In Egypt, Some Women Say That Veils Increase Harassment
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.
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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 stripped off — and is now covered in flies.
“You can’t stop them, but you can protect yourself,” warns another ad likening men to flies and women to sweets. Bloggers in Egypt have taken to calling such messages the “veil your lollipop” campaign.
No group has asserted 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 that their veils don’t protect against harassment, as the lollipop ads argue, but fuel it. A survey released this summer supports the view.
In accord with her interpretation of Islamic law, which says women should dress modestly, [Hind] Sayed wore a flowing black robe and black veil. Together, they covered all but her hands and her pale face with its drawn-on, expressive eyebrows. Despite her attire, 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.”
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.
And it’s not just women’s perceptions. The United States and Britain both warn female visitors in travel advisories that they may face unwanted attention, or sexual attacks, in Egypt.
When Egyptian lawmakers objected to Britain’s advisory this summer, calling it a slur, Britain responded that more female British tourists were harassed and assaulted, even 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. According to the center, 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 the women, Egyptian and non-Egyptian, said they were harassed every day as they went about the streets. The survey polled 2,020 Egyptian men and women and 109 non-Egyptian women.
Foreign women identified Egyptian policemen and other security officials as the most frequent harassers.
An estimated 80 percent of Egyptian women now wear hijab. Pressure on the remainder to cover up grows every year, as fundamentalism gains influence in Muslim societies worldwide.
“Bravo, you’ve taken the veil,” a popular Egyptian singer croons in one music video, which shows a previously neglectful boyfriend beaming and offering a wedding ring when his formerly uncovered girlfriend dons a head scarf.
Veiling parties laud girls who’ve covered up. Egyptian women who don’t wear hijab say that, more and more, they encounter strangers urging them in the streets, “Sister, you’d be more beautiful if you veiled.”