CAIRO – The sexual harassment of women in the streets, schools and work places of the Arab World is driving them to cover up and confine themselves to their homes, said activists at the first-ever regional conference addressing the once taboo topic.
Activists from 17 countries across the region met in Cairo for a two-day conference ending Monday and concluded that harassment was unchecked across the region because laws don't punish it, women don't report it and the authorities ignore it.
The harassment, including groping and verbal abuse, appears to be designed to drive women out of public spaces and seems to happen regardless of what they are wearing, they said.
Amal Madbouli, who wears the conservative face veil or niqab, told The Associated Press that despite her dress, she is harassed and described how a man came after her in the streets of her neighborhood.
"He hissed at me and kept asking me if I wanted to go with him to a quieter area, and to give him my phone number," said Madbouli, a mother of two. "This is a national security issue. I am a mother, and I want to be reassured when my daughters go out on the streets."
Statistics on harassment in the region have until recently been nonexistent, but a series of studies presented at the conference hinted at the widespread nature of the problem.
As many as 90 percent of Yemeni women say they have been harassed, while in Egypt, out of a sample of 1,000, 83 percent reported being verbally or physically abused.
A study in Lebanon reported that more than 30 percent of women said they had been harassed there.
"We are facing a phenomena that is limiting women's right to move ... and is threatening women's participation in all walks of life," said Nehad Abul Komsan, an Egyptian activist who organized the event with funding from the U.N. and the Swedish development agency.
Open discussion of the harassment issue first emerged in Egypt three years ago, after blogs gave broad publicity to amateur videos showing men assaulting women in downtown Cairo during a major Muslim holiday.
The public outcry sparked an unprecedented public acknowledgment of the problem and drove the Egyptian government to consider two draft bills addressing sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment, including verbal and physical assault, has been specifically criminalized in only half a dozen Arab countries. Most of the 22 Arab states only outlaw overtly violent acts like rape, according to a study by Abul Komsan.
Participants at the conference said men are threatened by an increasingly active female labor force, with conservatives laying the blame for harassment on women's dress and behavior.
In Syria, men from traditional homes go shopping in the market place instead of female family members to spare them harassment, said Sherifa Zuhur, a Lebanese-American academic at the conference.
Abul Komsan described how one of the victims of harassment she interviewed told her she had taken on the full-face veil to stave off the hassle.
"She told me 'I have put on the niqab. By God, what more can I do so they leave me alone,'" she said, quoting the woman. Some even said they were reconsidering going to work or school because of the constant harassment in the streets and on public transpiration.
But even in Yemen, where nearly all women are covered from head to toe, activist Amal Basha said 90 percent of women in a published study she conducted reported harassment, specifically pinching.
"The religious leaders are always blaming the women, making them live in a constant state of fear because out there, someone is following them," she said.
If a harassment case is reported in Yemen, Basha added, traditional leaders interfere to cover it up, remove the evidence or terrorize the victim.
In Saudi Arabia, another country where women cover themselves completely and are nearly totally segregated from men in public life, women report harassment as well, according to Saudi activist Majid al-Eissa.
His organization, the National Family Safety Program, has been helping draft a law criminalizing violence against women in the conservative kingdom, where flirting can often cross the line into outright assault. Discussion of the law begins Tuesday.
"It will take time especially in this part of the world to absorb the gender mixture and the role each gender can play in society," he said. "We are coping with changes (of modern life), except in our minds."