Rampant sexual harassment is a relatively new phenomenon in Egypt. In the 1960s, women would wear short sleeves and skirts without fear. But today, high
unemployment has created a surplus of men without an income with which to purchase an apartment, furnishings, and jewelry -- items necessary to marry in
Egyptian culture. Because they are marrying later, many men claim they are sexually frustrated and easily aroused by women's immodest dress.
Many Islamic scholars say these are nothing more than excuses. In an article titled "It's the harasser who's responsible for harassment in Islamic Law,"
Sheikh Musa Furber explains that people who have embraced the belief that women are at fault in harassment cases are violating Islam's jurisprudence:
"Indeed, a man who is even leering at a woman, without touching her, is guilty of a sin, regardless of how she may or may not be dressed...Provocation is not
an excuse for shirking one's responsibilities and denigrating another human being's dignity. Even if a woman were to go naked in public, demand men on the
street grope her body, and threaten them with death should they fail to comply, it would be prohibited for any male to do so."
Although Islamic law is clear on this point, fear of harassment is a fact of life for women in Egypt, even those whose dress adheres to Islam's standards
of modesty. Activists acknowledge that the root of the problem is not deficient policy, as sexual harassment and assault are technically illegal. Rather,
the issue lies with prevailing social norms that subjugate women and stigmatize those who speak out. For years, human rights and feminist organizations in
Egypt have been confronting these norms with social and political activism, yet the situation has worsened.
Although women's self-defense is just beginning to play a role in the anti-harassment campaign in Egypt, female martial artists have been reaping the
benefits of such training for decades. They began competing alongside their male counterparts on the National Karate Team in 1971. Egyptian female athletes
also competed in the Olympics the first time that Judo and Taekwondo were medal-earning events for women, 1992 and 2000, respectively. Today, martial arts
classes are available for both men and women at most sports clubs, youth centers, and universities in Egypt's major cities.
While practicing most martial arts, women can maintain Islamic modesty standards by wearing loose-fitting uniforms and a hijab. In January 2013, the World
Karate Federation approved the use of hijab in international competition, making Karate even more of an accessible sport for Muslim women. Women can also
practice in private areas only with other women, eliminating the risk of coming into close contact with men.
Sharouk Mohamed, 15, has been a student of Judo since her dad signed her up for classes seven years ago. "I used to be afraid of everything, but not
anymore. Now, I know if I get caught in a dangerous situation, I'll be able to react quickly and get out of it," she said.
Aya Abdelghani, 24, is a member of the National Karate Team and teaches Karate at Zamalek Sporting Club in Cairo. She recently returned from competing at a
tournament in Dubai and credits Karate for helping her decide to pursue her master's degree in Islamic History. "Karate is different from other sports
because it teaches you to trust yourself and from this, you gain confidence," she said. "It also builds strong character and teaches girls not to be afraid