“After I had spent three years in the company, I realized that as a prostitute I had been regarded with more respect, and had been more highly valued than all the female employees, myself included. In those days I lived in a house with a private toilet. I could enter it at any time, and lock the door without anybody rushing me.
“My body was never hemmed in by other bodies in the bus, nor was it prey to male organs pressing up against it from in front and behind. Its price was not cheap, and could not be paid for by a mere raise in salary, an invitation to dinner, or a drive along the Nile in somebody’s car. Nor was it considered the price I was supposed to pay in order to gain my director’s good will, or avoid the chairman’s anger.”
This sharp-edged description by Firdaus, the main character in the book “Woman at Point Zero” by Nawal El Saadawi, was written 38 years ago in Egypt in Arabic – and its publication was banned.
“I came to realize that a female employee is more afraid of losing her job than a prostitute is of losing her life. An employee is scared of losing her job and becoming a prostitute because she does not understand that the prostitute’s life is in fact better than hers. And so she pays the price of her illusory fears with her life, her health, her body, and her mind. She pays the highest price for things of the lowest value. I now knew that all of us were prostitutes who sold themselves at varying prices, and that an expensive prostitute was better than a cheap one.”
If you are looking for the sources of the Arab Me Too movement, you can find them in this profound book that shines a light on the ills of Egyptian society in particular, and Arab society in general concerning their attitude toward women.
For these women, the Me Too movement is a belated expression of a reality they know all too well. In their view, it may be an important step that can, and may even be succeeding, in changing the consciousness in the West, but it also arouses envy because it can’t help them. Despite dozens of Facebook pages that have been opened in the last year with the title Me Too (in Arabic), and which have joined by many men who support the women’s struggle – the denunciation of bosses, relatives, celebrities or just “ordinary” sexual harassers or abusers is still not something that is done.
The very rare exception was a suit filed last month by Egyptian journalist Mai al-Shami against her boss, the executive editor of the Al-Youm al-Saba’a newspaper, Dandarawi Al-Harawi , for sexual harassment that lasted for over a year. The details of the alleged harassment were presented on her Facebook page and she even told her story to the editor-in-chief. Al-Shami may have received extensive coverage in the media, but most of it was not the type that she had expected. Some of her colleagues came out against her. Harawi’s supporters described her as a habitual liar. No one is even taking about suspending Harawi from his job at the paper, while al-Shams has been banned from entering the newspaper’s building. It is unlikely that the achievements of the Me Too movement will impress the Egyptian judge who will have to decide the case of the abusive editor.
“The harasser does not ride with us,” is the title of the Twitter account and the posters on the back of buses in Tunisia. This is how the organization for women’s rights in Tunisia tried to raise the public awareness about the “plague of harassment” and enlist the government to act against it. But as in Egypt and Jordan, which increased the punishments for sexual harassment and domestic violence, these laws have been ignored in light of the heavy social pressure against filing complaints, and when a complaint is submitted it is treated with contempt by the police and prosecutors.
“I am willing to work another shift every day just so my wife does not go out to work in a place where there are men,” a Jordanian from the economic elite recently told me. “Sexual harassment, mostly verbal, is part of our existence. I’m sure that I too harassed quite a few women during my career,” he admitted honestly, when we talked again in preparation for this article.
He was not overly impressed by the activities of the Me Too movement. “Such a movement has no chance of succeeding here and not only because we are a male and chauvinist society. Every Western movement, as positive and essential as it may be, will run into a defensive wall that is supported by ideological justifications. One time it will be a claim that the West wants to dictate different social rules to us that will destroy the foundations of our society and another time its will be seen as a threat against Islam. No one will admit that such a movement is a threat to the ugly practice that conceals hollow masculinity. If we want such a step to succeed here, it must come from the men and not women,” he said.
It was actually during the revolution of the Arab Spring, in which women protested alongside men, helped in preparing the signs, treated the injured and were wounded themselves, that women were subjected to severe sexual harassment and abuse not only by the young male protesters but also by the police, who took advantage of the crowded public space.
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Reports of serious abuse filled the newspapers and only when the demonstrations died down and the Mubarak regime fell, and after a new parliament was elected, did legislators find time to address the issue of sexual harassment. It was a great moment for women’s organizations, which began a public campaign to expose the scope of the problem. Independent initiatives that arose on social networks, and even in the streets, offered women a chance to tell their stories and present their harsh experiences on improvised stages to spread awareness.
But about a year ago, the Tunisian women’s rights organization released figures showing that the number of cases of sexual harassment in the country actually climbed by 74 percent. It is hard to know how accurate this figure is. One can only hope that it is partially the result of more women daring to complain — in a step that highlights the courage demonstrated by more Arab women willing to tell their stories in their full names on Facebook and Twitter.
Women may be able to draw encouragement from an Egyptian court’s sentencing a lawyer, Nabih al-Wahsh, to three years in prison and a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds for his comments in a television interview in which he said that women who wear ripped jeans should be raped and called this a “national duty.” The ruling of the mufti of Egypt that harassing women is a violation of Islamic law was also encouraging. But overall, for now it seems as though the more the scope of harassment in Arab countries is exposed, the more the chance of a dialogue on the issue recedes until such a discussion looks more like a desert mirage.