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That's not entertainment! How Egypt's arts industry has normalised misogyny

Movies, plays and songs have long portrayed unwanted sexual advances towards women as acceptable
Activists say media representations encourage the harassment of women (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

In one scene in one of Egypt’s most famous plays, El Wad Sayed el Shaghaal (Sayed, The Worker Boy), the legendary comedic actor Adel Imam plants a series of unwarranted kisses on actress Ragaa Al Geddawy, in another he pulls the dress off a woman and uses it as if he was running with the bulls.

The response from the audience watching when the play hit the theatres in 1985 was a chorus of laughter.

It is difficult to imagine such a scene being tolerated today, but that is not to say that sexual harassment and misogyny are not common in Arab media.

Imam has often played “womanising” characters in his films and TV shows, and critics have regularly called his performances out for their apparent misogynistic undertones.

In his 2009 film Bobbos, in which Imam stars alongside the actress Yousra, there is a scene in which the veteran performer leers at scantily clad women and another in which he touches the thighs of grieving women in an ostensible effort to comfort them.

adel emam film
Adel Imam plays Sayed the Worker Boy, a role that is considered problematic by some critics  (Screenshot/Netflix)

Such portrayals have long been tolerated as comedic, but studies show that 99 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment on the streets.

The entertainment media’s role in normalising such harassment is a key focus of debate between industry insiders and activists.

According to Reem Abdellatif, an Egyptian-American journalist and founding member of the African Women Rights Advocates, comedy is one of the main ways in which sexual harassment has been normalised on screen.

“It is presented to the viewer as funny and acceptable,” she tells Middle East Eye, adding: “Women are often portrayed as weak, codependant or as sexual commodities.”

A male-dominated industry

New York-based Egyptian filmmaker and music producer Shady Noor says that the issue of on-screen sexual harassment in the entertainment media goes back decades and remains a deeply embedded problem today.

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Noor explains that misogynistic ideas within cinema are a consequence of general societal trends in the way women are viewed, but that the over-representation of men within production studios has made such ideas harder to get rid of.

He says producers often claim that positive portrayals of women will be "bad business" or not something that would resonate with the audience.

The filmmaker also calls out "destructive" double standards that have, in his view, contributed to the rise in problematic depictions of women in media.

“It’s always ‘just a joke’ or ‘just a movie’ -  yet somehow the second there is one mention about LGBTQ’s or a celebrity’s dress being quite short, the entire country suddenly flips upside down with accusations of corrupting our youth, inciting debauchery and ‘destroying Egyptian family values',” he says.

Fighting back

With the advent of social media, the idea that sexual harassment is just another part of life is coming under attack.

A new generation of activists is using platforms like Instagram to call out misogyny in the media and to provide victims with support.

Zeina Amr is the founder of the Instagram page CatcallsofCairo, where women share their testimonies of sexual harassment. 

She argues that people have become numb to the issue and needed to be shocked into recognising that they have the power to force a change.

Amr started her Instagram page in 2019, after growing frustrated with the idea that women should just accept harassment as a price of living in Egyptian society and now has 29,000 followers.

“I grew up watching Tamer Hosny and Adel Emam treat sexual harassment like a joke,”  the 21-year-old tells Middle East Eye, admitting she too had been desensitised to the issue until recently.

tamer hosny
Egyptian singer and actor Tamer Hosny has sought to distance himself from the idea that his lyrics are sexist  (AFP)

Hosny, for his part, has sought to distance himself from the idea that he promotes sexual harassment. In 2013, he filed a lawsuit against the director Mohamed Diab after the filmmaker used one of Hosny’s songs as a background track while one of his characters was harassed in the movie Cairo 678

Critics nevertheless accuse the singer of using misogynistic lyrics. In his track Aktar Haga (The Most Important Thing), Hosny describes the things he likes most in a woman and then alludes to various body parts.

Hosny is not alone, with fellow singer Amr Diab coming under fire for a car advert for manufacturer Citroen, in which he uses the car’s camera feature to photograph a woman he appears to be attracted to.

The advert was criticised by Egyptian women for normalising sexual harassment and encouraging the type of harassment that many of them had experienced.

Despite legislation and civil society efforts to address sexual harassment, surveys have shown that nearly 60 percent of women report being harassed in public places on a daily basis.

Amr’s platform gives women a place to vent but also to recognise that their experiences are not normal and should never be considered as such.

Male performers and their advocates argue that their songs are simply odes to romance and the process of courtship, but activists like Amr say that they encourage unwanted advances.

“I think this idea has blurred the line that differentiates between liking women and disrespecting them,” Amr says, adding:

'Songs would often mix up romance and harassment or sexism, which I think spreads predatory behaviour of men and makes it harder for women to recognise and speak out about their discomfort'

- Zeina Amr, activist 

“Songs would often mix up romance and harassment or sexism, which I think spreads predatory behaviour of men and makes it harder for women to recognise and speak out about their discomfort.”

Gehad Hamdy, a 27-year-old dentist who set up an Instagram page called Speak Up, says that she struggles to think of Arabic films where sexual harassment is not present. 

“Unfortunately, almost every Arabic movie contains a woman being harassed, beaten or sexualised until people now believe it is normal,” she tells Middle East Eye.

Her page has amassed over 230,000 followers and supports women who are victims of violence, providing psychological and legal support. 

According to Reem Abdellatif, women also have a role to play in forcing a change in how they are represented on screen.

“Actresses must properly vet the roles they accept and understand how this can impact the community. It’s called conscious living,” she said.

#MeToo

The film industry in Egypt and the wider region have not been immune to trends aimed at countering sexual harassment, such as the #MeToo movement.

Women in Morocco formed a movement around the expression “masaktch” (I will not be silent), while women in Iran have also shared their experiences of harassment.

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In Egypt, a gang rape at a luxury hotel in Cairo sparked an avalanche of condemnations with women sharing their own experiences of sexual assault and harassment.

According to Abdellatif, a younger generation of activists wants to ensure there is a culture change across the region.

“I work with young people across MENA, and I see how quick they are to call out the media when it crosses their healthy boundaries,” says Abdellatif. 

“There is profound change happening, although it will take more time to become normalised. We’re breaking barriers and stereotypes that have been in place across the Middle East for decades.”

A lot of that change will come from within the industry and there have already been several high-profile movies that zero in on the issue of harassment.

Diab’s 2010 feature Cairo 678 follows the lives of three women from different social classes and their experiences with sexual harassment. 

Featuring a star-studded cast that includes Nelly Karim, Sawsan Badr and Basem Samra, the film spotlights how women feel when subjected to harassment, as well as how the men in their lives react to it. 

'There needs to be reformation in women's roles in the film industry, both on and off screen' 

Reem Abdulkader, journalist

But despite Diab’s commendable efforts, activists say the greatest change will come when it is women who are telling their own stories.

“There needs to be a reformation in women’s roles in the film industry, both on and off screen,” says journalist Reem Abdulkader. 

“While proper representation with well-written scripts on screen matter, it’s equally important to have women behind the scenes bringing their vision to life,” she adds.

“I want to see more women writers and directors that tell our stories authentically. I want women characters that do not care for men’s approval.

“I don’t want to feel violated when I’m simply watching a film.”   

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.