It’s more than just the country’s reputation that takes a hit from sexual harassment, it’s the economy
By Dominika Maslikowski
Women doing their laundry in the sacred waters of the Ganges, draped in vibrant scarves whose hues defy classification on the standard color wheel. Fragrant flowers and spices, and cows wandering down crowded streets. Mystics in long beards lost in meditation, and temples smelling of incense that draw in visitors from across the world into their exotic rituals.
What world traveler with an incurable case of wanderlust hasn’t at one point dreamt of going to India? It has long been a dream of mine to discover the land that’s so unlike any other familiar culture. But it wasn’t until I came to Egypt that I learned that aside from its spicy foods and spectacular temples, India is also known for its sexual harassment and has an abysmal record of mob attacks on women.
India kept coming up in conversations I had with Egyptians about sexual harassment in this country. While most admit that Egypt does have a real problem, quite a few insist that “it happens everywhere,” or say, “It’s even worse in India.”
I read a few alarming articles and quickly realized sexual harassment in India is very bad, and just as quickly I crossed the trip off my bucket list. There are, after all, so many other places I would love to see. I might be able to handle the odd lewd comment from men on the street. But do I want to make that effort? A larger part of me just wants peace, even if it means trading in my dreams of India for the relative calm of a beach in Greece.
If I changed my vacation plans after reading about the daily harassment an American student faced in India (she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder when she returned home), then how many tourists changed their plans of coming to Egypt when the horrid video footage posted June 8 of a woman sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square made international headlines? How many tourists, over the years, decided never to come back after hearing inappropriate comments at a Red Sea resort? How many tourists decided never to come in the first place, after hearing bad stories from friends returning from their Egyptian vacations?
The numbers are almost impossible to count. Unlike the dip in tourism after the January 25 Revolution, which was clearly evident in statistics, the impact of sexual harassment on tourism is harder to quantify because it’s a steadier and quieter force that has slowly eroded Egypt’s tourism over many years and cost the country millions.
When a female tourist walks through Old Cairo or the beaches of Hurghada and she hears a few cat calls, she might ignore the incidents or laugh them off. She’ll pride herself on being tough, on handling the situation and not letting it ruin her vacation. But will she come back, or rave about Egypt to her friends? Plenty of women have already blogged or spoken out about how they’d never return here after experiencing harassment.
According to a report from 2008 by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, 14 percent of female tourists to Egypt said they would never return and tell their friends not to visit — statistics the center said would lead to the loss of millions of pounds. How much has sexual harassment cost the country, six years later on when the problem has become steadily worse?
“Are the tourists starting to come back?” I asked a taxi driver recently in Giza while returning from a weekend at the pyramids, already knowing the answer he’d give me.
“Not yet. Maybe after the World Cup? Maybe they’ve all gone to Brazil,” he said.
As we headed into downtown on Saturday night, we silently passed a crowd of women outside the Cairo Opera House rallying against rape and harassment. The crowd at the rally included mostly women who daily face harassment and are its biggest victims. They know how it impacts their lives.
Does the taxi driver — and the 4 million Egyptians who rely on tourism — also know how its impacted theirs? The minority of Egyptian men who harass have not only made daily life a pain to millions of women, but have also cost the country millions of pounds in tourism revenue.
And while lewd comments shouted on the street might not make the international news the way that violent clashes and bombs do, both must be tackled with the same vigor if Egypt hopes to bring back the tourists it deserves.
I don’t know where all the female tourists are this summer who used to love the sun and good deals that an Egyptian vacation offered. But I can bet that it’s not just the recent violence that’s keeping them away, and they’re definitely not all watching football.