Justifying, excusing, or trivialising sexual harassment is wrong. It is wrong when it is expressed in private. It is unacceptable when a known personality expresses it to a public audience. It is a dereliction of one’s duty when expressed by any official charged with looking after public welfare.
Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic has been a topic in newspapers for over a decade. Coverage has increased steadily since the birth of New Egypt in 2011 with the increased frequency of incidents, increased awareness of the problem, and better means for reporting them. Public concern has led to citizen patrols to prevent and halt harassment, and the creation of services like HARASSmap and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment for reporting, and stopping, such incidents.
One popular explanation for harassment is that the women are responsible for the harassment since, it is claimed, they flouted religious and cultural norms by adopting immodest dress and otherwise provocative behaviour. Many religious-minded people have embraced this explanation, issuing statements and pamphlets reminding women to dress modestly and to avoid provocative behaviour lest they be harassed in response.
This explanation is wrong because it ignores several crucial facts: most victims today are fully-covered; the epidemic was unheard of in the 1960s in spite of the popularity of miniskirts and short sleeves; and – most importantly – that regardless of how women are dressed or behave, men are obliged to lower their gaze and to keep their hands and cat-calls to themselves
It was bad enough when harassment was simply excused and justified by private individuals. But when public officials do anything but condemn harassment, it becomes worse.
Earlier this month (6 February), an online video of a well-known TV personality began making the rounds. The contents of the video show Salafi preacher Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah arguing that raping and sexually harassing female protesters in Tahrir Square is justified since “they are going there to get raped” and “90% of them are crusaders and the remaining 10% are widows who have no one to control them”. It is unclear how he is privy to knowledge of their true intentions, religious affiliations, and marital status. Even if his knowledge were accurate, it would not justify sexual assault in any way. In addition to contradicting the edicts of the Quran, which state where sexual relations may lawfully take place, his justification also contradicts a well-known legal principle that, in the absence of coercion, it is the perpetrator who is responsible – not the supposed instigator or assumed facilitator. As detailed elsewhere: even if a naked woman was parading around Tahrir with a sign reading “Rape me now!”, it would be sinful and criminal for anyone to oblige.
On Monday of this week (11 February), the Shura Council Human Rights Committee’s discussion of increasing sexual harassment at protests resulted in further disappointment. Members from the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party, the Salafi Al-Asala Party, and the Salafi Al-Nour Party blamed female protesters for being harassed and raped, explaining that they had placed themselves at risk. They also accused protesters of prostitution, suggested that opposition protesters quit protesting until they can manage their own safety, and explained that female protesters should not look to the Ministry of Interior for protection since the police cannot even safeguard their own safety.
While such law-makers might be excused for not knowing all the intricacies of Islamic law on such points, this is not a specialist issue: it is one of basic ethics and morality. In the case of Islamists who seek public office on the basis of calling to Islam, they are even more bound to adhere to the highest ethics and morals when in office. Blaming the victim is not indicative of that duty in the slightest.
At most, female protesters might be advised to take reasonable precautions, such as ensuring they protest in large groups – but regardless of their efforts, responsibility lies on only two parties. The first is the one who actually inflicted harm (the perpetrator) – the second is the authority responsible for maintaining safety and security for all citizens. But it is not the victim who can be blamed for the wilful actions of their aggressor.
In terms of Islamic law as it applies to this specific issue, accusations that impugn the honour and dignity of women are especially grievous, and woefully sinful. This discourse disgracefully undermines the reputations and standing of these women in society, and those that perpetrate such discourse are responsible for that as well.
Islam views the duties of community leadership in terms of stewardship and pastoral care. In one of the most well-known Prophetic traditions concerning duties, the Prophet (PBUH) said that each of us are shepherds, and we are each responsible for our flock. The concepts of stewardship and pastoral care are embodied in the legal concept that the actions of governors are contingent upon general welfare.
A consequence of these concepts is that it is a duty for authorities – such as elected representatives – to seek the general welfare of the community – not their own individual or party interests. How is this reflected when citizens are recklessly accused of being prostitutes, or wrongly blamed for violence against themselves? Rather, this in itself could be considered sinful, unethical and immoral, as it impugns upon people’s reputations and encourages further violence to take place.
No-one should trivialise such crimes against Egyptian women, as doing so is wrong, unethical, and immoral. When such statements come from public officials, this is a dereliction of public duty – when such officials were elected on religiously-derived platforms (or so it is claimed), the enormity is not reduced, but greatly multiplied.