I have wanted to talk about a very big topic for quite a while now: gender and sexual harassment. But instead of a man talking about how he has witnessed his friends being harassed, I thought it would be much more powerful to open up the space to a woman to discuss her situation. If you ask any female international student in Egypt they will undoubtedly have a few instances to share with you. Today I am sharing one particular and frightening instance a friend of mine experienced.
As the International Student and Study Abroad office we went for a retreat and session to discuss our study abroad experience on the Red Sea at Ain Sokhna. Below is an account written by my friend to be shared anonymously. Hopefully it allows for thoughtful reflection on gender as it is a tricky subject in Egypt:
“What follows is the story of how I was stalked and harassed on a weekend getaway with a large group of friends geared towards combating exactly those prevalent societal issues.
I’ve played it over in my head thousands of times. I’ve recounted it out loud to those brave enough to ask what exactly happened. Now, it’s become nothing but a monotonous task. So much so, that the most recent time I described the events to a friend they said, “It sounds like you’re reading this from a book.” I stopped and thought to myself, Am I really that detached from something that happened to me? My only explanation was that I had told the same story so many times that I didn’t know what else to say.
The weekend was designed to be a time of relaxation and follow-up about our travel experience so far. We had sessions all day to discuss important issues and how to fix them. Dorm life, classes, security, psychological health, and many other topics were discussed; however, Sexual Harassment was the obvious, glaring topic on the mediator’s minds. Having experienced it in many minor doses, I gave a few words of input on the matter. It felt awkward to turn the light, joking conversation in such a negative direction to explain situations where I felt uncomfortable or unsafe. People taking photos of me when they think I’m not looking—and even when it’s obvious that I am— being whistled at, and hearing kissing noises every time I turn my back is nothing new. We had all seemed to have experienced this kind of harassment—if we can even call it that.
After the long day of sessions, the first time I noticed that something wasn’t right, I was walking down a godawful yellow hallway that has now inserted itself uncomfortably in my memory. I was just making a quick trip to my room to change my shirt. This was the part that, to me, felt like a movie or a book. Every step I took, I could hear heavier steps shuffling at a short distance behind me. I would slow my pace, or stop altogether, and the steps would follow suit. My pulse slightly increased, enough to encourage me to turn around and confront whatever comical monster was attempting to sneak up behind me—apparently my ‘fight or flight’ response was at full confidence. I turned around, and I found a man who appeared to be following me. He grinned like a child who had been caught doing something naughty. I painfully blushed, out of my control, and immediately turned around to rush back to my room. In the solidarity behind the lock, I calmed down and thought, Did that really just happen?
Oh yes, it definitely happened. In fact, the same instance repeated itself multiple times throughout the late evening. I would find the same man in the blue football jersey, with the same deceptive grin, trailing not far behind me wherever I went. Embarrassed, and not wanting to raise an alarm accusing someone of blatantly following me around the hotel, I began casually asking friends to come to my room with me if I needed to go back for any reason. I was too afraid of getting someone else in trouble, even if that risked my own safety.
My mind was momentarily at ease when I went to the hotel bar with two male friends. I really doubted that anyone would pester me while I was accompanied by two guys. However, as we sat at the bar, chatting, I noticed the same grinning fool standing across the room, behind the bar. He wasn’t serving drinks or taking money, just standing, and smirking at me. I suppressed my feelings of discomfort and noted that if he was standing behind the bar, he most likely (hopefully) worked here. Maybe, I thought, he was following me because he’s a (casually dressed?) security guard. I said nothing to my friends, just hoping my imagination was running wild after a long day.
When it was much later and much darker, I walked outside with one of the two males I’d been with earlier. We saw some of our other friends at a table smoking shisha; he suggested that we join them. I happily agreed until I noticed, across the patio, a solitary figure with a smirk plastered on his face. In my mind, I noted that I was with friends, in public, and therefore completely safe, right? As I sat down, I scooted my chair as close to my male friend as possible; then, my stomach dropped. The man in the blue football jersey had switched tables to be closer to us. Banishing my imminent panic, I attempted to avoid looking anywhere near his direction.
About an hour had passed, and my male friend was ready to retire to his room for the night. In a moderate tone, I explained to him that I didn’t want anyone to freak out; however, I was under the impression that the guy two tables away from us had been following me around the hotel all night. My friend had frustrated look on his face and said, “I didn’t want to freak you out; but, he’s been staring at us since we sat down.” I felt nauseated. My friend said that it probably wasn’t a big deal, but he thought he should walk me back to my room. Mildly comforted, I agreed.
My friend’s room was directly underneath mine. We walked back to his room on the lower floor, so I only had to walk up the stairs alone. I got to my door and felt my heart pound as I realized my key card would not work and my friend had already gone to bed. I didn’t want to be a pain, so I headed back towards that stupid, yellow hallway between me and the reception desk. I kept my head low and didn’t look up until I heard a tapping sound. I stole the briefest glance in front of me, and to my obvious dread, he was standing there tapping the wall with the back of his knuckles. I thrust my eyes back at my feet and willed myself to keep walking forward; the front desk was within reach.
My chest throbbed and I could feel an infamous anxiety attack building inside of me as I got closer to him, but I still tried to keep going. The next thing I knew, the man broadened his stance to fill the middle of the hallway, and there was no getting around him. He asked, “Where are you from?” Head still down, I replied, “The United States.” I tried to step around him, but he shifted positions so I couldn’t go anywhere. The next question was, “How old are you?” My eyes stung with tears thinking about the weighted inquiry. I thought, He wants to know if you’re old enough to consent. At this thought, I shoved my way around the stupid, blue football jersey and ran towards the stairs to the front desk. He reached for my arm, but I jerked away, hard. All the while, the man shouted after me, “What is your name?” over and over again.
I sprinted down the spiral staircase to the front desk. Much too afraid to raise an alarm, trembling, I explained to the man at the front desk that my key card needed to be re-magnetized. He asked me what room I was staying in. Fearing the worst, I turned around and found the man from the hallway peering over the balcony at me, drooling for my reply. Feeling defeated, I told the man my room number, tore my card from his hands, and ran as fast as I could to my friend’s room on the lower level.
I can only imagine now, how pale and frightening I must have looked. I pounded on the door, shouting their names, until they answered. They were both obviously close to sleeping when I ran in as soon as the door was cracked. I somehow mustered up a meek explanation that a man had just cornered me in the hallway after following me around all night. They both looked mortified and instantly reacted like they were on a mission. They each walked with me to find the rest of our group in order to contact any of our supervisors at some ridiculous hour of the morning.
I spent the next 4-5 hours in and out of different rooms retelling the story to supervisors, hotel managers, and police. A friend sat with me all night, through every tearful recap of the previous hours. There was a small crowd of local males and a few females who also sat up all night waiting. They were concerned, protective and mostly furious at the actions of one stupid person representing their entire culture. I obviously don’t blame anyone else for the senseless actions of that one person. This could, and does, happen everywhere. Often, the situations are far worse than what happened to me. I just hope that stopping the situation where I did will prevent a far worse situation for some other unsuspecting victim.
The support system I had that night was astounding. I couldn’t have asked for gentler people to help me deal with that scary, shitty situation. After hours of questions, the one problem that I still couldn’t answer though, was, “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” … Why in the hell didn’t I tell anyone?”