Egypt: women's clothing a 'delusional excuse' for sexual harassment, say religious authorities

Egypt: women's clothing a 'delusional excuse' for sexual harassment, say religious authorities
Egypt: women's clothing a 'delusional excuse' for sexual harassment, say religious authorities

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Egypt’s two highest religious authorities have weighed in on a national debate surrounding sexual harassment after alleged sexual assaults on more than 50 women by a university student.

In a dramatic departure from their hallmark conservatism, Al Azhar mosque and the Mufti, or chief theologian, have rejected the notion that women’s attire was to blame for sexual harassment and rape.

In statements made over the weekend they said women should never be blamed for such crimes.

The case of the student, who was detained on Saturday for questioning, has dominated the national conversation for close to a week, with women using social media to recount their own experiences of harassment at the hands of men.

Egypt is notorious for sexual harassment of women in public, with the country of some 100 million people often cited by rights groups as among the worst places to live for women.

The government has in recent years stiffened penalties for convicted harassers or rapists, but the problem persists, prompting calls for societal changes that would encourage women to go public with crimes committed against them and press on with legal proceedings against offenders.

The ongoing debate about the student and his alleged victims, many of whom he is also accused of blackmailing, has in many ways laid bare the dark side of a patriarchal and conservative society that requires women to silently endure sexual harassment rather than risk what many families see as the shame of going public with details of their harassment or rape.

In the last few days, activists have vigorously reacted to the student’s alleged crimes, including an online petition calling on authorities to bring him to justice. Nearly 35,000 people had signed the petition by Sunday afternoon.

There have also been calls on victims to come forward and share details of their experiences and to press charges against perpetrators, and calls for women to learn martial arts or organise workshops to train women and girls on how to deal with harassment.

Some of the accounts posted online by victims of the student made for harrowing reading and exposed a worrisome tendency by families and educational institutions, like the Cairo-based university the student was once enrolled in before he went to study in Spain, for denial or attempting to sweep cases under the rug.

Al Azhar, the world’s top seat of learning for Sunni Muslims, devoted this week’s issue of its mouthpiece magazine, Sawt Al Azhar, to the need to step up the fight against the sexual harassment of women.

“Being silent or looking the other way when it comes to those crimes poses a threat to the security of society and encourages the violation of virtues and sanctity,” said the magazine, which religiously reflects Al Azhar’s views and policies.

“Women’s attire, regardless of what it is, is not an excuse for assaulting their privacy, freedom or dignity,” it declared.

A separate statement by Al Azhar called for support for women seeking legal retribution against offenders and urged members of the public to be proactive if they witness sexual harassment or assault.

“Being passive toward a harasser is unacceptable. He must be made to desist and handed over to police,” it said. The statement also called on authorities to diligently enforce existing laws against sexual harassment and on society at large not to take lightly the suffering of victims.

The office of the Mufti, the country’s chief theologian, labelled harassment as a “cardinal sin” and called on authorities to deal “firmly and decisively” with its perpetrators. It also rejected the popular notion that at the root of sexual harassment lies women’s attire. “It’s a delusional excuse that only sick people with malicious caprices entertain.”

There has been no word in public from the student on the allegations he faces, but a popular talk show host, Amr Adeeb of MBC television, quoted his father on Saturday as professing his son’s innocence. He said the allegations prompted his Barcelona university to suspend and later expel him.

Updated: July 5, 2020 06:09 PM

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