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Sexual harassment is definitely an issue in Egypt but it’s relatively tame, especially when compared to other countries; mainly due to religion; it stops people from getting too far. That was more or less was Galal Amin’s initial response to a question about sexual harassment during a discussion of his book Whatever Happened to the Egyptians this month.

Galal Amin

Galal Amin at his house in Maadi, October 2007. By Sarah El Sirgany.

But what I like about Galal Amin – who I hade the pleasure to interview twice – is that he’s willing to reconsider his opinions if presented with new evidence, factors or arguments. And that’s exactly what happened at the discussion.

Amy Mowafi, Enigma editor and author of Fe-mail: Trials and Tribulations of Being a Good Egyptian Girl, interjected, comparing London to Cairo. While catcalls are rare in the former, they are abundant in the latter. And it has nothing to do with clothes or neighborhood. Crossing the street to get coffee, she said, is an adventure.

After a bit of back and forth, with Amin saying that difference in social class could also be a factor in harassment, he finally agreed acknowledging that he might not have the full picture when it comes to sexual harassment.

However, the reason why I’m writing this is that I completely disagree with his initial answer. While I didn’t get the chance to discuss it with him that day and might do that later, let me explain it here first.

First of all, sexual harassment here isn’t tame, whether we are talking verbal or physical harassment.

Secondly, religion, or rather skewed religious discourse propagated by some ignorant “preachers”, is largely responsible for harassment.

Recently, many ‘sheikhs’ have become apologetic and reasonable about harassment – not in a good way. Suddenly, many have become sociological experts who can give many reasons why men resort to sexual harassment: decadent video clips, the internet (in the broad sense of the word), and most importantly what women are wearing. I remember reading an interview for one specifically blaming “jeans el mohgabat” (veiled women who wear jeans, presumably tight ones).

But rarely do I hear sheikhs saying harassment is haram, forbidden, un-Islamic, you do it you go straight to hell, etc.

What’s appalling is that many of these sheikhs frown on a handshake between a man and a woman. Some go as far as saying it’s haram. Well, a handshake is pretty much consensual and quite harmless, but there aren’t a lot of those spouts of reason or sociological analyses there.

Even if we go beyond the handshake to the issue to which pages of magazines and newspapers have been dedicated, the issue responsible for many bad Egyptian films that plagued the screens throughout the 1980s and the 1990s: urfi (unregistered) marriages.

Again, it’s consensual and has a well of social factors behind it. But there are no sociologist sheikhs here, trying to find reasons, or rather excuses for the young men and women involved. For the most part, there is a consensus that urfi marriages are haram, forbidden, un-Islamic, you do it you go straight to hell, etc.

Although such tone hasn’t brought down the number of such marriages or affairs, but still I can’t help but when wonder: Where’s this clear cut tone when it comes to harassment?

The logic is: if consensual non-sexual physical contact is haram or frowned upon (best case scenario), then non-consensual, sexual physical contact must be hell-material, right?