THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Veils fuel harassment in Egypt, some say

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post / August 24, 2008
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CAIRO - In a Muslim country where the numbers of women wearing the veil are rising, and so - by most accounts - are incidents of groping and catcalls in the streets, the message in ads circulating anonymously in e-mails here in Egypt is clear:

"A veil to protect, or eyes will molest," one warns.

The words sit over two illustrations, one comparing a veiled woman, her hair and neck covered in the manner known to Muslims as hijab, to a wrapped candy, untouched and pure.

The other picture shows an unveiled woman, hair flying wildly and hip jutting, next to a candy that has had its wrapper removed and is now covered in flies.

No group has claimed responsibility for the online ads, which so far have drawn little attention outside Egyptian blogs.

But the campaign comes at a time of converging debate on two keenly felt issues in Egypt: the growing social pressure on Muslim women to veil themselves and the rising incidence of sexual harassment of women by strangers.

Surprisingly, some Egyptian women say their veils don't protect against harassment, as the ads argue, but fuel it. A survey released this summer supports the view.

"These guys are animals. If they saw a female dog, they would harass it," Hind Sayed, 20, a sidewalk vendor in Cairo's Mohandisseen district, said, staring coldly at a knot of male vendors who stood grinning a few feet from her.

In accord with her interpretation of Islamic law, which says women should dress modestly, Sayed wore a flowing black robe and black veil. They covered all but her hands and her pale face with its drawn-on, expressive eyebrows.

Still, Sayed said, she daily endures suggestive comments from male customers and fellow vendors.

"I think a woman who wears hijab can be more provocative to them," Sayed said. "The more covered up you are, the more interesting you are to them."

Zuhair Mohammed, 60, a shopper on the same street who stopped wearing the traditional covering long ago, agreed: "I feel like with the hijab, it makes them wonder, 'What are you hiding underneath?' "

Mona Eltahawy, 41, an Egyptian social commentator who now lives, unveiled, in the United States, said she was harassed "countless times" while wearing hijab for nine years in Egypt. Eltahawy has concluded that the increase in veiling has contributed somehow to the increase in harassment.

"The more women veil the less men learn to behave as decent and civilized members of society," Eltahawy wrote in an interview via Facebook. "And the more women are harassed, the more they veil, thinking it will 'protect' them."

Female travelers consider Egypt one of the worst countries in the world for harassment on the streets - second only to Afghanistan, where the Taliban forced all women behind the veil and into seclusion in their homes.

The United States and Britain both warn female visitors in travel advisories of possible unwanted attention or sexual attacks in Egypt.

This summer, Egyptian lawmakers called Britain's advisory a slur; Britain responded that more female British tourists were harassed, assaulted, and raped, while in Egypt than in any other country.

A new survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights makes harassment on the streets appear not a risk but a virtual certainty: 98 percent of the foreign women and 83 percent of the Egyptian women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed in the country.

About half of all the women said they were harassed daily on the streets. Foreign women identified Egyptian policemen and other security officials as the most frequent harassers.

The survey polled 2,020 Egyptian men and women and 109 non-Egyptian women.

Two-thirds of the Egyptian men surveyed admitted to harassing women, in actions ranging from staring openly at their bodies, shouting explicit comments, touching the women, or exposing themselves.

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