution may still be underway but it is certainly no longer being televised over here. Which is a shame seeing as what happens next -- the forming of a new government which will shape the country’s future -- though less photogenic and far more complicated than the massive protests, is the most important part.

There is a lot at stake.

80 percent of Egyptian women are circumcised. Sexual harassment in Cairo is an enormous problem the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else in the world (and I lived in Bushwick). Laws consistently favor men and law enforcement is considered dangerous to many Egyptian women. Some of the women who were arrested during the protests in March were forced to undergo “virginity tests” while in detention.

"We didn't want the women to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them. So we wanted to prove they weren't virgins in the first place," a general told CNN.

Now, women have the chance to have their voices heard in government for the first time in decades, but only if people listen to them.

I lived in Egypt for several years, first as a student at the American University, then working as an editor of a magazine in Cairo. Nearly every day I was followed by a boy making kissing noises or a man in a car who would roll along next to me as I walked home from work. I would keep looking ahead as he leaned over the passenger seat and tried to convince me to ride with him, “Where are you going?” I’d stare straight ahead at the cracked sidewalk and row of advertisements for shampoo, which someone had taken a magic marker to, covering the woman’s face in shameful black scribbles for daring to bare her hair on the street like some sort of hussy.

It was especially bad around Tahrir Square, where unemployed young men gathered to hang out in the evening, loitering and harassing girls coming up out of the subway stations. When I saw what happened there to Lara Logan I was transported back to the feeling of utter helplessness that would overtake me at times just from walking down the street and the embarrassment of being groped in the subway.

No headscarf will protect you from harassment in Cairo. While I lived there, these videos of veiled women being sexually assaulted by hundreds of men surfaced after Eid celebrations.

Young men in groups were the worst. Ignoring them wouldn't work, nor would scolding. All you can do is suck in a deep breath and try to retain your dignity. It is an exhausting feeling, seething with anger while at the same time being afraid for your safety.

Once, walking home from a particularly miserable day at work I realized a man was behind me. He was silent, turning the corner when I did, following me home. When I walked quickly so did he. When I got to my block I turned and screamed at him in Arabic, “God is watching you!”

He froze for a moment, then turned and walked very quickly in the opposite direction. It was a triumphant moment for me. Shaking, I pulled out my keys and went into my building. I heard the little girl who lived next door run to the peephole. She loved to watch me, the foreigner. She was shy but precocious. She liked to draw. When I left Egypt I gave her my pens and paints.

Now, I think of her when I think of Egypt's new government. She should be represented. She should have rights. She should never have her clitoris removed by some barber or be groped on the street. She deserves better than that. She deserves to have a voice. And our attention.