By Reem Abouemera
More often than not, intimate relationships are associated with consent, spreading a misconception that there’s no such thing as sexual harassment or abuse between partners in relationships and marriages. But is that the truth? Far from it.
Sexual harassment can happen in relationships too. UN Women’s Global Database on Violence Against Women reveals that 26% of women have been subjected to physical or sexual intimate partner violence at least once in their lifetime, while
14% have been subjected to physical or sexual intimate partner violence in the past year.
Hania Sholkamy ’85, ’89, associate professor at AUC’s Social Research Center, works in gender from a feminist standpoint and is currently undertaking the impact assessment and evaluation of UN Women’s decade-long anti-harassment work and Implementing Partners in Egypt. For Sholkamy, there are different levels or categories of harassment.
Although relationships are meant to be loving and supportive, many times, women end up with substantial emotional or physical pain. Emotional abuse is quite common, displayed through acts such as continuous criticism, insults, public humiliation, forceful isolation from family and friends, extreme jealousy and possessiveness, holding back from work, refusal to share money and using threats as punishment.
Then there’s physical or sexual abuse, which takes a different form. “There is a huge difference between partner acts and public acts of sexual aggression,” Sholkamy explains. “Intimate partner violence is an indication of a deeply flawed relationship that must be fixed or ended. Physically abusive relationships are those typically involving physical force in sexual and daily situations.”
Consent isn’t a given in relationships. If partners or husbands insult their partners by calling them sexual names, demand an intimate relationship when they’re sick or tired, force or manipulate them into performing sexual acts, or ignore their requests during an intimate relationship — that’s all sexual harassment. “Women should not tolerate these acts and should ask families and support institutions to resolve these violent situations,” Sholkamy notes.
It’s true that some women fail to recognize when they’re undergoing abuse because they believe it’s a part of marriage, but there are women who stay quiet although they know they are victims. Why?
Prevalent reasons include lack of financial backing, sparing the reputation of families from being tarnished, self-blame, fear of being judged and lack of support from family.
It isn’t a matter of instituting the right procedures or paying lip service to issues of sexual rights and bodily integrity. “Women run very clever and careful cost-benefit analyses and often find that speaking up is too costly in terms of risks and not effective in terms of benefits,” Sholkamy argues, ultimately because there’s a persistent trivialization of acts of harassment that makes it difficult to confront, censure or punish predators. “It is as if these acts should be endured or ignored. Speaking up means overturning these mistaken calculations.”
Then there’s victim blaming, which makes matters worse. The issue of women not speaking up about their abuse isn’t specific to a country. Yet Sholkamy finds an “Egyptian specificity” to it due to the widespread culture of blaming the harassed instead of the harasser.
It all stems from attempting to find reasons for the proliferation of these practices by men, like saying they’re sick, were provoked by peers, are projecting their insecurities and weaknesses on others — the list goes on. “It is not useful to linger on reasons and motivations, as this can lead to a level of acceptance that is
not helpful,” shares Sholkamy.
To address this, there are, of course, criminalizing laws, institutions that provide gender-blind justice, and practices that render public spaces and workplaces safe. But Sholkamy emphasizes the need for men and women to build solidarity and
change norms and practices, including parents, who are often the reason women don’t speak up.
“Parents may be driven by all sorts of fears: fear of scandal, fear of consequences, fear of trouble. Fear is real, but it is not useful,” she says. “Fear is a knee-jerk reaction and can never lead to justice or fair resolutions. Fear does not lead to safety; on the contrary, it makes children — both boys and girls — more vulnerable. Parents can do better by instilling fearless self- confidence in children and supporting them when and if bad things happen.”
Schools, workplaces, religious institutions and service providers, such as hospitals, police stations and transportation systems, “can and should rectify any problems instilled by upbringing,” particularly on the male front. Sholkamy affirms, “Harassment on the street, at work, in schools, in modes of transport or at homes is a symptom of a failure of public order and should be addressed as such.”