By Ionna Moriatis

The resurgence of attention to cases of sexual harassment in Egypt has prompted increased dialog on the issue and the significant impact it can have on victims. But what is harassment exactly? And when does inappropriate behavior turn into harassment?

“The key feature of sexual harassment is that it is unwelcome — that is, the person on the receiving end of verbal or physical sexual behavior finds it uncomfortable, intimidating, offensive, hostile or unpleasant,” says Carie Forden, professor and chair of AUC’s Department of Psychology. 

Helen Rizzo, associate professor of sociology, holds that a similar definition put forth by HarassMap is among the most comprehensive. According to HarassMap’s conception, sexual harassment describes “any form of unwanted words and/or actions of a sexual nature that violate a person’s body, privacy, or feelings, and make that person feel uncomfortable, threatened, insecure, scared, disrespected, startled, insulted, intimidated, abused, offended, or objectified.”

Both Rizzo and Forden explain that sexual harassment can occur anywhere, whether that be in a public space or within the bounds of one’s own home in the form of domestic violence. What has been brought to the public light more recently around the globe, however, are the power relations at play in specific contexts, such as the workplace or educational spaces. “Often power plays a role in sexual harassment because a person in a position of authority can explicitly or implicitly tie sexual requests to things like employment or educational decisions,” says Forden, who has experienced this herself. “When I was an undergraduate, a professor hinted that if I dated him, I would get an A in his class. That’s sexual harassment.”

Rizzo: “If something happens to us, the motivation to report is trusting that it will be taken seriously, that it will be investigated and that the person will be held accountable.”

For Rizzo, this question of power or authority is at the heart of a university’s role in preventing sexual harassment. She suggests that a university should be conceptualized as a place of work where the power dynamics between managers and employees, as well as between professors and students or the administration and students, can significantly worsen the experience and impact of sexual harassment for those on the receiving end. “There are real consequences. There are horrible consequences wherever it takes place, but for a university, it has to be looked at as a workplace among employees and also the power differential between professors and students. These quid pro quo kinds of experiences add another layer,” says Rizzo. 

Sometimes, when power differences exist between individuals, the consequences of not accepting unwanted behavior may make those on the receiving end even more fearful. In such situations, intention takes even more of a backseat to the way in which actions and words are received or understood, Forden notes. “A faculty member at a previous university I worked at used to make jokes about the attractiveness of female students during his classes. This made the female students uncomfortable, and they started avoiding his classes. Even though the faculty member did not intend to make the students uncomfortable, his behavior also counts as sexual harassment,” she says.

On a university campus in particular, sexual harassment can have a life-changing impact on students who are victims of such behavior — in the worst cases, preventing them from accessing educational opportunities. Rizzo emphasizes that for victims or survivors of violence, abuse or harassment by a professor, “the campus is no longer a safe space, so they don’t feel they can go to class and be safe,” shedding light on the “psychological and emotional damage of not being able to continue their studies.”

Forden: “The only way we can get sexual harassment to stop is by talking about it.”

For Forden, this level of damage is what makes it so critical that both AUC and the public at large focus conversations on the types of sexual harassment that occur on university campuses.

“It’s important to talk about it on a university campus, in particular, because it interferes with the fundamental purpose of universities: to educate, empower and facilitate the growth of students,” says Forden, who has conducted research on gender equality in Egypt and published two books looking at gender and the female experience through a psychological lens. 

While the consequences may seem more palpable in contexts like the workplace or an academic environment where power differentials are more prominent, the negative impact of sexual harassment in any and all contexts cannot be understated, Forden asserts. “Sexual harassment looks the same everywhere and has the same kinds of impact on those who are targeted,” she says. “Like most women, I’ve experienced sexual harassment many times in my life. I’ve been sexually harassed at the workplace, as a student and on the street. It feels the same in each place — humiliating, disempowering and sometimes threatening.”

Both internationally and in Egypt, the public’s understanding of sexual harassment, the contexts in which it can take place and its detrimental effects have evolved with increased awareness campaigns, research, improved implementation of legislation and a rise in activism. Rizzo reminds us that despite the recent momentum behind movements against sexual harassment around the world and most recently in Egypt, it is important to remember the earlier work of activists that laid the groundwork for more societal shifts in thinking.

“In Egypt, since around 2005, some of the major campaigns started, especially about public space harassment, and NGOs and other civil society actors started to get involved,” Rizzo says. “I believe that formed the base for this more recent movement that has been mostly taking place on social media. There is a history of on-the-ground and NGO activism — a foundation for the slowly changing attitudes.”

Rizzo adds, “On an international scale, there have been decades of activism, particularly feminist activism, against sexual and gender-based violence. There is a lot of history and a base to the #MeToo movement that became a global awareness campaign.”

Despite the deep-seated roots of the movement and the long way we have come in understanding sexual harassment, both Rizzo and Forden argue that there is still much work left to be done, particularly when it comes to holding perpetrators accountable. As Forden says, “many people still have incorrect definitions of sexual harassment, misunderstand the causes, blame victims and excuse perpetrators.”

While sexual harassment can happen to people of any gender, Rizzo highlights that perpetrators are most often men, linking challenges in overcoming sexual violence to the fight for gender equality. In particular, she sees a major challenge in the vocabulary used to describe sexual harassment:

“Around the world, when we talk about issues of sexual harassment and gender-based violence, no matter where it happens, we often only talk about the victim, not the perpetrator. It’s ‘she was raped; she was harassed; she was assaulted’ or even if the victim was a ‘he.’ We can see gender inequality and patriarchy in the language,” says Rizzo.

Public discourse around sexual harassment also needs to shine a light on the impact of gender norms and inequalities. “Of course, we need empowerment for the victims and for women. We need to open up opportunities, but we also have to address the issues of masculinity and the role of gender inequalities on harassment, discrimination, violence and assault. That’s where the broader conversation needs to go,” says Rizzo, who has explored the sociology of gender in her publications and recently conducted research aimed at reframing sexual harassment and gender relations in Egypt through an examination of masculinities. 

Rizzo and Forden affirm that questions of accountability should be at the forefront of conversations being led by institutions such as AUC. As a first step, Forden underlines the importance of institutions first taking the step of eradicating the culture of silence around sexual harassment.

“The only way we can get sexual harassment to stop is by talking about it,” says Forden. “People need to become aware of what sexual harassment is so they stop doing it and also so they stop putting up with it. Of course, the talk must be followed by action, but the first step is to raise awareness and make it clear that sexual harassment should never be tolerated.”

Across the world, this culture of silence has damaged the public’s trust in the ability and commitment of systems to hold perpetrators accountable. “Anyone who has been a victim and sees what happens to other victims finds that often justice is not served,” says Rizzo “You don’t trust the system to help you. So organizations that are serious about doing something have to work very hard to get us all to trust the system. If something happens to us, the motivation to report is trusting that it will be taken seriously, that it will be investigated and that the person will be held accountable.”

As a leading University in Egypt, AUC can play a major part in transforming this history of injustice and silence. “We want AUC to be a safe and supportive educational and working environment for everyone, so we must take steps to end any sexual harassment that takes place here,” explains Forden. “Because AUC students are Egypt’s future leaders, it will be their responsibility to make this a place where everyone can work, walk the streets, go to school, go shopping and live their lives free of sexual harassment.”

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