A friend recently sent me this BBC article in which seven Egyptian women talk about their experience of sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo. The article describes the increasingly common problem in Egypt, citing a survey that suggests more than four out of five women have been sexually harassed, while nearly two-thirds of men admitted assaulting women. Not just verbally harassing, but physically assaulting. Two thirds of men!

What initially surprised me about the article is that even the hijabi women and those who wear little makeup and baggy clothes faced the same level of harassment as the women who dressed in a more “Western” fashion. I have experienced levels of sexual harassment during my time in Spain, Ecuador, Morocco, etc. because of my red hair and blue eyes, anomalies in those countries. I suppose I always assumed that women who “blended in” would be respected. It seems this assumption was wrong, and perhaps the act of objectifying women is much more about power and entitlement than it is about what the actual woman looks like.

In a recent video conference I facilitated between the U.S, Morocco and Egypt, a comment was made by one of the participants at an American site about the lack of women’s voices represented at the Egypt site (women outnumbered men, though the men dominated the conversation). My initial reaction was embarrassment over this participant’s lack of understanding of Egyptian culture and bluntness in identifying this problem. After reading this article, however, I question how much can we, as American’s frown upon patriarchal aspects of Middle Eastern culture? In the case of harassment, it is obvious that certain men in Egypt feel entitled to express their voice at the expense of women’s voices and dignity. We are certainly entitled to feel outrage over physical assault, but where do we draw the line?  Can we criticize women’s silence in these countries or is it simply a difference in upbringing? Is the female voice actually underrepresented or are we viewing the situation from a Western perspective?