Every time I hear people justifing the increasing sexual harassment phenomenon in Egypt by the way girls and women dress, my blood pressure shoots up the roof, although I suffer from low blood pressure. Veiled friends of mine are just as much harassed as non veiled ones. But, I will not use other people to make a point, allow me to share with you a story I experienced myself.
During my time at university, I used to walk around Cairo a lot. Out of respect to the holy places I frequently visited, I made it a point to dress appropriately. I sort of had a uniform I would wear when I made my way to Old Cairo or the religious complex. My uniform consisted of a pair of wide dark grey pants, a long sleeved over sized white blouse that almost reached my knees, white socks, sneakers and a huge colorful scarf, this I covered my head with once I entered a mosque or church. Oh, and I would not wear any jewelry and my hair would be pulled back in a bun. I also had a huge sling bag, which I used to place strategically to cover my behind. I made it a point to disappear behind my clothing to avoid attracting any unwanted looks or comments.
Regardless of how much I tried to disappear, I could not escape the usual harassment I faced once I set foot on the streets of Cairo. However, there was this one incident that I vividly remember to this day. I was walking in a narrow alley next to “Beit El Sehemy” in old Cairo, as usual in my uniform, enjoying the beautiful architecture. The alley was fairly empty that day, apart from a couple of other pedestrians and a bearded middle aged man riding a vespa at a high speed. He was making his way through the alley in zigzags to avoid bumps and ditches. All of a sudden the man started slowing down, and diverted his route to face me head on. We made eye contact, and he gave me a dirty look that sent shivers down my spine. Not knowing what would happen next, I prepare myself for a grab, and started taking a defensive position. However, everything was happening so fast, I was not sure if I would have been able to prevent an attack. In a blink of an eye, he lifted his arm and stretched it towards me, when I just managed to jump back and avoid any physical contact. He then pointed with his finger at my chest and said: “Cover yourself up, woman”, and drove away in full speed.
I stood there in utter shock from what had happened but more so from his words. “Cover myself up? Really? More than that?” I thought to myself. So I started looking at what I was wearing, thinking I missed something that day, but nothing was missing. Wide pants, check… over sized blouse, check… scarf, check … I even had the scarf covering my hair at that point. I spent about a minute or two trying to figure out what the man was referring to. I was truly completely covered up. Hold on, wait a minute, no I wasn’t. Apparently, when I covered my hair with the scarf I exposed 3cm of skin from my neck. Yes, I am not exaggerating in my description, it was literally 3cm of skin between the rim of the blouse and the scarf.
Oddly enough, the man riding the vespa, neglected looking at the narrow road he was maneuvering, and focused at my chest and managed to spot 3cm of skin. Did the man notice me because I did a bad job covering myself up? Did a total stranger almost touch me because I provoked him with 3cm of skin? I sure did not intend on attracting anyone with my attire that day, I was actually aiming at the total opposite. However, it seems that no matter how much I cover up, men like him will find something to justify their harassment attempts. The question here remains, why does society insist on justifying actions like his?