Choose Your Words Wisely
Egypt’s minister of information sets a dangerous tone for the treatment of women
Actor Waleed Hammad dressed up as a woman and walked Egypt’s streets for an investigative television report into what it feels like to be sexually harassed. The program aired earlier this month, and perhaps best exemplifies one of the major achievements of the January 25 revolution: the heightened awareness of the endemic sexual harassment of women on Egypt’s streets. Hammad’s video footage of his secret assignments, as well as the widespread coverage his story has received, would have been unthinkable before the uprising.
Yet there is still a long way to go. Last month, the minister of information, Salah Abdel-Maksoud, responded to a female reporter’s question on media freedoms with, “Come here and I’ll show you.” In the Egyptian dialect this turn of phrase is widely considered to carry sexual connotations. His comment highlighted yet another aspect of the already multi-faceted causes behind sexual harassment in Egypt.
Here was a government-appointed official shamelessly making a sexual remark to a female reporter in front of a crowd and television camera crews—yet Abdel-Maksoud saw no problem with his quip. In fact, it was the second time he has been found making similarly inappropriate comments. During an interview with a female Syrian television host, he said, “I hope your questions are not as hot as you are.” Clearly, Abdel-Maksoud is a man with a sense of patriarchal and misogynistic entitlement, not to mention his outright unprofessionalism.
His remarks were not just an affront to one female reporter or television host, but many Egyptians. Egypt’s masses are closely following any false moves made by politicians in the muddled post-revolutionary era, and never before has the media scrutinized Egypt’s politicians and ministers so closely.
With sexual harassment already a widespread problem, there has never been a more crucial time for the government to move away from patriarchal or misogynist constructs that will only provide Egyptian men with a further sense of entitlement—not just in the sexual harassment of women, but in wider issues vis-à-vis women’s socio-political rights.
Abdel-Maksoud’s commentary also unwittingly raises another key issue. The post-revolutionary period has seen Egypt fall victim to a simplistic Islamist-versus-secularist duality, and the remarks made by Abdel-Maksoud highlight the limitations of viewing things through such a blinkered lens. There is no doubt that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist factions has seen a trickledown effect onto Egypt’s streets, where men who identify themselves as Islamist have falsely used the political power of the Brotherhood to force women to conform to their Islamic standards. Just this past February, my own sister was told by a man to “not talk to me until you cover your hair” in a public hospital—a very worrying sign of the entitlement some may believe they have, with the endorsement of an Islamist president and government.
But this binary falls apart with the example of Abdel-Maksoud. For all the talk among the secular or liberal opposition that a Muslim Brotherhood government would inevitably see a clampdown on women’s rights in the public and private spheres, Abdel-Maksoud is not an Islamist. Appointed by Prime Minister Kandil in August 2012, he is a secular professional and a former member of the journalists syndicate. The perpetuation of sexual harassment is not the monopoly of a single political party, but a phenomenon present across the political spectrum.
We should, of course, celebrate that issues such as sexual harassment are garnering widespread media coverage. With men such as Hammad taking a very proactive stance on the issue and raising awareness, the Egyptian public will become better educated on the realities of sexual harassment for Egyptian women.
With extensive media coverage comes the broadcasting of the more unsavory actions and words of Egypt’s leading figures, which is both a necessity and potentially harmful. Perhaps the most worrying part of this incident is what follows it: how many Egyptian men heard his remarks and felt they were given carte blanche to address Egypt’s women in such a derogatory manner?