PERHAPS THE MOST SHOCKING THING about the despicablesexual attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Cairo's Tahrir Squareis that to those who know Egypt, it wasn't shocking at all.
"Why is sexual harassment in Egypt so rampant?"asked the headline over a story written by CNN's Mary Rogers lastNovember. A veteran producer and camerawoman who has lived in thecountry since 1994, Rogers reported that the experience of beingpublicly molested unites women across Egypt's social spectrum.
"Young, old, foreign, Egyptian, poor, middle class, orwealthy, it doesn't matter," she wrote. "Dressed in hijab, niqab, orwestern wear, it doesn't matter. If you are a woman living in Cairo,chances are you have been sexually harassed. It happens on the streets,on crowded buses, in the workplace, in schools, and even in a doctor'soffice." Rogers discovered the ugly reality soon after her arrival inthe country, when, as she was walking home from work, a stranger"reached out, and casually grabbed my breast." After repeatedlyenduring such obnoxious harassment, Rogers stopped walking to and fromher office.
In a swath of the globe notorious for mistreating women, Egypt is particularly infamous. According to a survey conducted in 2008by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, 83 percent of nativeEgyptian women and 98 percent of women visiting from abroad haveexperienced some form of public sexual harassment. More than half theEgyptian women reported being molested every day. And contraryto popular belief, most of the victims of this "social cancer," as theCenter called it, were wearing modest Islamic dress.
Not all sexual harassment is physical -- besides gropingwomen's bodies, grabbing at their clothing, and indecent exposure, itcan also include blatant ogling, sexual catcalls, and stalking. Whathappened to Logan, however, was serious enough to land her in ahospital.
CBS reportedthat on Feb. 11, the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left office,Logan became separated from her "60 Minutes" crew and found herself"surrounded by a dangerous element amidst the celebration . . . a mobof more than 200 people whipped into frenzy." In an attack that lasted more than 20 minutes,she suffered what CBS called "a brutal and sustained sexual assault andbeating." Eventually she was rescued by a group of women and a squad ofEgyptian soldiers. Logan was flown to the United States the nextmorning, and was hospitalized until February 16.
If this is how Egyptian men are capable of treating womenin public, at a moment of national celebration and internationalattention, what are they are apt to do to women in private when theyare angry or frustrated? Data compiled by the Central Agency for PublicMobilization and Statistics indicates that half of all married women experience violence in Egypt, usually at the hands of their husbands. A different study, cited by the 2009 Arab Human Development Report,estimated that 35 percent of married Egyptian women have beenphysically attacked -- but the report cautions that violence againstwomen is severely under-reported in the Arab world, because "thesubject is taboo" and women who file complaints are considered shamed.
"Sexual violence is not an aberration [in] Egypt," writes Joseph Mayton,the editor of Bikya Masr, an online provider of independent Egyptianjournalism. "It has a deep-rooted history." The subject flared brieflyonto the public agenda in 2006, when a mob of men and boys rampagedoutside a downtown Cairo theater, groping and tearing at any womanunfortunate enough to be within reach. But "after a few weeks of heateddiscussion," Mayton says, the customary silence and denial had returned.
The recent Egyptian uprising has inspired flights ofexcited rhetoric about freedom, reform, and a new beginning for Egypt.But the sickening assault on Lara Logan is a reminder that much ofEgypt's cruelty and corruption had nothing to do with Mubarak or hisregime. No nation or culture that subjects half its population to thedegradation suffered by women in Egypt and so much of the Arab worldcan ever hope to rise to greatness.
In a famous letterwritten during America's revolution in 1776, Abigail Adams implored herhusband John: "Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorableto them than your ancestors. . . . Abhor those customs which treat usonly as the vassals of your Sex." That was cogent advice for 18th-centuryAmerica. For 21st-century Egypt and the Middle East, it isindispensable. If there is no liberation for the women, there is noliberation.