I was caught up last week in following up the wave of criticism directed at talk show host Reham Saeed. The anchor disclosed private pictures of a sexual harassment victim and used those pictures to claim that the inappropriate and unethical life styles of women are the reason they are sexually harassed.
Saeed’s reasoning was that if women dress in a non-provocative manner they will never be subjected to sexual harassment. Expectedly, the episode stirred up a lot of controversy, although I still don’t know what is there to argue about when it comes to invading the privacy of someone’s life in utter disregard of basic human values and fundamental codes of professional media.
However, Reham Saeed and her ilk are quite insignificant to actually write about and debate over. The content of Egyptian media in general and television in specific has lately developed into a cheap pursuit of propaganda. Therefore, it is not worth the time to discuss the unethical and unprofessional aspects in the Egyptian media industry, and the total absence of any laws or regulations that govern this whole sector.
Perhaps the only noteworthy issue in this whole Reham Saeed fiasco is the ongoing justification of sexual harassment. Justifying this phenomenon is done on different levels and adopted by a large number of people; and within this process of justification, very sad truths about Egyptian society are unravelled.
Justifications of sexual harassment, although various and diverse, are mainly centred on two ideas: women encouraging sexual harassment through their behaviour and lifestyles, and the overall collapse of Egyptian society’s value system. In fact, both ideas are neither accurate nor remotely relevant.
Actually, the notion of justification itself is a common trait in most analyses of social, political and economic problems in Egypt. For each and every problem that arises in Egypt, you will always find those who work hard to come up with plausible but untrue reasons to justify it. Arguing that women are responsible for sexual harassment because they dress provocatively is exactly the same line of thought that produces arguments like Egyptians are not ready for democracy because there is a high illiteracy rate, security forces must be violent in order for them to be respected and be able to do their job, or those who demonstrate must be imprisoned because they do not consider the threat of terrorism the country is facing. The idea in all those justifications is one and the same; let us look for superficial painkillers instead of diagnosing core issues.
The truth about sexual harassment in Egypt is very obvious to any observer who simply walks down the streets of Cairo. Women are sexually harassed regardless of how they look, how they are dressed, where or when they are walking, their age, their attitude or their social class. Women are sexually harassed whether they are veiled or not, whether they are dressed in loose clothes or in tight jeans, whether they are riding on the subway or driving fancy cars, whether they are walking down the streets at rush hour or at midnight.
On the other hand, arguing that Egyptian society is suffering from an overall collapse of its value system is a very evasive argument, and since it is lately being used to explain so much, it will eventually explain nothing at all. I honestly believe that we cannot claim that there is a steady value system in any society, but even if there is one, the set of values included within that system should be upheld by law; otherwise, they become a subjective matter left to individual moral judgment.
The sad truth that justifications of sexual harassment reflect in Egypt is how patriarchal and biased our society has become. The real problem is with a pattern of thinking that objectifies women, not with a woman’s choice of dress code. We inherit, nurture and practice a set of social interactions that discriminate against women and subordinate their whole existence. The real problems lie within an educational system that empowers gender inequality, a moral structure that wields sexual repression and perversion, a legislative system that takes sexual harassment lightly and a judicial system that looks at sexual harassment from moral and religious perspectives rather than civic and human ones.
If we keep justifying that which we can’t admit, or denying what we’re truly guilty of, we’ll eventually yield nothing other than an ongoing plight.
Ziad A. Akl is senior researcher and webpage managing editor of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies