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CAIRO: Egypt’s highest Sunni Muslim authority has said there can be no justification for sexual harassment, in a country where many people often blame women themselves for the widespread problems they face.

In a statement Al-Azhar blasted all forms of harassment as “a forbidden act and deviant behavior” and said “the one who carries it out is a sinner.”

“Criminalizing sexual harassment must be absolute and free from any condition or context,” the statement released Monday said.

“Justifying sexual harassment with the behavior or clothing of the woman is a misunderstanding, for sexual harassment is an assault on the woman and her freedom and dignity,” it said.

Some 60 percent of women in Egypt said they had been victims of some form of sexual harassment during their lifetimes in a 2017 report from UN Women and Promundo.

Three quarters of men and 84 percent of women polled said that women who “dress provocatively deserve to be harassed.” 

The divisions have been highlighted by a recent debate over a video posted on the Internet by an Egyptian woman showing a man making unwanted advances on her in a Cairo street.

Hostile atmosphere

The footage of the man parking his car and approaching a woman to go for a coffee went viral and drew wide-ranging reactions online.

Some commentators said it definitely constituted harassment given the hostile atmosphere of the Cairo streets.

But others described the approach as normal given the man made no obscene gestures, and there were even suggestions the woman was at fault as she was welcoming advances by standing in the street.

Public debate over harassment intensified in the aftermath of the January 2011 uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak.

The protests demanding Mubarak’s ouster centered around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where constant media coverage also highlighted sexual attacks and helped show public denial of the phenomenon. Following the 2011 uprising, anti-harassment graffiti spread around downtown Cairo, volunteers organized to rescue women from mob attacks, and more women shared their own stories publicly.

In February 2013, women took to the streets brandishing knives in a symbolic protest against sexual violence.

Authorities directly criminalized sexual harassment in June 2014, days before President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s inauguration, however many women complain that officials still turn a blind eye to the problem.

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