Egypt minister's remarks fuel sexual harassment debate

Aleem Maqbool watches the controversial exchange between Egypt's information minister and journalist Nada Mohamed

A recent UN survey suggested an astounding 99.3% of Egyptian women had experienced harassment of one form or another. Sixty percent of those asked said they had been touched inappropriately.

Of course, the problems started within Egyptian society long before the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak, but they do appear to be worsening.

And just when the issue of sexual harassment needs decisive action, Egypt's Information Minister Salah Abdul Maksoud has caused outrage by making remarks to a female reporter that appear highly derogatory, though the minister himself is unrepentant.

"In the news conference, I asked him: 'Where is media freedom?'" says the journalist involved, Nada Mohamed.

"He said to me: 'Come here and I'll show you.' Then he laughed," she says. "This was clear harassment. I was shocked."

As it happens, Ms Mohamed's parents both accompanied her to the news conference.

"We went with Nada because things are so bad these days with security for girls, I don't want to leave her alone," says her father, Mohamed. "I call her 10 times a day if I am not with her, I am so worried."

"Then the minister said what he did and I was so angry, but it was not the place to start shouting. But I am happy other people have responded."

'Anti-Islamist prejudice'

There have been protests against Mr Abdul Maksoud and he has been questioned about his comments. But he has justified his actions by saying it was a turn of phrase that is common in Egypt.

Salah Abdul Maksoud at news conference Salah Abdul Maksoud said there was nothing unusual about his remarks

The minister remains in his post and there his been no condemnation or apology for what he said from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement to which he and President Mohammed Morsi belong.

Brotherhood supporters bristle at the suggestion that women's rights have been adversely affected by its rule.

"The evidence is that this is simply not true," says Dina Zakariya, a television presenter and also one of the leading female voices within the movement.

"I agree, there are problems, but who says it is because of the Muslim Brotherhood?"

It is Ms Zakariya's view that those who blame her movement for a negative impact on women's rights are prejudiced against Islamist groups.

"President Morsi is supporting an initiative, proposed by different women's organisations, calling for greater women's rights. That means he wants to meet their demands."

Government 'silent'

But many critics feel the information minister's remarks are more indicative of the Muslim Brotherhood's attitude towards women and their rights.

Furthermore, they feel the movement has failed to take the lead in tackling a problem that already appears to have got out of hand.

"It may not be their direct message that harassing women is OK, but when the government keeps silent about these issues, it makes things worse," says Someyya Hussein.

Ms Hussein has twice been seriously sexually assaulted in public places.

Nesma Hamoda Nesma Hamoda has been criticised by her friends for wanting to remove her headscarf

She says she has witnessed harassment from boys as young as 11 or 12 years old, and feels it all starts with signals from people of power.

"Clerics appear on TV inciting people, telling men they have the right to touch a girl if she is not 'properly' covered up. They should be stopped and brought to account but they are not," she says.

Egyptians will tell you that women now are dressing far more conservatively than they did just a few years back.

That is certainly no guarantee that they will be left alone. Many of those reporting harassment wear headscarves or even the niqab, which covers the face.

But there are some young women who are reacting against the cultural flow, by removing their veils.

"I originally wore the veil to fit in. All my classmates wore it," 18-year-old Nesma Hamoda says.

"But now with the Muslim Brotherhood, I see women are treated like objects instead of actual human beings and I don't want to be a part of it, or a part of the 'covering it up' culture."

However, Ms Hamoda says that in the current social climate, it will not be easy, and that even friends of hers have criticised her for suggesting that she remove her headscarf.

"I will wait until after my exams because I know it will be a big stress, but I have to give my statement that I am against the way my country is headed," she adds.

"It is clear that women in Egypt are facing extraordinary levels of sexual harassment."

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