MAY 18, 2011 CAIRO, EGYPT- We recently witnessed the peaceful political revolutions in multiple Arab countries, which are referred to as the "Arab Spring" of 2011. A lesser known aspect of the "Arab Spring" is that the spirit of upheaval may be transforming traditional gender roles.
In Egypt, women walking on the street have frequently been exposed to staring, verbal harassment or even groping by men during the past few decades. However, in the wake of the political "Arab Spring" upheaval, a group of Egyptian women have founded the Cairo-based organization WHAM (Women for the Harassment of Arab Men) with the hope to reverse the harassment.
A representative of WHAM said:
"Egypt is undergoing a lot of changes and we would like to use this opportunity. We do not have any formal training in how to best harass men, but years of being on the receiving end has enabled us to form WHAM and offer educational courses to interested women. The two mandatory courses are 'Prolonged Staring' and 'Provocative Gestures and Sounds'." With some pride, she continued: "Most of our students are able to begin harassing men within one week of completing these two courses. We initially wanted to focus on clean-shaven men, because we thought that bearded men may be more religious and thus more vulnerable. However, when we compared notes about our past experiences, we found that Egyptian men have been harassing women, independent of how women dress. This is why we expanded the scope of our harassment program and now target all men."
This new attitude has resulted in a rising tide of fear amongst Egyptian men in Cairo. They now worry about leaving their houses and walking in dark alleys alone, because they are afraid of running into groups of women who make derogatory comments and rude gestures. It appears that only men accompanied by women, such as their wives or sisters, are off limits and avoid harassment. The case of the 31-year old, unmarried emergency medicine doctor Ahmed, is quite remarkable. His apartment is located only two blocks away from his medical center, which previously allowed him to easily walk to work. However, in the past weeks, he has been terrified by the cat-calls and whistles of women on the street, who also yell out "Ya, Habibi" (an Arabic term of endearment for a male person) when he walks by.
Since he has no wife or sister and his mother recently started working again, Ahmed has asked his grandmother to accompany him back and forth from work. "I do not understand these women," he complains, "Do they have no respect for me as a person? Why do they keep staring at me? Am I just an object to them? Do they realize what a burden they place on my 82-year old grandmother when I am on night-shifts? She has to drop me off at the door of emergency room every night at 10 p.m. and has to come back at 7 a.m. to meet me and walk me home!" Ahmed's grandmother is only five feet tall and uses a cane to walk, while Ahmed towers over her with his height of six and a half feet. "The first few days, some of the women did not always see my grandmother and started harassing me, but once they received a stern look from my grandmother, they immediately backed off. Things seem to be working reasonably well, as long as my grandmother is protecting me."
So far, WHAM has primarily targeted Egyptian men; however, it seems that Egyptian women are now also beginning to harass male tourists. Last week, the German tourist Siegfried Frauenheld was pinched in his shoulder by two women while walking in an alley on his way to his hotel. When asked about his reaction, Frauenheld responded: "Ja, it was a bit unexpected. I had memorized my Egypt handbook for German tourists and it did not mention the pinching. Maybe they can update the next edition, and I will be prepared for the pinching when I come next year."
This suggests that the tourism industry in Egypt has not yet suffered from this new wave of gender role reversal, but long-term data about the impact of male harassment on tourism has yet to be collected. Ahmed thinks that the government will step in and criminalize this behavior of Egyptian women, if a decline in the number of male tourists is identified. "We wanted change and got rid of Mubarak, but we did not want to turn our whole culture upside down. We are talking about the dignity of Egyptian men here and many of us would like to see it restored."