“Boys will be boys" is the kind of sentiment that is applied to the boisterousness that boys in the playground can exhibit among themselves. The notion can sometimes, rightly, allow young children to work out their issues on their own and mature in the process. But all too often, the same kind of permissiveness is used in another way entirely – and it is important that adults and parents ensure that boys learn the right message.
This past week, Egyptian singer Amr Diab was virtually pilloried for not recognising the scale of an issue that could not be dismissed as simply boys being boys.
In an advertisement for French car manufacturer Citroen, Diab’s fictional character is seen driving and car and hitting the brakes suddenly in front of a woman crossing the street. His character in the ad does not know the woman nor does he seek her permission before proceeding to take a picture of her nonetheless, using a discreet camera installed in the car.
Clearly, Diab’s character feels entitled to take the picture. There are no negative consequences for his behaviour. On the contrary, in the next scene, the two seem to have developed a romantic relationship.
If one transposes this fictional story to any real life encounter, many people would view this as rather sleazy. But as noted, the male character in the ad feels perfectly entitled, and seems to be rewarded by the woman having taken notice of him.
The ad received more than 8.4 million views in seven days, meaning that the video’s normalisation of this behaviour – the invasion of women’s privacy by men using technology – was tremendous.
An earlier real life example of women’s privacy being violated by men comes to mind – and this was a far more grotesque violation of privacy. Some years ago, there was a fad to take "upskirt" photos on American public transport, where men would slyly angle their phones to take pictures under women’s skirts.
More disgracefully, a Texan court later struck down a law that sought to ban that kind of activity, claiming that even if the pictures were surreptitious, the right to take them was part of Americans’ freedom of expression. The story gets worse, as the law stemmed from the arrest of a man in Texas who had been found taking pictures of children in swimsuits.
Of course, Diab’s character did not justify the likes of such behaviour as in the Texas case. But there is a principle here; Diab’s character clearly found the female character attractive, and wanted to record her appearance, without her consent. It is a type of conduct some might be tempted to consider "boyish" – dangerously implying harmlessness – but Diab’s fictional character is not a child. He is a grown man who ought to know the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
Over the past two years, we have all become accustomed to online meeting platforms like Zoom. Even there, in the online space, if anyone took a screenshot of another participant without their consent and the person got to know, it would be disturbing.
There is a further aspect to this, which relates to gender. Diab’s character isn’t a man being photographed by a woman. The power relationship is very clearly one-sided. She’s the pedestrian. He’s the driver of a sleek new car. She’s the one crossing the road without realising she’s being photographed without her knowledge. He’s the one taking the picture.
In a world where women are still subjected to sexual harassment in numerous ways, one is surprised to see Citroen putting forward such an advertisement. The ad has now been withdrawn. But Citroen seemed to realise its error too late and only due to the negative attention the ad drew. The company issued a statement saying it "deeply regrets and understands the negative interpretation". As for Diab himself and the rest of the crew involved in the production of the video, there have been no statements. A famous Arab figure might have missed an important opportunity to take a stand.
In the US, it took till 2015 for a Texan governor to pass a statute to ensure that "up-skirting" was illegal, so that the courts could not find a way to justify it under the dubious interpretation of "freedom of expression".
Closer home for this video, in Diab’s own native Egypt, a UN study in 2013 found that nearly all women in Egypt reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. Within the Egyptian media industry, as within the film industry more generally internationally, there have been complaints for years that harassment of women is normalised in entertainment and in their portrayals on the big screen.
Yes, boys will be boys. But boys shouldn’t be boys forever. They need to grow into men. And manhood always includes respect for the boundaries of others. But we should all be forewarned: maturity isn’t something that simply takes place due to the passage of time. It requires training and guidance; and part of that training includes knowing that there should be consequences for actions that invade the privacy of others. Citroen’s car advertisement is the latest in a long line of public expressions that make it clear how much that training is needed.