A video of Egyptian self-proclaimed cleric Sheikh Saad Arafat went viral on Monday, showing one of his religious “lessons” on Al-Rahma channel, a self-described Islamic channel. In the video he deals with sexual harassment as follows, “even if you [the woman] are face-veiled, you are the reason for harassment for going out of your house for no reason and letting your eyes wonder left and right. Thus God let this wolf on you!”
Before even touching on his senile logic, what I do not get is how he was able to put the word “God” and “wolf” in the same sentence! In basic religion class when we were six years old, we were taught that vile actions by humans are inspired by the devil not God! God is good, kind, propels us to be better!! So the “sheikh” is not even adhering to the basic religious knowledge of a pre-teen.
Arafat goes on to explain that a woman sometimes looks at a man, he looks back as if “she is calling him ‘I am here, don’t you see me?’” Apparently the basic function of vision has become a new incitement to sexual harassment.
This animalistic trend – with apologies to animals – propagated by Wahabi Sheikhs, has been on the rise lately in Egypt, with the rise of far-right Islamist parties and the spread of their well-funded channels. They are usually met with derision from both men and women, provoking jokes and ridicule. Yet they present an alarming trend of religious ignorance and gender intolerance. If one single person is swayed by this kind of thinking, then we are losing the war against extremist mentality.
There is well-known historical tale Muslims like to brag about that this pseudo-sheikh did not hear of. In 838 CE, a Muslim woman was apparently shopping at a market filled with Romans in Amorium. Some claim that a Roman man tried to harass the woman by grabbing her traditional dress, while others claim that he was a seller who tried to stiff her.
Either way, she answered back and he slapped her. The gist of it is that when she was taken to jail, she screamed “O’ Mo’tasm!” (Al-Mo’tasm was the Muslim Caliph at the time). He heard the tale from a man, prepared an army and invaded the city! For a woman! According to tales, what mattered for him, as a caretaker ie a caliph, is that he responded to the plea of the woman. And regardless of Arab exaggeration, which we are prone to, the important thing is that he did not ask her why she went there, how she was dressed, why she dealt with a man or why she had an argument with him.
This story, passed down by generations of Muslims, shows the difference in mentality of Muslim sheikhs or those who are supposed to have wisdom when it comes to dealing with women. Gender interaction in Egypt has taken a good and sound beating in the last 30 years. Women are regarded as pleasure vessels, enticing creatures that should be huddled in black and kept safe at home. Their minds are secondary to their bodies, or rather their ability to procreate. Sexual harassment has become epidemic in Egypt, written about in papers and documented on film.
Some deranged sheikhs, and a couple of Coptic priests, claim that it is the way women dress. In the last 15 years the veil and niqab has become so widespread that non-veiled women have become a rarity on the streets. My mother’s generation used to wear short skirts and flares in the cities of Upper Egypt. Photos of seminars and concerts in the 1960s show women wearing short dresses and sleeveless blouses in Qena and Menya, the most conservative governorates nowadays. Yet a couple of days ago, armed fights ensued after a guy harassed a girl in Beni Sweif, a conservative governorate, and police had to intervene.
The so-called sheikhs who blame women do not follow a clear instruction for people in a Hadith to “lower their gazes” which means not to leer, much less touch. The order not to leer was given to both men and women and does not depend on how women dress.
Egypt’s reputation for sexual harassment is an insult to men before women. It is degrading that on travel forums women travelling to Egypt are warned of this social ill, given instructions on how to dress and how to act. Egyptian women suffer the most from this and it has resulted in what girls call “walking with the wooden face” on the streets; a cold mask of one’s face that tells any guy on the street “I am not kidding, I will beat you if you come near me!” It is both nerve-wrecking and agitating to expect a fight while walking. So far, I have personally punched a guy, elbowed one and ran after three. A personal best, if I may say so.
The light at the end of the tunnel comes from young Egyptians. Angry with what’s happening and with the encouragement of several women’s NGOs and movements, young women are starting to talk about harassment, breaking the social taboo that calls upon the girls to remain silent as it is not “appropriate” to talk about such things. Encouraged by each other’s tales, women have started to fight back, whether physically on the streets or through legal complaints that can put a harasser in jail for to up to five years.
Young men, angry with the reputation attributed to them, have started an awareness campaign encouraging men to “act like men” and stop harassers on the streets. Others took a more physical approach, apprehending harassers and spraying their shirts with the word “harasser.” Of course this leads to more fighting, but the message was still delivered.
In Egypt, we still have a long way to go when it comes to societal interaction. The biggest problem is that some girls currently equate harassment with compliments in less affluent areas. A major shift in society has happened in the last 30 years, due primarily to the lack of education and culture that has tainted everything in the country.
In fighting all these factors, religion is used as a weapon in the hands of the ignorant. Moderate sheikhs are not given enough media time. The state is not spreading moderate teachings and the same applies for mosques across Egypt. They belong to the government and are not used to fight this extremist method of thinking.
As for the sheikhs spreading hate and intolerance, they remind me of the character of the Queen of hearts in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the sick ugly queen who screams “off with their heads” at anyone who opposes her. Yet they should be careful of using religion as a weapon lest the “off with their heads” remarks turn on them.