Myths and responses

Sexual harassment is often justified by myths and misinformation. 

Myths create a vicious circle: they are used to excuse harassers and blame the harassed, and excuses and mislaid blame are reinforcing the idea that sexual harassment is acceptable, forgivable, manly, ‘cool’, or the fault of the harassed. 

As a result, many people who witness sexual harassment choose not to react or intervene. And with no consequences, harassers are only encouraged to act again and again.

It does not have to be this way. Myths about sexual harassment don’t stand up to the facts and can easily be proven wrong!

Here are some of the most common myths:

‘ONLY unveiled or indecently dressed women GET Harassed – respectable women don’t’

Sexual harassment happens to women and girls from all parts of Egyptian society: veiled, unveiled, young, old, married, unmarried, Egyptian and non-Egyptian. Dress or behavior does not matter. According to a 2013 UN Women study, 99.4% of women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment and an Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR)‘s 2008 study shows that 72% of women who experience sexual harassment wear the hijab (head covering) or the niqab (full face and body veil). We know that a large majority of women in Egypt do wear conservative clothing and the hijab, so these statistics clearly show that most Egyptian women get harassed, regardless of their clothing and appearance.

Someone’s clothes, way of walking, talking, or behaving is never to blame. The actions and decisions of a harasser are.

We are all responsible and able to control our actions and respect others. Think about it, if you see someone wearing a shirt that you think is ugly, will you scream from the other side of the street at the person, or will you keep your opinion about the shirt to your self and go on with your day?

‘Sexual harassment is not a big problem – there are more important things to worry about’

Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Sexual harassment is very widespread in the society and it affects everyone. HarassMap’s study from 2014 shows that 95.3% of women in Greater Cairo who were interviewed for the study, have experienced sexual harassment. In a nationwide UN Women 2013 study, 99.3% of Egyptian women surveyed said that they have been sexually harassed in their everyday life – 49.2% of them on a daily basis. According to ECWR’s 2008 study of 2000 Egyptian women and men, 83% of Egyptian women admitted to experiencing some form of sexual harassment. Similarly, over the years, HarassMap has collected thousands of stories from Egyptian women who have been sexually harassed.

Importantly, reports from people who have been harassed are not the only way to prove that sexual harassment is a serious problem – 77.4 % of the men surveyed in HarassMap’s 2014 study admitted to having harassed someone, confirming that sexual harassment is affecting a large majority of the population.

Men can also experience harassment – 2.5 percent of the reports HarassMap has received in 2010 and 2011 were from men who had been harassed by women or men.

Sexual harassment does not only seriously impact the individual who experiences it, but also society at large. It influences especially women’s mobility, participation, and productivity within the social, economic and political spheres which, in turn, has severe implications on the economy, prosperity, and wealth of the country.

‘it only happens at night in dark, deserted places or ‘bad areas’’

Again, evidence shows the opposite. Sexual harassment takes place all over Egypt, at all times of day. According to a UN Women study, 89.3% of sexual harassment incidents happen on the street, 81.8% on public transportation, 53.3% in parks and public gardens, 59.3% in markets, 60.7% on beaches and 39.2% through cell phones. 63% of reports submitted to HarassMap also indicate that harassment takes place in schools, workplaces and in private spaces such as homes.

Research also shows that sexual harassment incidents happen at all times of the day. HarassMap’s study, for example, shows that 68.2% of women were harassed during afternoon hours.

‘Women like the attention – they go out just to get harassed’

It is not up to the harasser – or the society – to decide if someone likes the ‘attention’ or not. Yes, some people might find the attention flattering, but without asking the person first, there is no way of knowing if she or he will like the ‘attention’ or not.

Would you ever excuse a thief by saying that the victim wanted to have his or her things stolen? Sexual harassment is a form of violence and bullying, and it is a crime. The victim of violence or a crime is never to blame. The perpetrator is. Still, this myth is very common, and the harassed rather than harassers are often blamed for harassment.

‘Boys will be boys!’

Sexual harassment is a crime and a learned behavior. It is not fun or a game and it is definitely not an innate manly characteristic. By telling young boys that commenting on a woman passing by is good behavior and a sign of growing up or ‘being a man’ we are responsible for creating generations of men and women who think that sexual harassment is acceptable.

Boys and men are not inherently harassers – they learn harassing behavior from other men, and from women, who teach them that this kind of behavior is ok, or even ‘natural’. Men and boys have the exact same abilities as women and girls to learn to control their actions and to respect other human beings.

‘If you ignore it, it will go away’

Silence gives the impression that sexual harassment is acceptable, or a source of shame for the harassed. It encourages harassers since they face no consequences, and provides a dangerous role model for the next generation.

Sexual harassment is a daily occurrence all over Egypt. For a long time, it has been ignored and hidden. And because of this silence, it has not only increased, but also become socially accepted. It seems to have eroded many of our traditional values of respect, communal togetherness, and care for one another. This was not always the case. In the past, bystanders’ reactions to harassment were strong. Treated much like thieves are treated today, harassers are known to have been actively and publicly shamed by way of beatings or by shaving their heads.

Nowadays, bystanders usually don’t intervene when they see sexual harassment taking place. Most people, including the police, often choose to ignore the incident. 82% of people who participated in HarassMap’s 2014 study say that they did not receive any help from people who witnessed the incident. UN Women 2013 study, shows that in 85% of cases of sexual harassment, none of the bystanders intervened to help. ECWR’s study also shows that 61.4% of male witnesses of harassment chose to ignore it and only 0.1% of witnesses tried to help.

Sexual harassment is never acceptable – and we each have to take an individual decision to be a positive role model for others and speak up with words, as well as actions.

‘Only poor or uneducated men harass women’

Given the fact that most women in Egypt experience sexual harassment frequently, this can only mean than that many men in Egypt commit it. 77.3% of the men surveyed in HarassMap’s study actually admit to having harassed someone, and 75% of them have a university education. While reports to HarassMap  don’t always say if the harasser is a man or a woman, at least 45% of harassers are identified in the reports as men. 2.5% of reports were actually submitted by men who have been harassed by men or women.

Sexual harassment is not committed by a certain type or group of people. Harassers include all parts of Egyptian society and all ages. Our reports have documented sexual harassment from managers/supervisors, teachers and professors, police officers, soldiers, security men at banks and hotels, builders, taxi or bus drivers on the streets, guys in fancy cars, doctors, salesmen, restaurant staff, peddlers, and young children.

‘Men can’t help it: The bad economic situation is preventing young men from getting married and because their religion prohibits premarital sex, they are forced to become harassers’

Sexual harassment is not related to sexual desire. It is a form of violence and it is related to power, dominance, frustration, and bullying.

Married men, and men with high incomes, also harass. HarassMap’s and UNWomen’s research shows that there is no difference between married or unmarried men in perpetrating sexual harassment. In 39% of reports to HarassMap in 2012, the harassers were children under the age of puberty.

The argument that men are helplessly incapable of controlling their bodies and minds, is not only untrue, it is also very insulting to men. We are all able and responsible to control our actions. Harassers choose to harass, and they can also choose not to harass, just as they would choose to avoid committing any other crime.

And no religion tolerates sexual harassment.

‘Sexual harassment might be annoying, but it’s not a crime’

Actually, sexual harassment is a crime according to Egyptian law. The law and its implementation are far from perfect, but it is there, and it is being used to incriminate perpetrators of sexual harassment.

In 2008 a man was charged with the crime of sexual harassment and given 3 years in prison and a fine of 5,000 LE. Another harasser was sentenced to 2 years in prison and given a 2,000 LE fine in November 2012.

There are also an increasing number of organizations and initiatives working to end sexual harassment in Egypt – more and more people are starting to say no to sexual harassment.

‘Comments and whistling are compliments, not sexual harassment’

Sexual harassment can take many forms. It can be physical, verbal, as well as completely silent, and it definitely includes comments and whistling. 

Sexual harassment is not a compliment, flirting, or harmless fun. It is intimidating and degrading and has serious effects on the harassed’s well-being and self-confidence. It influences people’s life decisions, makes them hate to go outside and impacts their entire family. A compliment, or flirting, is something that makes you feel happy, and it happens when two people take part in a mutual exchange, not when one person hurls sexual comments at the other.

Sexual harassment does not make anyone feel happy. It can seriously affect our physical and emotional well-being, creating health issues such as: headaches, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, and other stress-related disorders. Someone who has been harassed often feel angry, scared, in pain, embarrassed, ashamed, confused, powerless, unable to act, and depressed.

The impact of sexual harassment on society is also serious. It makes people scared of each other, it keeps women out of the public sphere, and it is destroying traditional Egyptian values of respect and dignity.

‘Only young and 'pretty' women get harassed’ 

Research shows that women of all ages experience sexual harassment. HarassMap’s study, for example, indicates that 96% of women in ages 18-24 get harassed, but also 97% of women in the ages 35-39, and 72% of women 40-45 years old.

Sexual harassment has nothing to do with attraction. It is a form of violence and it is related to power, dominance, frustration, and bullying.

‘flirting' is the only way for youth to meet and interact’

Sexual harassment should never be confused with consensual, respectful social interaction or flirting. We all know how to reach out to others in a polite way, so harassing behavior is never an excuse for ‘trying to get contact’ or to ‘get to know someone.’

Sexual harassment is any form of unwanted words and/or actions of a sexual nature that violate a person’s body, privacy, or feelings and make that person feel uncomfortable, threatened, insecure, scared, disrespected, startled, insulted, intimidated, abused, offended, or objectified. Wanting to get to know new people is not an excuse to intimidate, abuse or objectify anyone.

‘Harassers are always strangers in the street’

Harassers and perpetrators of other forms of sexual violence can be individuals or groups of men and/or women. The harasser can be a complete stranger or someone you know: an employer, employee, co-worker, customer, passerby, relative, family member, or a guest.

Sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence can take place anywhere, in both public and in private places, for example: the street, workplaces, public transportation, schools and universities, restaurants, malls, at home, in the company of others (family, relatives, and colleagues), online etc.