The comments were shocking in the extreme but were followed by swift, tough justice. When Egyptian lawyer Nabih Al Wahsh said on a national television show that when he saw a woman wearing ripped jeans, it was “a patriotic duty to sexually harass her and a national duty to rape her”, judges in the State Security Misdemeanour Court for Urgent Matters deemed his comments serious enough to jail him for three years. It is a reassuring sign that complaints of sexual harassment, an endemic sickness across the world, are being treated with the gravitas they deserve.
The past few months have seen a spate of allegations of sexual violence and abusive treatment toward women across the world. For too long, the world has turned a blind eye to the “everyday sexism” that women are subjected to. But words matter. Those in positions of authority have a responsibility to couch their language in terms which respect both the men and the women of the countries they represent – whether they are lawyers, politicians or government officials. Too often, we have seen that duty carelessly brushed aside, whether it is the dismissive attitude of a president when accused of groping women, a Hollywood producer facing a litany of allegations of sexual assault or a country’s tourism chief warning women not to wear skirts for their own safety. Nor is it simply the men who are culprits; in 2014, Indian politician Asha Mirje said women’s clothing and behaviour were “responsible to an extent” in cases of rape, comments she later backtracked from.
Time and again, those in power or who wield influence make such dangerous statements, which could be interpreted as incitement by those immoral enough to follow them to the letter. The subtext is clear by making those crass statements: if you are attacked or harassed, you have asked for it in some way.
Egypt has worked hard to restore its reputation as women face terrible instances of sexual harassment, as highlighted by a spate of attacks in Tahrir Square in 2014. Al Wahsh’s conviction sends out a strong message: threatening women, even with words alone, will not be tolerated. Other countries would do well to follow its example.