The measures taken against Maha Bahnassi were necessary. During the live coverage of the inauguration ceremony of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the television anchor reacted to the news coming in of sexual harassment in Tahrir Square during the celebrations by laughing and saying: “Well, they [the attackers] are happy.”
What Bahnassi said upset and angered many people. She justified her comments by saying that she was unaware of the details regarding the incident and didn’t really mean what she said. But that did not quell the anger. Bahnassi at first defended her on-air reaction, contending it was a spontaneous one; however, she later regretted it once she reflected on it and appreciated its repercussions.
It is important to stop and consider Bahnassi’s reaction—her chuckle and her contention that “well, they are happy”—at length in order to understand what could possibly push a well-known anchorwoman to react in this way. We are not doing this to exaggerate an individual mistake; her reaction was indeed “spontaneous,” though not in the sense of an innocent outburst: The spontaneity of the reaction here instead reflects a collective chronic problem which we—both men and women—have when it comes to dealing with sensitive and thorny issues like those of sexual harassment and attacks against women.
Falling in the same category as Bahnassi’s are the recent comments by a well-known actress, who upon learning of President Sisi’s hospital visit to one of the victims of the sexual assault in Tahrir, said: “How lucky she is! Can’t anyone harass us [as well]?” Her comments showed once again a complete lack of empathy towards the victim.
Both of these women’s comments weren’t the only slips-of-the-tongue or the only irresponsible comments made in reaction to the mob sexual attacks against Egyptian women last week. In addition to the physical and psychological damage the victims suffered, several media outlets added insult to injury. Some well-known media outlets and websites posted the video of a sexual attack against women by a mob in Tahrir, clearly revealing in the process the identities of these victims. Attaching the statement, “We apologize for the content of this video,” does not change the fact that this is an unacceptable act. Such an apology actually admits that the footage should not have been posted in the first place. The first natural and self-evident right we owe the victims of such attacks is to protect their privacy and respect it. We should not circulate footage of this violation and immortalize it by posting it on YouTube. Such acts publicize the pain these women endured, making it more difficult for them to make a full recovery.
Yes, there have been condemnations and attempts to confront the expanding problem of sexual harassment and attacks in Egypt, but the rhetoric and the general culture surrounding such a phenomenon does not help contain or battle it, especially when the young generation are being taught that when it comes to sexual attacks, it is women who should bear the brunt of the blame. What the anchorwoman and the actress said, and what many others previously and subsequently have said, reflects a mentality and a culture that does not respect women, one that sees them as “a piece of candy which if uncovered will attract flies”—as a recent advertisement encouraging girls to act and dress “modestly” recently proclaimed.
Those attempting to analyze this dangerous phenomenon in Egypt agree that one of the major reasons behind it is the social acceptance of the idea that violating a woman’s body is a mere trifle.
But it is difficult to confront such attitudes when we have such ‘slips-of-the-tongue’ such as those the anchorwoman and the actress made.