Thursday December 7th, 2023
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Holy Harassment: Egyptian Women Open Up About Sexual Abuse In Places of Worship

Sexual harassment in Mecca? Four women open up to Staff Writer Nour Salah on the matter of their own abuse in holy places.

Staff Writer

If you Google 'sexual harassment in Mecca', you're not going to find much on the phenomenon, which is why you have to know people who have been through this dreaded experience themselves. On the other hand, if you search 'sexual harassment in churches', you'll find much more results. Partly because of Islamists' tendency to start rumors around what goes on in churches. Rumors that start with how Copts kiss priests around midnight on NYE's eve (yeah, some people actually believe that). And partly because of numerous media reports on child molestation that took place in some churches, mostly in the Western world.

If we're going to be objective about it, we're going to have to say that when it comes to sexual harassment, churches and mosques are pretty much the same. Whether they're imams or priests, some religious people, sadly, use places of worships to harass and molest others.

She was leaning in on a water dispenser to drink after a long day of worship in Mecca when it happened. Alyaa* was only 10 years old when she felt a hand of an old sheikh grabbing her from behind. She got completely paralysed and couldn't react. How could someone do that in such a holy place, she thought.

After noticing the panicked expression on her face, Alyaa's mother quickly pulled her away from the water dispenser. She knew exactly what had happened, but, for some reason, she just decided to take her daughter and quickly flee the scene. What happened with Alyaa taught her that no place is safe, and that she'd have to stay on full alert any where she goes, including the holiest of places, Mecca.

The same conclusion was reached by Amira*, who went through a similar experience in Mecca in her late twenties. She describes it as an experiences that shook her entire belief system to the core. The man who granted himself the right to reach out for her body was a member of Saudi Arabia's religious police in Mecca. The man, she describes, didn't just harass her body; he also molested her religious beliefs and made her question everything.

The man, she describes, didn't just harass her body; he also molested her religious beliefs and made her question everything.

She recounted: You can easily spot religious police around Mecca; they have a distinct look. He ran towards me screaming because I was wearing what he saw as an inappropriately tight Abaya. As he approached, he started pushing me away with his stick, but his pokes were mostly concentrated in one sensitive area of my body. "Why didn't god protect me while I'm in his holiest place on Earth?" She wondered. The incident threw Amira off balance and sparked a series of questions in her head that she's yet to find answers to.

The next story belongs Dalia*, who was slightly more fortunate than the two previous victims. Dalia had heard about stories of sexual harassment in Mecca before going, so she had taken more precautions to make sure it doesn't end up happening to her. However amidst the crowds, right in front of the holy Ka'ba, someone reached out and pinched her. She couldn't identify who it was exactly and therefore couldn't take any action. Despite the fact  someone would do that during the tawaf, the most holy rite of the Hajj.

When I reached out to a Christian friend to discuss the topic of harassment in churches, she told me that it does happen a lot, however it has never happened at her church. Sara* doesn't really think of herself a strictly religious person, but after hearing about so many harassment stories in churches, she grew scared of leaving her children unattended at her own church, where so many negative things happen, while never becoming known to the public.

Sara's* instinct is probably right. It was only 4 years ago when Pope Francis said the 2% of priests have pedophilic tendencies. The scandalous topic was further exposed in the award-winning movie Spotlight.

Sexual harassment is no longer a taboo topic in Egypt and the Arab World. There's much more space for victims to discuss their experiences and expose the harassers. But when it comes to churches and mosques, how much longer do we have until victims can be open about their experiences without fear of retaliation?

*Names have been changed to protect the interviewees' identities.

Originally published on our sister site