Khaled Kashary keeps one eye on his phone and the other on the steady stream of women passing him near the entrance of the Cairo University campus.
His cousin has promised to send him a photo of a woman his parents want him to meet, but Kashary, 23, seems much more interested in those within arm’s reach.
“Hey sugar, my sweetness. Come here to me,” he calls out to the women, often accompanied by a low hissing sound designed to get their attention. Few show any signs they have heard him, though one turns to shake her head and frown. “You see that? She liked it.”
Any reaction is a good reaction, according to Kashary, who refuses to call his constant advances towards women in the street “sexual harassment.”
“I am giving them attention, and this is what every woman wants,” he said. “The women would not dress that way with tight clothes and bright colors if they don’t want us looking.”
As Egypt’s government adopted a new law this week that will — for the first time — define sexual harassment and allow prison time for those convicted, many like Kashary are dismissing the efforts. The law, which was proposed by the judiciary and advanced by the cabinet, goes into effect immediately. Egyptian lawmakers say that sentences ranging from six months to five years in jail will deter whomever “accosts others in a public or private place through following or stalking them, using gestures or words or through modern means of communication or in any other means through actions that carry sexual or pornographic hints.” But Kashary and his friends say that “complimenting and speaking to women in the streets is part of Egyptian tradition.”
“I think the new law is nonsense. What is sexual harassment? I don’t understand what this American word is. We speak to women in Egypt and when they are attractive we tell them. We appreciate this and so do women,” said Muhammed Ahmed, a friend of Kashary’s who spoke to BuzzFeed by phone. “This law will not change anything.”
Both Ahmed and Kashary were present at Cairo University’s campus on the day when a female Egyptian student was sexually assaulted two months ago. Both men told BuzzFeed that they saw what happened but were not part of the “group up close touching her.”
“She was dressed very provocatively… she was asking for men to look at her and comment,” said Kashary. The woman, who wore jeans, a pink sweater and a yellow hijab, or head scarf, was later denounced by the president of the university and by a popular Egyptian talk show host, who said she had been dressed “like a hooker.”
“Unfortunately, men think they can harass us and speak to us in disgusting ways because our jeans are tight,” said Mai Ismail, a student at Cairo University and activist against sexual harassment. “This is the Egyptian male way of thinking. But the truth is we could wear anything and they would still harass us. We could be covered from head to toe in veil, like some students do, and they are still harassed. This is a sickness among too many Egyptian men that has been allowed to grow like cancer.”
Efforts to stop sexual harassment in Egypt have ranged from maps that show the location of incidents of harassment, to organizations which act as bodyguards to protect women in protests. Grassroots efforts to use street art or marches to raise awareness of the problem have grown recently, though many activists say the problem gets worse with each passing year.
A 2013 study conducted by the United Nations across 27 provinces in Egypt found that 99.3% of women suffered some sort of sexual harassment ranging from verbal abuse to assault. Subsequent studies conducted by Egyptian groups have found that it does not matter how a woman is dressed, where she lives, or how old she is — nearly all are victim to sexual harassment.
Ismail said that the harassment is so widespread, so inescapable, that many women simply submit and find the best strategy is show no recognition of their accuser.
“They hope by ignoring it [the men] will not escalate, so they submit,” said Ismail. “Unfortunately, many women also blame themselves.”
Last month, the sexual violence awareness group “Dignity Without Borders” released a video in which Egyptian schoolboys were interviewed about sexual harassment. Many of the boys said that girls “provoked” such behavior through their dress and way of walking.
Kashary makes clear he also thinks that women are largely to blame for harassment, though he gets angry when asked about how his mother or sisters would react to such advances.
“The women in my family are very devout, God protects them from such things,” he said. When it was pointed out that minutes earlier Kashary had clucked at a young women in a full face veil, or abaya, he added, “Well maybe men admire them too, but I really don’t think about that.”
He smiles broadly when he talks about women he has dated, but admits he has never had a girlfriend. When the photo of the young woman eventually does come through on his phone he suddenly turns shy and refuses to show it to a group of his friends who have gathered with him at the entrance to the University.
“Oh is she a sexy one? Why won’t you show it to the rest of us? Share it so I have something to think about tonight,” said one of his friends, while others try to snatch the phone out of his hands.
“This is a different type of thing,” he said, and successfully turned the group’s attention back to the streets in front of them, as a group of three young women approached the university.