Sexual Harassment: The myth of the dress code theory.


Egyptian women demonstrate infront of presidential palace 5th of October 2012

This piece was initially published as part of the sexual harassment response by Fikra Forum

“Silly girl, why did you take the metro when you saw that it was packed?” That was my teacher’s response to my tearful story of harassment. According to her, it had happened because I, a shy, timid, un-groomed 13-year-old girl, had decided to take the metro to school. It was not the fault of the lawless gang of men who molested me on the crowded metro; they were not part of the equation as far as my teacher was concerned. I can still recall clearly her statement, “If only you had waited for the next metro, none of this would have happened.”

In our society, we hear “if only” quite a bit. This is what girls and women hear when they complain about sexual harassment: If only you had avoided the crowded metro, if only you had not looked at him, if only you had not replied, if only you had dressed differently, if only you had worn the hijab. The list goes on and on. But make no mistake, it is always our fault – the woman’s fault. It is our job to protect ourselves, and not to expect men to behave themselves. A modest dress code, avoiding eye contact, and walking briskly are the unwritten rules that girls learn to avoid being harassed on the street. Walking with your chin down is also desirable, as any bold, self-confidant body language invites “attention.”

But what exactly does a modest dress code mean? In 1970s and 1980s Egypt, wearing a hijab was the answer. In the 1990s and beyond, wearing the jilbab (head scarf that extends to cover the chest) was the ultimate solution. Colors are also crucial; some advocate wearing only black, brown, or grey. The more a woman can put off men, the better. Even so, currently, even women who wear the full-face veil – the niqab – are being targeted.

I believed in the dress code myth for years; I convinced myself that my incident at 13 was just an unfortunate event and that it would not happen again. I simply ignored the repeated verbal harassment that became a recurring theme in my life. This was the case until I visited Iran. That trip changed my life. Like all visitors to Iran, I had to conform to the mandatory Islamic dress code. I was shrouded in black, and frankly a bit scruffy, after days of touring the massive country. One afternoon in Yazd, I headed to the stunning Amir Chakhmaq Complex and Mosque with many locals who wanted to climb to the top balcony for the spectacular view of the city. I followed the crowd and started to climb the narrow, spiral staircase. About half way, I stopped to adjust my shoes, which meant that the crowd ahead of me carried on, leaving me behind. It was at that moment that I encountered a bulky local man who was heading down the stairs. Within seconds, he had pushed me against the wall, covered and sealed my mouth with his hand, and started molesting me. For several moments, I thought I would be raped. I tried to push him away, but I couldn’t. What saved me was the appearance of two angels: Two lovely boys had climbed up the stairs ahead of their parents; the thug let me go once he heard their giggles. Their innocence saved my honor and my body.

Amir Chakhmaq Complex and mosque( with its beautiful balconies)

For me, what happened in Yazd was the ultimate proof that the dress code was a myth. It exposed the fallacy of the dress code theory and revealed how it is used as an excuse by this society to do nothing to address the shameful treatment of women. Like many other women, I was attacked when circumstances allowed a pervert to exploit and assault me.

Now men do not even try to be discreet; women can even be exploited publically on TV. For example, in a recent video, now making the rounds in social media, Egypt’s information minister was interviewed by Zeina Yaziji. Many watched in shock as he said, “I hope the questions aren’t as hot as you are.”  Regardless of whether this was a silly joke or a reckless comment, it reflected the depth of disregard for women in our society.

My experience confirms what statistics reveal; conservatism does not cure sexual harassment. It just pushes it underground and covers it with a thick black seal that hides the deprivation and perverse behavior and facilitates the exploitation of the vulnerable. Those who point fingers at the “decadent West” do not understand the core foundations of any sexual relation: age and consent. These two words are absent from the minds of radicals who promote underage marriage. For them, consent is granted through silence; if a woman is silent, then she is happy. But women do not chose to be silent; it is men who do their best to shut women’s mouths and undermine their claims if they dare to seek help.

Sadly, it seems that those who want to bury their heads in the sand will never stop; their twisted logic and myopic vision keeps us from addressing the cultural and economic reasons behind sexual harassment. The call for conservatism masks a deeper problem in our society: the desire to impose medieval patriarchal attitudes and illiberalism for political gain. For some, women’s independence is a threat that undermines their ideology. They hide behind Sharia to brainwash the poor and unemployed. They convince them that women are to blame for their circumstances. Like the dress code myth, they propagate another myth: “If women stayed at home, there would be more jobs for men.” A flawed claim that even countries like Turkey dispute.

We need to protect women in Islamic society. This protection will never be achieved unless women take the initiative and mobilize civil society to rally for more education and legislation that helps to combat harassment. This is a must if we are serious about our democracy, and our human rights.

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
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9 Responses to Sexual Harassment: The myth of the dress code theory.

  1. Nour says:

    Yes, a whole lot of issues must be addressed together to solve the sexual harassment problem, but this doesn’t take the dress code out of the list. The dress code is one basic element in the process, but notice that even the dress code ‘myth’ is always addressed from one angle, and that what makes it into a myth.


  2. siwasoul1 says:

    Thank you for another excellent post. As a foreign woman in Egypt of course I experience harassment in similar and also different ways. Many men here think all foreign women are fair game, and unfortunately some women encourage this perception by their behaviour. The porn that most Egyptian men have access to does not help because again they get the impression all foreign women are up for anything.

    I dress modestly and don’t do anything to attract attention, but even when covered neck to ankle and wearing a headscarf I have problems. Recently I was approached as I walked on Marsa Matruh beach by a young man who said “Don’t be afraid”, then immediately added “I really like fuck you girls”. I am a 52 year old, not even pretty, and he was accompanied by what I guess was his young brother aged about 10. What sort of example is he giving that child? There were families on the beach and it was middle of the day, so I was not somewhere anyone could say “you should not go there”.

    When I first came to live in Egypt and would come home some days in tears, and say to my (Egyptian) partner “I have had enough, every day I am hassled by men”, his kind reply? “This is how it is in Egypt, if you want to live here, you live with it.” Even when I had official business (registering my tenancy with my landlord) with the Tourist Police, I got asked very personal questions and stared at constantly and made to feel very uncomfortable, again I was fully covered including headscarf. I later heard from someone else some of the unpleasant things those Tourist Police were saying about me, not great when you live in a small town.

    Then there are the more subtle “offers”. While not harassment, they can be just as offensive, anything from men turning a polite conversation to sex, and probing your experience bluntly, to shop keepers suggesting you don’t need to pay for your purchases …you can guess they expect in exchange. Some foreign women naively think the shop keeper is being “nice”, and are soon disillusioned of that idea.

    Gradually I have become stronger and now rebuff any men who hassle me, but it is exhausting sometimes. Yes, I experienced some harassment in my old country Australia, but not the daily hassles I do here. I love Egypt and can see beyond many of the problems here, every country has them, but this treatment of women is the one thing that really makes me sad.

    I know many fine Egyptian men who do not do these things, and who respect the modesty rules of Islam for themselves as well as for women. I just wish there were more of them.


  3. gaiamethod says:

    As another foreign woman, living in Luxor, harassment is also something that I experience every time I step out of my door.. No matter how modestly I dress I am still the foreign woman and we all know what that means…right? Even though we live on the West bank, in a large village where there are few foreigners it is still the same. But what drives me crazy is the double standards! We have numerous Saudi channels which objectify women all the time. Half naked women, in sexually alluring clothes advertising some product or other. Saudi Arabia, the home of Mecca! Then you have the Altet channel, where men can enjoy women dancing all day and al night. Yet their wives are kept in domestic servitude and sexual slavery! .It drive me nuts. It definitely will take women to find the source of their own power and identity, before things will change but it has to start somewhere. It is worse in the West I feel, as women are led to believe that they are sexually free when in actual fact they are oppressed in another way. Now they are taught that if you want a man you have to be a whore. You have to be immodest!!! No matter what way you look at it we are oppressed. Women need to educate themselves and to see that there is another way. The men might have created their perfect, destructive world but we have to create something better..
    Changing beliefs is no easy thing but it can be done!!!


  4. ibraworld says:

    I totally disagree for what has been mentioned as examples taken out of the right ‘setting’ or environment. “Mahram” is one crucial part in muslim women life which means to escort a woman by one of her relatives who is prohibited to marry her in the general sense. one of the goals therefore is to protect her from being targeted. Hijab is one way to deprive her from inviting others unintentionally, and others from getting attracted. This is not an easy issue to address in an article based on a personal experiment.


    • Many words might be used to describe your comment. The most polite would simply be “knucklehead”. You imply that men are so vicious, so lustful and so ruthless that women must be assigned bodyguards from among their male relatives. Medieval does not even describe your mentality.


  5. Good post, thanks for writing it up and I really like your closing line about women (in our region) stepping up and mobilizing for their rights. More men should support that cause as well.

    As you know, top-down approach has done much damage to the feminist cause in Egypt and other countries. State feminism (Suzan Mubarak window dressing for women rights) has provided many with the opportunity to raise their voices against more women rights (like people who want to override the right to divorce/khul’). Funnily enough, Suzan Mubarak has once stated sexual harassment is not a phenomenon in Egypt and such news are probably an agenda for some people (referring to Islamists)!

    On another note, it’s very important to start to really capture the reasons behind sexual harassment and gender violence in general. In this post I attempt to do so.

    Also, I assert my stance that women are free to choose whatever they want to wear, whatever that is. I believe that just like there is fascism in name of religion, there can be fascism in name of liberalism. The key word for women here is CHOICE.

    Thanks again for the write-up!


  6. Marco says:

    With all due to respect, I have a good (American-Egyptian) friend based in Egypt who says that his fellow Egyptian citizens are “a step up from dogs”.
    I totally agree. If it was for me I would take harrassers, hang them by their genital appratus and have them spit at in the middle of the streets. A medieval solution to a medieval problem.


  7. Thanks for sharing, and I’m truly sorry for your negative, even traumatic, experiences.


  8. Pingback: The cultural elements of the Cologne attacks | Nervana

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