Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sexual Harassment: The Epidemic in Egypt

It was the first day of EID.  The holy month of Ramadan had just ended and Egyptians were out in the streets en mass to reward themselves for the struggle that they endured for the last month.

After visiting the mosque to say a special prayer a special time of meet and greet provided with homemade sweets, many Egyptians went to see the debut of a new film downtown.  It was Oct 2006, and Egyptians were generally excited, but their energy was pent up and the steam valve had to be released soon or somewhere whichever came first.

But the film quickly sold out and mobs of angry men showed their disapointment by tearing down the post office.  After accomplishing this and with security not present, they decided to engage in a sexual frenzy and ran around grabbing and groping any women in sight.  It didn't matter whether the woman were wearing a hijab or uncovered.

No women was safe.  Egyptian or foreigner.  They ripped off clothes and sexually assaulted on the street in front of thousands and in front of police who seemed powerless.

And the beatings and rape occurred for a brutal five hours from 7:30 pm to 12:30 am.  Yeah, the police was there, and the police just stared.

Sadly there was no explicit criminizing sexual harassment in Egypt.  The specific legal wording to aid in protection women exists nowhere, making prosecution extremely difficult.

Thankfully many good Samaritan Egyptians came to the aid of the women. Shopkeepers harbored women inside their stores.  Taxi drivers locked girls inside the cars, but the angry mob still tried to break the windshield and get the girls out.  It was pure pandemonium.

And where was the news?  The event occurred with virtually no reporting on TV or in the papers.  No CNN.  It would have gotten totally unnoticed if it wasn't for the citizen journalist who through social media channels came out to document this gross injustice.  Thankfully bloggers documented and reported the incident with vigor.  They provided pictures to the police officers who blatantly refused to take action.  They were afraid that there would be negative repercussions from their peers.

 This act led to protest on the streets by bloggers, women's rights activists and the common Egyptian who were sick and tired of the state police standing there doing nothing to quell violence.
Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, taken on 9 November 2006

The press would not be silenced after all, and the rest of the world needed to know about Egypt's shame and sexual violence.

Ancient papyrus reeds show women been afforded many rights equivalent to men
Sexual harassment is pervasive throughout the Middle East but in Egypt it is severe. Perhaps it has gotten progressively worse since that fall EID day in 2006.  In the past, , Egyptians used to respect the women.  In fact the women of ancient Egypt were afforded the same or equal rights as men.  When the Greeks invaded Egypt in 332 BC, Egyptian women were afforded more rights than Greek women.  Today, if you are a woman living in Cairo, chances are you have been sexually harassed at some point.   It happens openly in the streets, on buses, in the workplace, in the doctor's office.  It happens in front of the police, and the government is well aware of the problem but has done little to quell it.  It would happen more in the metro train if it wasn't for the women-only trains.  And what is the glaring response by society as a whole -- it is the woman's fault for wearing something provocative, for being on the street at the wrong time, for walking alone --  Harassment happens to locals, ex-pats, even tourists.  As Iman Santori from the Fleeting Glimpse blog told me, "With regards to women rights, Egypt is 50 years behind the times."  I'll say that there's no comparison -- no other civilized nation in peacetime has seen sexual harassment so pervasive and so loosely enforced.  Egypt has hit rock bottom.

survey by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights showed that:

  • 98% of foreign women visitors experienced sexual harassment

  • 83% of Egyptian women experienced sexual harassment

  • 62% of Egyptian men admitted harassing women

  • 53% of Egyptian men blame women for “bringing it on”

  • And sexual harassment by spouses can be brutally worse.  Men have been known to abuse their wives, some even burning and disfiguring them with seemingly impunity.

    What is the root cause of this harassment?  Some say it is the repercussion of a failed state -- with severe poverty, precipitous unemployment and uncontrolled population growth.  With many of the young men not working and without direction in life, they take their aggression upon the women.  The harassment ranges from catcalls to groping to indecent acts to rape.

    Some Islamic fundamentalist point to the spread of conservative Islam from the Gulf states.  Several million Egyptians went to work in the Gulf States since the early 1970s.  When they returned, they brought back a more conservative view of women in the society that requires severely more restrictive roles for women and condemn women who step outside their roles.   Egypt has one of the most liberal dress codes for women in the Middle East.  Thus, many Egyptians claims that the verbal incitement is brought on by allegations that women are not modestly dressed.

    I personally believe that although it's important to understand the root causes, they serve as no excuse for this behavior.   It is the government's lack of leadership that allowed the unemployment rates to skyrocket and it is the government that is not acting proactively and turning a blind eye to this very serious problem that is endemic in this deeply-rooted society.

    The Big Screen has Taken Notice

    In the movie, "678", a man is eyeing a middle-aged woman on a jam-packed bus and sliding his hands behind her.   Though fictional, the story is inspired by true accounts from women who had to ride bus 678 daily and become helpless victims of this lewd behavior.

    Lately Things are Changing, but will it Last?

    The Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR) describes the problem as a social cancer and calls on the government to do something quickly.

    Last year, the first man in Egyptian history was sentenced to jail and hard labor for groping filmmaker Noha Rushdi Saleh.  Sharif Gomaa drove a van besides her and grabbed her breasts so forcibly, she fell.

    Unlike what millions of other women did before, Norah took the case to court and won.  The sentence was considered so harsh that the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR) stated that this act would  "restore confidence in the legal system's ability to defend women subjected to such crimes."

    This is a huge step in the right direction, but will it be enough to stem the tide.  Will the government call on the police to crack down, take action and not just stand on the side and watch.

    Social Media Can Help

    Yes, there's Twitter and Facebook and they have done a lot for victims to network and share stories.

    A new site has been created for women to report sexual harassment:

    The harassment covers incidents from catcalls, touching, indecent exposures and sexual invitation.

    Women can now use SMS to report sexual harassment.  And they will get a response back to let them know what has been done about it.

    Hopefully social media will do much to stamp out social injustice and sexual violence in Egypt.

    Thursday, February 3, 2011

    The New Tool to Democracy: Social Media

    As a public affairs officer in the US Navy, I was intimately familiar to the power and pull of the social media revolution. Tweets, status updates, blogs, microblogs, and yes, even Vlogs, have been indispensable tools to communicate in a viral medium as well as to track the pulse and viability of a story long after it is written and forgotten.


    During the Iran presidential elections in the summer of 2009, the US State Department specifically requested that Twitter not be taken down for maintenance.  This request substantiated the geopolitical value of Twitter and forever changed the landscape of social media in government, politics, and yes, even diplomacy.

    A mini revolution ignited in Iran after the flawed Presidential election of dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.   Meanwhile, the Iranian fascist government virtually choked off the flow of news to and fro Tehran.  Many Iranians who protested that the election was rigged did so via Twitter. Twitter, not CNN, evolved as the ideal medium because it was real-time, was shot-gunned by the people closest to the action, could be deployed by virtually anyone with a computer or cell phone and was virtually impossible for the government to track or block.

    During a revolution, crisis or emergency, Twitter really showed its spunk and stamina.  Forward to the present day: Egyptians vividly remember Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979, almost a generation ago.  The unprecedented uprising of how the people threw out an indominable monarch has been magically weaved into the anecdotes of society as cohesively as the tales of Sinbad have become an endearing part of Arabian culture.  
    Credit: Washington Post

    However, history is never fully flawless. Diplomacy is screened through dense filters manipulated by the ideology of totalitarian states.  In today's dramatic string of Middle East uprisings, social media has been the decisive medium to execution.

    So could this revolution happen without Facebook?  It is no coincidence that Mark Zuckerberg was chosen as the 2010 Time Person of the Year.

    Just as Twitter was instrumental in Iran, Facebook has been even more crucial to the development of political ideology that has led to this historic uprising.  Without Facebook, poverty, struggles and tension would still tragically exist in Egypt.  But without a Facebook, there would be virtually no way for these tensions to escalate to a boiling point and no way for disparaged Egyptians to vent their anger at Mubarak -- little chance for that pent-up anger to perpetuate across nations and borders. 

    Friday, January 28, 2011

    Egypt -- Depriving the People the Human Right to Tweet

    "The rioting in Egypt is an Egyptian problem, but when the country suppresses the people's basic right to communicate amongst themselves and with people throughout the free world, it suddenly becomes a world problem, for which we must stand up and proclaim."

    Egypt means a lot to me.  My travels there this summer brought me friends and memories that will never fade as long as the Great Sphinx guards the pharaoh Khufu's Pyramids.

    And I made many friends, some who I converse with on Facebook -- others whom I've lost touch with, but they're still deep inside my thoughts today.  Though Cairo with all its congestion and chaos (had to get up at 5:00 AM just to go for a run without choking to death or been run over) was one tough city to hoe, I found Egyptians warm, open and compassionate.  They were smart, savvy, and welcomed me with a strong handshake or even a hug, and they wanted to make a difference, if not for themselves, for their children.

    And the children lived and worked in the most abject conditions I hadn't seen since Haiti.

    Though the people got my vote, the government surely lost my trust.

    The living conditions for the common people, the children allowed to labor all day for a measly $3.50, the chaotic congestion on the streets and the way their women were pushed around like commodities made me revolt in the stomach.

    Thankfully, the women of Egypt are finally saying enough is enough.  We abhor the way we are treated by our men, by our government.  We deserve to be treated more like equals.  Has that voice fallen on deaf ears?

    Tuesday, June 29, 2010

    They say that living in Cairo and breathing the foul, smoke-laden air is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day.

    I've heard and now I'm fully convinced that Cairo is one of the most polluted cities in the world.

    The cars are centuries old, many of them held together by chicken wire and duct tape.
    The drivers are even more edgy -- they don't stay in their lane, they don't stop for pedestrians and they completely ignore the sea of traffic cops that are attempting to keep things in order.

    Every time I crossed the crosswalk, I felt I was putting my life on the line.

    What's almost as bad as air pollution is the onslaught of honks, beeps and clangs throughout the busy Cairo streets -- drivers and bicyclists feel that they need to announce their presence with an unofficial siren.

    The noise is deafening, especially if you have to sleep through it. And Cairo doesn't go to sleep until 4 AM, and by 6 AM, the thick cloud of smoke and dust has finally cleared allowing one to saunter out in the predawn darkness.

    So it was with great pleasure that I had the golden opportunity to run with the Cairo Hash House Harriers during one of their weekly jaunts to the desert.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010

    The Hidden Tomb of Giza

    This is a project that shows the excitement and intrigue of the Pyramids of Giza as well as the Step Pyramid of Saqqarra and the beautiful Saharan Desert

    Saturday, June 19, 2010

    Nile and Giza

    Tuesday, May 25, 2010

    What I Learned Alone on a Saharan Sand Dune

    "I was no longer stressed.  Instead the sea of drifting sand gave me inner peace -- a peace so perfect, I knew only God could bestow."

    I was supposed to venture out to the "White Desert" to revere the mushroom-shaped limestone formations.

    I heard about the legendary white limestone cake icing that glows magical and mysterious in the faint moonlight.

    Further, Atef told me that I would be camping out with other backpackers from different parts of the world. This sounded like a lot fun to me -- staying the night in an unfamiliar landscape with people I just met, but hopefully become good friends before the night had passed.

    But there would be a sacrifice...

    Night on a Saharan Sand Dune

    I hope you enjoy this short clip of my experiences camping out in the Sahara Desert.

    A beautiful oasis
    Where I spent the night alone (w/ my guide)

    Monday, May 24, 2010

    Chapt 8 "Cairo -- A Spectacular Failure of Capitalism

    In this oft-forgotten city of entrenched customs and history, I saw so much potential and missed opportunities in the way the streets and store fronts were maintained. The buildings were beat-up, drab, squalid altogether, some almost to the point of disrepair.

    But as I really took the time to walk and observe, I noticed from one Roundabout to another that the buildings resembled European masterpieces.  There was so much character, brimming with culture -- ready to be explored and forever defined.

    Man running next to the Parliament Building

    Cairo was built in the 19th century and modeled as a European City, once referred to as the "Paris along the Nile."  Truly the city is beautiful and the River Nile is majestic and magical.

    There are many priceless relics, but today they are drab, desolate, a sooty brown, darkened from the pollution that fills every molecule of breathable air competing against the relentless stream of CO2 sputtering from every exhaust pipe, every dripping air conditioner that glamours every window ledge all around this forsaken city.

    See Note below.

    Around town, I saw massive amounts of ramshackle homes that were falling apart by the hinges, ready to collapse around the people who lived in these crumbling tenements their entire life.  What else do you expect from a city that let the population get out of hand and provided virtually no control and monitoring.  Meanwhile people kept on building and breaking zoning laws.  The government was sadly asleep.

    Sunday, May 23, 2010

    Sailing on a Faluka on the River Nile

    There is something magical about sailing on a along the River Nile.

    The River, like the ancient Pyramids, is magical.  The boat, historic and stable, felt calm and peaceful.

    The faluka is Egypt's traditional sailboat.  The Nile is the world's longest river (4,000 miles long) and runs through nine African countries.

    As we sail, enjoying the coziness of the boat, we see tall aquatic bullrushes along the majestic shoreline.

    Although, my friend Aya and I made a very short excursion near the Hyatt Hotel (where we enjoyed hometown food at the Hard Rock Cafe, we felt as if we were experiencing a true adventure.  It was so magical, romantic and dreamy, all in one.

    The Faluka is a wonderful, iron-strong boat, ready for any voyage, short or long.

    The whole experience was a pleasant part of the trip that brought me to the mystique of the Pyramids, Hash Runners who became my band of runners and a peaceful night alone in a Saharan Sand Dune, reflecting life and death lessons the night my Grandma unexpectedly died.