PERHAPS THE MOST SHOCKING THING about the despicable sexual attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Cairo's Tahrir Square is that to those who know Egypt, it wasn't shocking at all.
"Why is sexual harassment in Egypt so rampant?" asked the headline over a story written by CNN's Mary Rogers last November. A veteran producer and camerawoman who has lived in the country since 1994, Rogers reported that the experience of being publicly molested unites women across Egypt's social spectrum.
"Young, old, foreign, Egyptian, poor, middle class, or wealthy, it doesn't matter," she wrote. "Dressed in hijab, niqab, or western wear, it doesn't matter. If you are a woman living in Cairo, chances are you have been sexually harassed. It happens on the streets, on crowded buses, in the workplace, in schools, and even in a doctor's office." Rogers discovered the ugly reality soon after her arrival in the country, when, as she was walking home from work, a stranger "reached out, and casually grabbed my breast." After repeatedly enduring such obnoxious harassment, Rogers stopped walking to and from her office.
In a swath of the globe notorious for mistreating women, Egypt is particularly infamous. According to a survey conducted in 2008 by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, 83 percent of native Egyptian women and 98 percent of women visiting from abroad have experienced some form of public sexual harassment. More than half the Egyptian women reported being molested every day. And contrary to popular belief, most of the victims of this "social cancer," as the Center called it, were wearing modest Islamic dress.
Not all sexual harassment is physical -- besides groping women's bodies, grabbing at their clothing, and indecent exposure, it can also include blatant ogling, sexual catcalls, and stalking. What happened to Logan, however, was serious enough to land her in a hospital.
CBS reported that on Feb. 11, the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left office, Logan became separated from her "60 Minutes" crew and found herself "surrounded by a dangerous element amidst the celebration . . . a mob of more than 200 people whipped into frenzy." In an attack that lasted more than 20 minutes, she suffered what CBS called "a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating." Eventually she was rescued by a group of women and a squad of Egyptian soldiers. Logan was flown to the United States the next morning, and was hospitalized until February 16.
If this is how Egyptian men are capable of treating women in public, at a moment of national celebration and international attention, what are they are apt to do to women in private when they are angry or frustrated? Data compiled by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics indicates that half of all married women experience violence in Egypt, usually at the hands of their husbands. A different study, cited by the 2009 Arab Human Development Report, estimated that 35 percent of married Egyptian women have been physically attacked -- but the report cautions that violence against women is severely under-reported in the Arab world, because "the subject is taboo" and women who file complaints are considered shamed.
Leaflets from a campaign to end sexual harassment being run by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights. (CNN.com)
"Sexual violence is not an aberration [in] Egypt," writes Joseph Mayton, the editor of Bikya Masr, an online provider of independent Egyptian journalism. "It has a deep-rooted history." The subject flared briefly onto the public agenda in 2006, when a mob of men and boys rampaged outside a downtown Cairo theater, groping and tearing at any woman unfortunate enough to be within reach. But "after a few weeks of heated discussion," Mayton says, the customary silence and denial had returned.
The recent Egyptian uprising has inspired flights of excited rhetoric about freedom, reform, and a new beginning for Egypt. But the sickening assault on Lara Logan is a reminder that much of Egypt's cruelty and corruption had nothing to do with Mubarak or his regime. No nation or culture that subjects half its population to the degradation suffered by women in Egypt and so much of the Arab world can ever hope to rise to greatness.
In a famous letter written during America's revolution in 1776, Abigail Adams implored her husband John: "Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. . . . Abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex." That was cogent advice for 18th-century America. For 21st-century Egypt and the Middle East, it is indispensable. If there is no liberation for the women, there is no liberation.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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