Young Egyptian Heroes Take on a Venerable Society

Tahrir Square, Cairo

Since publishing “Up from Scapegoating,” I’ve lectured and consulted in a variety of group settings, from private business to public institutions. While it is easy enough to help individuals understand their role in the scapegoating process, unless one changes  the group process scapegoating usually re-emerged over time.

Why does this happen?   Scapegoating is a human group behavior. In order to truly address scapegoating — something we know too little about —  the group process must be altered. That in turn often requires a mass-driven effort for change. Take the scapegoating of women and racial minorities in the U.S.  It took decades of powerful social movements and legal challenges to make even a small dent in the vast pool of harassments and abuse women and minorities have experienced.

Yet all transformations begin with a spark — something amazing that emerges seemingly overnight and  then catch fire and spread with a life of its own.

The Arab Spring was like that (the results of the up-swelling remain to be seen). Women’s rights were a central part of that revolution, especially in Egypt where women have long held much freer roles than those in most other Arab countries, but also where, perhaps because of that, harassment of women is ubiquitous. So let’s applaud  a group of men  in Cairo banding together to protect women from sexual harassment.

As a movement, it’s new and it’s volatile and compares itself to the Guardian Angels, the group formed in the U.S. decades ago to patrol the streets of our major cities to make them safer. The movement in Egypt has no legal status and therefore falls into the vigilante category. The protection given to women varies, from creating a human wall between the woman and her harasser, to spray-painting the word “harasser” on the foreheads or clothing of the abusers, to  threatening, shoving, or escalating to greater violence.

That the movement originated in Cairo is itself interesting. As all who have visited it know, Cairo is notorious for the frequent harassment of women by the military, police, and ordinary citizens, all without real legal recourse for the victim, let alone protection.

I have visited many Muslim countries and have witnessed firsthand a culture of street harassment, which until now I thought was as indigenous to the culture as, say, giving a thumbs up to people wearing Giants’ hats in San Francisco after the World Series.

I have seen my partner and  friends groped and humiliated. I have seen women sexually harassed in full view of everyone, and all without a single response from the populace. I assumed that this obnoxious and sometimes dangerous street behavior was just another facet of a general anti-women ethos, which creates dress codes and other restrictions demanded of women.

Perhaps not for long and not so easily done. I wonder who these young heroes are that stand  up for sisters, wives, and mothers? I hope they stay the course. Arab Spring brought them together and their social movement into momentary consciousness. Applause and best wishes to a difficult and desperately needed transformation in their society — and ours. Sexual harassment is a global social ill.


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