When I first saw the call for volunteers on SSH, my first instinctive thought was, “So this really does happen in the U.S. too.” When I joined the SSH team, I realized that my social media colleagues came from places that we unthinkingly refer to as “developed,” and therefore assume to be devoid of street harassment. Growing up, I would often hear friends say that they can only wear what they want on holiday abroad because home in Egypt was the only place where we had to deal with things like catcalls, especially if we’re wearing a revealing outfit. For a long time, I accepted these ideals as facts.
By the time the Egyptian revolution took place, I saw a whole new side to street harassment- mob attacks, deliberate sexual violence and so on. Since then, the problem with talking about street harassment in Egypt became more about people outside the region had to say to us about the issue. In many analyses and comments, street harassment was portrayed as an “Egyptian problem” – some horrific, unchangeable, and, most importantly, exclusive reality to Egypt. Anyone living in Egypt knew that while less violent forms of street harassment may take place in other countries, it was difficult to make a similar claim of the type of mob attacks that were happening in our country. Nevertheless, the type of claims made by Western media provided the incentive to embark on movements and organizations that would give alternative explanations to street harassment in Egypt.
Then the infamous Delhi gang rape case made it to headline news. In the aftermath of the incident, I heard many confidently make the claim that India was no place to visit because “they have a rape problem.” What surprised me was that some Egyptians also jumped on that argument despite their continued effort to prove that Egypt and Egyptian culture were not pro- sexual violence. Again, the same headlines appeared classifying rape as an “Indian problem”; some explicitly classified sexual violence as a “third world”, “Asian”, “Arab” or “Muslim” issue.
And yet again, most people could recognize the prevalence of catcalls in the US or Europe, but no one ever thought of comparing them to either the Tahrir mob attacks or Delhi’s gang rape crisis.
And then Steubenville rape happened in the USA, and it became impossible not to acknowledge that the “West” or the “developed world” suffered from the same issues of sexism and patriarchy that explain the prevalence of catcalls and ultimately, rape. Of course, Steubenville is neither the first nor the only incident of its type. The only difference is that so many more people were now aware of the double standards employed in the discussions about street harassment.
It is impossible to overlook the manner in which racist analyses of street harassment can and have undermined the fight against it. We often hear and share stories about negative perceptions to street harassment, the most important of which is denial. Denial functions on many levels, the most condescending of which involves a certain blindness to the parallels between Tahrir, Delhi, Steubenville, and many others. Sexual violence is not a problem inherent to any one culture; it is a global problem.
Yasmine Nagaty is a Political Science graduate and an aspiring writer from the American University in Cairo and currently works at the Egyptian NGO Misr ElKheir. You can follow her on Twitter.Share on Facebook