The #MeToo hashtag has gone viral over the past months, as more and more women have finally felt empowered and supported enough by society to come forth, and make public sexual harassment accusations against some of the most renowned male public figures.
This wave has signaled and emphasized the fact that society was once truly unsupportive of women and their rights, not only in the Middle East as widely claimed, but also in countries that are considered more advanced in terms of gender equality and women’s rights.
With the popularity of the hashtag came renewed discussion and interest in sexual harassment and safety in the work environment and elsewhere against unwanted sexual advances. But what exactly constitutes sexual harassment? There are endless definitions that come with the term, differing between gender, class, country, educational background, cultural heritage and even laws.
Defining sexual harassment … Now and then
The term sexual harassment is actually a recent one. While the #MeToo campaign, launched in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s transgressions against numerous women, was one huge turning point, the first breakthrough actually dates back to the 1970s, when the term started being defined the way we know it today. The concept of sexual harassment today universally entails “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” whether it happens in the workplace or on the streets, as defined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and soon after adopted by the United Nations.
The term itself, however, was not used in that context at the beginning, whether in Arabic or English. According to Helen Rizzo, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, “Groups on the internet in the Gulf region used the term taharosh [sexual harassment] to describe child abuse from 2000 to 2012.” She adds that when the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) started addressing the issue of sexual harassment, especially in the streets, they wanted a word that carried negative connotations to describe the phenomenon. The term mo’aksa (flirtation), was commonly used before then. “To me, the term mo’aksa is positive,” she says. “They wanted a word that says this is unwanted attention; the person receiving it does not want it and feels violated.” So beginning 2004-2005, when sexual harassment was becoming a topic of discussion in Egypt, the ECWR decided to utilize the term to signify the phenomenon.
Rizzo says that her impression of Egyptians is that they consider sexual harassment to be primarily physical, rather than verbal, which to them could simply be moa’aksa, a lesser evil. “Touching, groping and the more violent things like assault and rape of course have been criminalized, but I think the gray area is when you’re given attention from someone you don’t know and you don’t want it, even if they’re saying, ‘Oh, you look beautiful,’ but we all know when someone says it in a very threatening way, [you tend to think], ‘You’re harassing me, I don’t know you,’” she explains. She adds that ECWR, Harassmap and Nazra for Feminist Studies are trying to change that perspective and raise awareness that harassment isn’t only physical violation and that verbal harassment and unwanted staring are also forms of harassment.
Photo courtesy Hazem Abdel Samad
Alia Soliman, communications manager of Harassmap, echoes Rizzo’s impression, confirming that the state and the society did not recognize moa’aksa as sexual harassment up until women started speaking out against it. Soliman does not believe that there has been a shift in the perception of sexual harassment; it has rather been what it is all along; people simply do not understand that there’s a difference between flirtation and sexual harassment, she clarifies.
“Even the media used to refer to it sometimes as moa’aksa, until awareness campaigns were carried out and people started learning more and more about the concept. The term taharosh gensy [sexual harassment] changed the way we look at things; it differentiated between moa’aksa and taharosh gensy, in that moa’aksa entails that it’s consensual, whereas taharosh gensy is unwanted and unwelcome,” Soliman explains.
Drawing the line
Psychologically speaking, sexual harassment is not simply unchecked sexual desires that are misdirected. The matter is actually more complex and is rooted in society.
According to a podcast by Ellen Hendrickson, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, posted on Scientific American website, sexual harassment is, psychologically, very much tied to power structures. Sexual harassment usually occurs at a workplace, or at a place where the harasser is superior and has power over the harassed. “The harasser holds the keys and creates a catch-22 for the victim: either submit and be exploited, or resist and be punished. It’s a no-win situation of power, control and intimidation.”
Similarly, Shawn Burn, a psychology professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis, told CNBC that men in fields such as the military, technology or politics usually resort to inappropriate behavior with their female colleagues as a manner of “marking their territories.”
We surveyed 32 men and women of different ages and backgrounds about how they define sexual harassment in various contexts and pinpoint gray areas when it comes to interaction between men and women in the workplace, schools and universities, other social contexts and in the street. Respondents were asked to rate various experiences from one to five; five being a situation they’re completely uncomfortable with and that they see as definite sexual harassment, and one being a harmless interaction.
When faced with everyday interactions, such as being catcalled or being complimented by a male colleague, most women—unsurprisingly—rated the scenarios as a five. What is surprising is that even men, who were the perpetrators in these scenarios, identified them as incidents of sexual harassment.
On the other hand, when it came to scenarios that were in grey zones (as in those that could be counted as simple misunderstandings), the opinions differed between male and female respondents. When women were asked how they would feel if a close male friend put an arm around their waists while taking a photograph together, taking into consideration that they were not used to physical contact from said male friend, most women expressed discomfort; with 35.7 percent of female respondents rating the incident a four, while 25 percent rated it a five. Meanwhile, 50 percent of male respondents rated the incident as a two; a harmless interaction.
In another scenario, females were asked how they would feel about being catcalled by their male best friends as a manner of greeting, and 53.6 percent rated the incident as sexual harassment, whereas 50 percent of the male respondents rated the incident a three, in the gray zone.
Around 60 percent of women interviewed rated workplace interactions like a male colleague resting his arm on her shoulder as he shows her something on a computer as “sexual harassment,” while 50 percent of male respondents took a more lenient stand, mostly rating the situation as three; a risky move but not definite sexual harassment.
When it came to defining sexual harassment, however, men and women were not as divided in their responses; and they all defined it as the perpetration of unwanted, and unsolicited attention or verbal or physical advances where one party is non-consensual.
A 25-year-old female, who asked to remain anonymous, was subjected to physical sexual harassment when she was an adolescent. “I was too young to understand, I couldn’t react at the time,” she recounts. “Now, whenever anyone walks too close to me, I begin to feel threatened.”
In societies like Egypt, sexual harassment victims have become synonymous with women, and we tend to forget that some men too can be subjected to harassment but are often left feeling that it’s unmanly to complain or not be flattered. “When you’re sexually harassed, it differs from one sex to the other. I, as a male, used to have highschool girls flirt with me when I was in primary and middle school. But society has taught me that nothing can harm me and that I, as a male, shouldn’t be afraid of anything. Nevertheless, when they would surround me and pinch my cheeks or flirt with me, I used to feel threatened. Like ‘why are they doing that? What’s going on?’” Muhammad Ahmed Nasr, 27, says.
Photo courtesy Khaled Kamel
The official take
Taking note of the gray areas in defining sexual harassment and the lack of understanding that they are not necessarily ‘harmless,’ the Ministry of Youth undertook a program to raise awareness on the matter of gender equality, in 2017.
Nevine Ebeid, a gender researcher and one of the gender development trainers on the program, explains that it was a training for trainers that aimed to qualify young men and women who would become youth center leaders to be able to disseminate the concept of gender equality to youth all over the country.
The program was held in cooperation with Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the German agency for developmental aid in Egypt, which also supplied the guide with which Ebeid delivered the training sessions.
“Presented with statistics and learning new facts about sexual harassment, the men began to understand that the argument justifying male sexual harassment of women was simply delusional. [Men] started to have knowledge and started to have a different perspective on the issue of sexual harassment,” Ebeid says, explaining the main outcome of the program.
When asked how she believes the perspective of the participants has changed before and after the training sessions, Ebeid explains that media usually stereotypes the male perspective of sexual harassment. “Media usually portrays that men would support sexual harassment and that they are ‘bad,’” she explains. “They are not bad people … they are even better than [others] because they chose to come and receive the training. They were not forced to take the program, they willingly applied, which means they are interested in learning about the issue. They are a segment of people who are willing to be part of social change.”
Having been offered the environment that allows men and women to debate the issue, and one that allows women to reply to the arguments, the men attending started to get a clearer view on the issue, they began to understand that their ideas and stereotypes are delusions, Ebeid recalls.
She adds that after concluding the program in December 2017, the team of trainers who delivered the program have kept in touch with the youth leaders to ensure their ability to maintain their new perspectives. “They [participants of the program] have transformed to become women’s rights defenders and gender rights’ defenders but one still has to stay in touch with them, [to] remind them of their convictions [so they] become deep-rooted.”