Walk on by: an Egyptian man tells his female friends to rise above male glares
Women bear the brunt of sexual harassment in Egypt.
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When I was but a wee lad, I spent my summers in Alexandria, and most of that time at the Alexandria Sporting Club (women’s and men’s basketball champions of Egypt, incidentally). Back then I was active and physically fit; nowadays, my only form of exercise is trying to catch the cats as they dart out of the apartment when I’m putting out the rubbish.
Anyway, I remember one day at the Club’s basketball courts when some of my cousins and I were joined by this rather obnoxious older chap; one of those holier-than-thou Egyptianmuftis who just can’t help but spout (invariably erroneous) religious advice and opinion at almost every available opportunity.
It was just the family boys at the court that day. In between a basketball game we were sitting and talking about girls, whereupon the mufti appeared (slightly creepily, I must say; he would hang around the basketball courts those days like a regular Humbert Humbert).
Upon hearing the topic of our conversation, the mufti decided to regale us with a hadith (which, incidentally, is one I rather like; am I allowed to dislike hadiths? Another “blasphemous” topic for another column, perhaps).
OK, so here’s the hadith roughly translated:
“The first glance is permissible; the second, illicit; the third will land you in hell.”
(The “glance” here meaning one directed at a woman.)
Before I go into this, let’s just put something on the table and get it out of the way.
As a healthy, handsome, full-blooded male (sadly, only the “male” part is true), I must admit, I look at women myself. But this is completely normal, natural, and expected. And, I suspect, many relationships and marriages have begun in this way: An exchange of glances, then smiles, then telephone numbers; and then (if God truly loves you), maybe something more. And they live happily ever after, etc.
OK, back to the hadith.
The idea is simple. God understands that as a man you are attracted to women and likely to notice one that takes your fancy (the first glance). But God also instructed us “to lower our gaze” (hence why the second glance is illicit). And, if by that time you haven’t looked away yet (“Shyness is half of religion” as the Prophet said; another hadith I’m fond of) then you have no-one to blame but yourself if you are punished (hopefully by the lady in question, if you’re lucky).
Upon hearing this hadith, one of my cousins made an observation that still makes me chuckle to this day: “That’s wonderful! Just make your first glance last a long, long time; that way you can look as much as you like without either piling up saye’aat [sins], or getting thrown in hell.”
Since moving to Egypt, this humorous comment has entered my mind often. I get the feeling some Egyptian males may have taken my cousin’s suggestion rather literally.
Now, I’ve seen looks of desire before (from either gender): it’s a dopey, dreamy, “Oh dear God, she’s/he’s beautiful [*sigh*]” kind of look.
The “glance” I see on the Cairo Metro, however, is totally different. In fact, I really don’t think “glance” is the appropriate moniker here; “stare”—no, “glare”—is more applicable.
The much-dreaded, almost feral shabab who throng the Metro and Downtown Cairo like packs of wild wolves (they intimidate me too, by the way), when I’ve seen them look at women, emit a glare that is unique. And it’s not one borne of desire. There isn’t a smile in sight.
It is, instead, a glare designed to unhinge the lady in question (rather than one that could possibly act as a prelude to an amorous advance).
And it’s pregnant with a whole gamut of rather ugly emotions: Malice; anger; contempt; jealousy, even.
Anyway, you might be thinking as you read this, what could this man, this healthy, handsome, full-blooded male (“A lie told often enough becomes the truth”; Thank you, Lenin) possibly have to say about this issue. Surely, he won’t get it.
Well, to be frank, I didn’t. Not until recently, anyway. Not until I relocated to Egypt, to be exact (though I think you could argue, plausibly, that no man will ever truly get this).
But I have heard female friends say this countless times and never really understood it until now: “You’re so lucky to be a boy”; or “I grew up wishing I was a boy”.
“You should write about this; you’re a guy” a charming young lady who I met recently told me (I’m still trying to interpret what that meant exactly). She and another female friend of mine had quite a lot to say on this. And their anger, frustration, and even sadness about the whole thing, was unequivocally palpable to say the least.
They talked about how the glares they received made them feel deeply uncomfortable, self-conscious, how it all felt like a violation of their private space; an act of violence almost. How it made them feel guilty (guilty!) for going out and doing the most normal thing in the world: walking in the street to do an errand or go to work, or just to take a walk for God’s sake.
I was astonished by this.
I was talking to another cousin of mine (them again!) about taxi drivers (them again!) and their antics and tricks, expressing my annoyance that these guys are always so eager to fleece me and my wallet at every opportunity. “They make me feel like an ATM,” I said.
My cousin’s response to this has now been veritably singed into my brain: “Think of them as victims,” he said. “And you will find peace of mind.”
And, my God, it has worked. His point is not to excuse the behavior (it’s wrong; full-stop), simply to affect an attitude that will help you not feel so bothered about it all the time. I’m in the right. I’m the one in the position of power here. So I let it go.
The point I’m trying to make is this. You’re doing the most natural thing in the world: walking down the street, going to work or whatever, and these guys make it seem like an anomaly.
Don’t get me wrong. Those women on the end of sexual harassment or violence are victims, both in the literal and the legal sense. But I hope that they don’t feel that way (naive, perhaps). In fact, I think that since they are in the right, they are the ones in the position of power here.
That man glaring at you is, I suspect, actually frightened of you; intimidated by you (“Women are a magical force…Woman is a very, very strong being, magical. That is why I am afraid of women.” Thank you, Carl Jung); you’re breaking quite a few of his most cherished taboos here; blurring the lines between those awful, rigid standards of masculinity and femininity which we have to deal with in this country (by the way, I hate machismo, and it’s a real bitch having to act that way at times in order to be considered a man); don’t expect him to take this lying down.
And, he may even envy you; that you have a job, perhaps (“Women should stay at home ya basha,” a taxi driver said to me recently. “They’re taking all the jobs and they just make us feel horny all the time. I can’t concentrate”) and because you are, well, free.
Free in all the ways he is not (thank you, Fight Club).
Projecting his own complexes, insecurities and, perhaps, perversions, onto you, the man emitting the glare is the weaker part of this equation.
So, I suppose, walk down the street, head up high, tall and proud, and strut your stuff.
Because for most of us (normal) men, who love a confident woman, this sight may well be the most sublime piece of visual information that will ever hit the surface of our retinas (thank you, E.M. Forster).
Who is to blame for the epidemic of sexual harassment in the region? Should women take any of the blame? Tell us what you think below.