Egypt: women's clothing 'delusional excuse' for sexual harassment, say religious authorities

Statements from Al Azhar Mosque and Mufti follow student's arrest in relation to sexual assault of up to 50 women

A few people walk in the vicinity of the closed Al-Azhar mosque in Egypt's capital Cairo on March 20, 2020, after the country's Muslim religious authorities decided to put the Friday prayers on hold, in order to avoid gatherings and the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 disease.  / AFP / Khaled DESOUKI
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Egypt’s two highest religious authorities have condemned sexual harassment after alleged sexual assaults on more than 50 women by a university student.

Al Azhar Mosque and the Mufti, or chief theologian, have rejected the notion that how a woman dressed could be blamed for sexual harassment and rape.

In statements at the weekend they said women should never be blamed for such crimes.

The case of the student, who was detained on Saturday for questioning, has dominated the national conversation for close to a week.

Women have used social media to recount their own experiences of harassment at the hands of men.

Egypt is notorious for sexual harassment of women in public, with rights groups often calling the country of about 100 million people among the worst places to live for women.

The government has in recent years increased penalties for convicted harassers or rapists, but the problem persists.

That has led to calls for societal changes that would encourage women to go public about crimes committed against them and press legal proceedings against offenders.

The debate about the student and his alleged victims, many of whom he is also accused of blackmailing, has laid bare the dark side of a patriarchal and conservative society.

Women have been required to silently endure sexual harassment rather than risk what many families see as the shame of going public with details of assaults or rape.

In the last few days, activists have vigorously reacted to the student’s alleged crimes, including through an online petition calling on authorities to bring him to justice.

Almost 35,000 people had signed the petition by Sunday afternoon.

Victims have been called on to come forward and share details of their experiences and press charges against perpetrators.

There have also been calls for women to learn martial arts or organise workshops to train women and girls on how to deal with harassment.

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Some of the accounts posted online by victims of the student made for harrowing reading.

They exposed a worrisome tendency by families and educational institutions, such as the Cairo university in which the student was enrolled before he went to study in Spain, for denial or trying to sweep cases under the rug.

Al Azhar, the world's top seat of learning for Sunni Muslims, devoted this week's issue of its magazine, Sawt Al Azhar, to the need to increase the fight against the sexual harassment of women.

“Being silent or looking the other way when it comes to those crimes poses a threat to the security of society and encourages the violation of virtues and sanctity,” said the magazine, which reflects Al Azhar’s views and policies.

“Women’s attire, regardless of what it is, is not an excuse for assaulting their privacy, freedom or dignity."

A separate statement by Al Azhar called for support for women seeking legal retribution against offenders and urged members of the public to be proactive if they witnessed sexual harassment or assault.

“Being passive toward a harasser is unacceptable," Al Azhar said. "He must be made to desist and handed over to police."

It called on authorities to diligently enforce laws against sexual harassment and on society at large not to take lightly the suffering of victims.

The office of the Mufti, the country’s chief theologian, called harassment a “cardinal sin” and called on authorities to deal “firmly and decisively” with perpetrators.

It also rejected the popular notion that at the root of sexual harassment lies in the way women choose to dress.

“It’s a delusional excuse that only sick people with malicious caprices entertain,” the office said.

There has been no word in public from the student on the allegations he faces, but a popular talk show host, Amr Adeeb of MBC television, quoted his father on Saturday as professing his son’s innocence.

The father said the allegations prompted his Barcelona university to suspend and later expel him.