Define your generation here. Generation What
Looking past forced smiles
A recent case of sexual violence in a progressive political party raises questions of consent and justice among Egypt's civil society
 
 
 
Woman: Excuse me! I feel like there's some harassment happening here... Man: It doesn't matter how you feel, it only matters how I feel... - Courtesy: Andeel
 

It began as a Facebook diatribe against incidents of sexual harassment and assault in Egyptian civil society. Nobody mentioned names at first. The news reached our office and a few in-the-know colleagues began to whisper about it among themselves. Others asked what they were talking about but, unsure what was okay to reveal, silence and awkward looks prevailed. But before long, someone recognized the absurdity of the situation and disclosed two names.

The conversation unfolded on Facebook in a similar manner: After weeks of coded exchanges, a few individuals disclosed more details. They said that, in October, three months before the news reached Facebook, a woman working in civil society sent an email to women in similar circles with the subject line “Civil Society Harassers.” In the email, she recounts two incidents that I will relay below, remaining faithful to her narrative and characterization of events.

The first incident took place in 2014 when, after a night of drinking with colleagues, among them rights lawyer Mahmoud Belal, she began to feel sick. She was taken to Belal’s home, where she vomited and passed out in his bed. When the woman came to, Belal was raping her.

The email also recounts a 2015 encounter with human rights lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali, which she describes as “one of the most disgusting experiences” of her life. She says that Ali, with whom she shared a “friendly working experience” up to that point, invited her to his office for what she assumed was a work-related issue. She arrived to find the atmosphere “a bit strange and contrived.” Ali offered her a beer, and went to take a shower. When he came back, he began asking her personal questions about her previous relationships, eventually proposing that she stay the night as it had become late. She excused herself and left.

The Bread and Freedom Party, which was co-founded and, until recently, headed by Ali, also counted Belal as one of its members. According to a February statement, the party formed a committee to investigate the rape and sexual misconduct allegations in December of last year. However, the investigation’s results were inconclusive: the committee cleared Ali of any charges of sexual misconduct but, regarding the rape accusations leveled against Belal, stated that “it was not possible to determine whether the plaintiff was still in a state of confusion or was still under the influence of alcohol after arriving at the defendant’s house, so we cannot determine whether or not the plaintiff was unable to consent at the time.” The incidents sparked heated debates on sexual violence in the private space, the complexity of consent and how to define harassment.

These conversations took place within a narrow community of people online: progressive circles concerned with public affairs and supposedly united by shared principles and political views. The consequent controversy signaled that the conversation surrounding sexual harassment in Egypt was venturing toward new territories that many people had yet to explore, even within themselves.

I found myself somewhere between the two polar ends of the debate. Most of those who I talked to shared the same flustered feelings at their less-than-perfect positions: a mesh of feminist principles and internalizations that were a result of a lifetime of conditioning to the status quo. The only thing I knew for sure, however, is that I felt a weight lifting off my chest now that these questions, which I often struggled with myself, were now being publicly discussed.

Where does harassment begin?

Initially, many people asked what exactly Ali had done wrong. All that the woman had accused him of, they argued, was that he had behaved in an intimate manner when their relationship had previously only been professional. When a stranger gropes a woman on the street, it’s widely accepted that this constitutes sexual assault, but when it comes to two people who share a work relationship, and possibly a workplace friendship, the boundaries become blurred.

Acts that constitute sexual harassment in places of work, study or other institutional settings may differ from what springs to most people’s minds when discussing the topic. The criteria for what counts as sexual harassment in the workplace is widely standardized across institutions that implement anti-harassment policies. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (US-EEOC) defines it as “unwelcome behavior,” adding that unwelcome does not mean involuntary. “Sexual conduct is unwelcome whenever the person subjected to it considers it unwelcome.”

Feminist researcher and activist Sally Zohney says that an investigative committee may deem an act harassment in some instances, based on the recipient’s response, while exonerating the same act in other cases where the recipient does not mind.

The EEOC lists different types of harassment which, in addition to incidents of physical assault and overt sexual propositioning, include: unwanted pressure for dates, unwanted sexual teasing, referring to an adult woman as as a “girl,” “doll,” “babe,” or “honey,” asking personal questions, making comments of a sexual nature about someone’s appearance or clothing, giving personal gifts, winking, lingering near someone and staring. The list, which is not comprehensive, outlines 25 types of sexual harassment in the workplace. Confusion stems from the fact that, while some of these acts may be considered acceptable behavior among friends at work, at other times, precisely because of their ambiguity, they are a form of sexual harassment that most women find difficult to address.

Finding women who had experienced harassment in an institutional context was not difficult; I was able to pinpoint six cases with almost no effort. Once I started actively looking for instances of harassment, I recalled one experience of my own and two recounted to me by friends. Sitting in the office, I turned to my colleagues, three of whom were women, and put the question to the room. One confided in me, sharing her experience of harassment at work and another told me about a friend of hers whose boss relentlessly harassed her. The third remembered a professor at her university known for harassing female students. None of us reported these incidents of harassment, we all responded to them with a forced smile.

Mona* faced different types of harassment during her 15 years in the workforce, both at international corporations with bylaws intended to combat sexual harassment and at Egyptian companies with no policies in place. The 39-year-old believed that she would be the one to face consequences if she reported any of the incidents, not her harassers.

She says that she developed a habit of wearing a scarf at work because several colleagues, one with particular persistence, would stare at her chest while talking to her. She speaks of the magnified psychological effect of harassment in a workplace, where she expects a certain degree of safety. “When you’re walking in the street, you come to expect harassment,” Mona says. “But when it happens in the workplace, it’s really disgusting.”

There is not much information available on harassment in the private sphere in Egypt, but studies by the New Woman Foundation (NWF) support the perception that it is widespread. The NWF’s last report, published in 2009, consulted a sample group of 58 women from eight governorates and of different ages and professions, ranging from saleswomen and factory workers, to government and private sector employees. The conclusion was that most respondents reported harassment in the workplace, which encompased everything from sexually suggestive comments to unwanted physical contact.

The price of revelation                                                                             

Beyond being a relatively new topic of discussion in Egypt, where there are low levels of social awareness on the topic, workplace sexual harassment is a more complex battleground than sexual harassment that occurs in the public sphere. Some types of workplace harassment are subtle in nature, which makes them confusing, both for their survivors, and for the institutions tasked with preventing their occurrence. In turn, these gray areas can make the price of speaking up about workplace sexual harassment higher for both parties.

The fear prevalent among women that they will be accused of exaggerating if they report harassment is apparent in Mona’s story. She pauses several times during our conversation to note that “these were only minor things” and that “it wasn’t anything serious.” She says that she eventually found a way to firmly stop her colleagues without escalating the situation, even while working in companies with mechanisms in place to report sexual harassment. Mona doesn’t have faith in these processes and fears that companies are likely to fire both parties in these instances to avoid a headache.

In situations where acts of sexual harassment are said to have been carried out “in good fun” or when a degree of camaraderie is involved, it becomes more difficult for women to assert boundaries. Mona expresses anxiety about these situations, saying, “I do not want to put myself in a position where I say something happened and the other person says ‘I didn’t do anything.’”

Social stigma further discourages women from speaking up against more subtle forms of workplace harassment. Those who report harassment or incidents that made them feel uncomfortable are likely to be labeled “difficult,” “crazy” or “anti-social.” Mona says she has only reacted assertively on occasions when people have physically harassed her, such as when, during her first job, aged 20, a colleague smacked her on the backside and told her, “You have a nice ass.”

Harassment within institutions is not exclusive to Egypt. The failure of organizations and communities to provide a safe space for women was brought to the fore by the 2017 #MeToo movement, which mobilized a wave of survivors of sexual violence from around the world and compelled many to come forward and share their stories of harassment and assault. In the last few months, sexual harassment scandals have hit major institutions across industries.  

Oxfam’s Haiti office suspended its activities in February after The Times reported on an internal investigation conducted by the UK-based humanitarian organization that reveals employees’ sexual exploitation of Haitians while working in the aftermath of the earthquake in 2010. Oxfam currently faces a government investigation that threatens to cut funding for keeping its internal investigations covert.

Several officials working with the United States swimming team were forced to resign for covering up widespread sexual assault of over 200 women by coaches.

In France, authorities arrested French-Swiss scholar of Islamic Studies Tariq Ramadan in January, on rape charges filed by two women regarding incidents that date back to 2009 and 2012. In Australia, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce resigned in February after allegations of sexual harassment became public.

What is striking about the various cases that have drawn public attention in recent months is how some of them may surface years, sometimes decades, after the incidents took place. They are often an open secret, with everyone in the relevant community aware of them, but remaining resolutely silent.

Suhair*’s boss, an Arab League ambassador nearing retirement age, was known for harassing young women in the office. Following her college graduation, the ambassador offered Suhair, who was 21 at the time, her dream job at the Arab League — a position she thought required 10 years of prior experience. However, when Suhair complained to her colleagues about his incessant pestering over the next three years, they advised her not to waste a career opportunity over “trivial” issues, saying that “he doesn’t mean anything by it.”

At first, it was subtle. “I can’t say he did anything, but I got an uncomfortable vibe from him,” she tells me. Six months into the job, the comments started: “I love it when you straighten your hair,” he would tell her. “You look nice when you paint your nails.” Aside from the advice from her older colleagues, Suhair did not feel comfortable with the image she felt speaking up would give her. She wanted to be taken seriously and not to be seen as a young girl harassed by her senior manager. “The price of speaking up would have been too high,” she says.

He then began inquiring about her love life. She ignored his questions with a forced smile and withdrew. He began getting her gifts from his travels and reacting angrily when she politely declined. One time, she says, he bought her a Dior perfume bottle in a scent named J’adore (I adore), suggestively noting that she should “focus on the name.”

Although she told herself time and again that this was a side issue, figuring out ways to avoid him soon became an all-consuming thought every morning on her way to work. She started smoking heavily and losing her appetite.

Despite her attempts to avoid confrontation, his feeling of rejection, coupled with suspicion that the office staff knew what was going on, bred hostility. He would be cold and irritable with her for prolonged periods, she recounts, before starting with the inappropriate comments again. The last straw came when she went into his office to discuss a work-related issue and he asked her, “Do you wear a one or two-piece swimsuit?” Startled, she tried to ignore him and keep the conversation focused on work, but he persisted. “Do you have a picture?” Then and there, she submitted her resignation and left the office.  

“At that moment, all the reasons I kept giving myself to stay meant nothing,” she says. She never confronted him or filed an official complaint, and neither did anyone else in the office, where his behavior was well-known and sometimes took place in public. “I felt the biggest sense of relief in my life the day I resigned,” she says. “I closed this chapter shut and did not want to open it, or deal with him, ever again.”

Mozn Hassan, director of the Nazra Center for Feminist Studies, admits that combating harassment in the workplace can be costly, at times requiring punitive measures against otherwise competent staff members. In the fight against harassment in the public domain, the party who stands to lose is an anonymous perpetrator, while everyone else involved is considered a hero. Hassan says institutional reluctance to fight internal harassment also stems from a dismissive attitude toward the nature of these allegations. “They don’t see it as a crime,” she says.

This view was reflected in the Ali case, with many asking if it was worth making the allegations against him public, given that he was at the forefront of Egypt’s opposition — which has suffered a severe crackdown at the hands of the government — and that he was seeking a bid in the upcoming presidential elections.

Some within Egypt’s progressive circles wonder, “Is an accusation of this nature concerning a political figure of Ali’s stature worth the political price?” Similarly, institutions ask, “Is a look or a word from one colleague to another worth firing an otherwise capable employee?”

I have personally witnessed the protective code between colleagues that makes them hesitant to call out harassment. In 2008, at the newsroom of the American University in Cairo’s student-produced newspaper, a colleague suggested filing a story on a professor known for his verbal harassment of veiled students. The newspaper’s supervisor at the time was an award-winning American journalist, one who often bragged about his investigative work that had ended many politicians’ careers. At that moment, however, he acted as a supportive colleague, not as a journalist. He told the journalism student that the piece she was suggesting could end this professor’s career, urging her to ask herself whether she was prepared to live with these repercussions. The newsroom fell silent, and the budding journalist abandoned her idea.

A crisis of awareness

Ahmed Hegab, an independent gender consultant, explains that, besides institutions’ reluctance to bear the price of defending women, there is a crisis of awareness. The vast majority of both employees and employers only recognize the most flagrant forms of harassment. Beginning in 2014, Hegab, who was then working at HarassMap, a volunteer-based initiative that aims to eradicate harassment in Egypt, began to offer trainings aiming to raise awareness on the different types of harassment and develop anti-sexual harassment policies at universities, schools, start-ups, large corporations and civil society organizations. Of the 20 international companies in Egypt that Hegab approached, only Uber was interested in his offer, perhaps because providing security against sexual assaults has a direct return on Uber’s service quality and competitiveness in the market. The vast majority of other institutions either ignored Hegab’s offer or dismissed it outright, asserting that they did not require these services. When he proposed adopting an anti-sexual harassment policy in schools that fall under the jurisdiction of the German Embassy in Cairo, he recalls that the embassy’s cultural attaché laughed at the idea and said, “We do not need these things.”

Hegab also approached progressive political parties who appeared keen on combating sexual harassment in the streets but were not interested when he suggested they conduct internal trainings first.

“It’s not wrong for a party to engage in social work, but I can’t send a team to combat harassment in the street when that same team contains harassers or people who commit inappropriate acts that women will perceive as harassment.”

In these institutions’ reluctance, Hegab sees an insistence that they are somehow above suspicion and a fear that adopting such measures is tantamount to an admission of the presence of harassment within these spaces. In the few instances where institutions asked for Hegab’s help after an incident of sexual harassment had surfaced, they sought quick fixes and their interest waned after the crisis had passed.

“While society at large has moved beyond denial of sexual harassment, institutions haven’t,” explains Hegab.

Zohney agrees that the fight against sexual harassment on the street is at a more advanced stage than the battle against sexual harassment in private spaces in Egypt: “After years of work against sexual harassment in public, there have been very significant achievements, both legal and social,” she says. “But we are at the starting point when it comes to harassment in other spaces, whether in the workplace, or in cases of domestic violence. These incidents present a different equation, because it’s no longer an exchange between two strangers, it’s people who have a relationship with one each other that is grounded within a particular structure.”

In the few institutions that do adopt anti-harassment policies in Egypt, the biggest challenge is to persuade women, who, fearing payback and possible implications on their reputation, are held back from reporting instances of harassment. Zohney stresses that the most important factor in guaranteeing the effectiveness of anti-harassment policies is for the institution to maintain the anonymity of those who report incidents and to protect them from repercussions if their identity is revealed. Without that, she says, policies are useless.

The cost of speaking up is what made Dalia overlook her manager’s unwelcome remarks, which began during her interview for the job. He told her that he would hire her because “I like pretty girls.” She did not feel capable of turning down the offer, as the job saved her from a financial crisis. Her boss was a public figure, who had published several books and was celebrated in newspapers. Dalia describes his behavior toward her as “constant pestering, without doing anything that I could clearly call out as harassment.”

His comments escalated from, “You look nice today,” to “Why don’t you take that jacket off so you can be more comfortable?” to “When will I take that piece of gum out of your mouth?” Dalia’s response was the same every time: a forced smile. If she stood up to him, Dalia knew she would be left without the job that she badly needed. Even after she quit, for different reasons, she continued to evade his sustained advances with brief and polite responses because he had connections that could land her a position in her field.

“There’s also a stigma against women who reject this type of behavior, which entails incessant pursuit and obnoxiousness, but nothing concrete. You don’t speak out so that people don’t call you ‘crazy’ or a ‘drama queen’ or ‘aggressive.’”  

What does the institution do?

Cairo University’s anti-sexual harassment unit, hailed by all those I spoke to as an example of a serious counter-harassment effort, is a clear exception to the prevalent attitude among institutions toward internal harassment.

Although a conservative institution, three factors contributed to Cairo University’s leading anti-harassment efforts: A widely-publicized incident of sexual harassment that provoked a media storm, strong support from faculty, and the stance taken by the university’s president.

A video showing a crowd of male students surrounding a female student with long blonde hair wearing black pants and a pink blazer went viral in 2014. In a phone interview on an evening  talk show, Cairo University President Gaber Nassar first stated that the university would punish both the harassers and the victim for failing to comply with the university’s dress code. Following public controversy, Nassar later apologized for blaming the victim in his earlier statements and promised serious action against harassment in the university.

I met Ghada Ali, professor of risk management and actuarial science at Cairo University and deputy head of the university’s anti-harassment unit, in the unit’s office, located in the student housing building, which is adjacent to the main campus. She explains that the unit is purposefully located outside of the main campus to eliminate the stigma attached to women being seen entering the office. She recounts the establishment of the unit when a number of faculty members engaged in women’s rights issues, led by Hoda Elsadda, professor of comparative literature, met with the university president following the 2014 video incident and proposed the idea, which Nassar put into effect creating the unit with a decree, which rendered the unit directly under his office’s jurisdiction so as to cut out needless bureaucracy.

The team relied on policies adopted in Western universities to develop Cairo University’s own anti-harassment policy, and the unit was inaugurated later in 2014. The policy entailed a comprehensive definition of harassment, which forbids any “unwelcome” behavior that ranges from making sexual gestures to stalking and committing assault. The policy’s most daring aspect was its explicit inclusion of faculty as potential harassers; this was not just a policy that governed students’ relations to one another. It also stipulated punitive measures for students found guilty of harassment that range from warnings to suspension, expulsion and denying enrollment in any other Egyptian university. For faculty members, the measures range from warnings to expulsion and denial of pension.

As is the case in many institutions around the world, a good anti-harassment policy can end up enacting tangible change. The real success of the Cairo University unit came from its intensive program aiming to raise awareness of harassment and change widespread misconceptions, as well as recruit volunteer students and faculty members to support its efforts by reporting violations and convincing victims to report. Up until now, over 1,000 students across the campus have volunteered with the unit as “captains.” The unit has organized open events to raise awareness, as well as trainings for security personnel, administrative employees and staff. Most importantly, the unit has taken punitive measures against students and staff members after investigating a number of harassment claims, and as a result of its effectiveness, the number of reports that it receives has multiplied in the last three years.

The success of the unit and the acclaim it has received has encouraged another state institution to follow suit: In February, the Youth and Sports Ministry became the first Egyptian ministry to adopt an anti-harassment policy.

The Bread and Freedom Party faced staunch criticism when the allegations against Belal and Ali surfaced in January, especially as it had previously identified itself as a “progressive” party that champions women’s rights.

The party remained silent when many demanded that it publicly address the issue. It finally broke its silence with a lengthy statement released almost four months after the woman’s initial October email. The majority of the Bread and Freedom Party’s February 17 statement was dedicated to explaining the reasons behind the party’s delayed response. The statement then went on to list the challenges faced by the party in addressing the allegations leveled against Belal and Ali, including the  woman’s refusal to collaborate with the investigative committee tasked with evaluating her claims, the lack of cooperation on behalf of eye-witnesses to the incidents in question and the difficulty of finding committee members sufficiently qualified, impartial and willing to undertake the task.

The party announced that the investigative committee “did not find the party’s co-founder guilty of any sexual violation, whether physical or verbal.” The party further recommended that Ali “be guarded about not mixing his public life and his personal one, in order to safeguard his reputation and avoid creating room for misunderstanding and suspicion.”

Regarding the rape allegation, the party announced that the committee found Belal’s behavior to be “disgraceful,” and recommended that a number of sanctions be taken against him. The party added, however, that Belal had already resigned from the party, thereby distancing itself from his actions.

The investigation report drafted by the committee, comprised of two women and one man active in civil society, was then leaked, revealing the results of the rape investigation: “We cannot establish with certainty that the accused raped the accuser and that her capacity to consent was impaired.” However, the committee recommended that the “accused apologize to the accuser for his morally dishonorable behavior toward her and his failure to protect her and the lack of consideration for her disturbed consciousness.”

In a February 19 statement, Ali resigned as head of the party and apologized to the woman, despite the fact that the committee only reproached him lightly. “Just her thinking about me in this way and her writing an email of this nature means that I must offer an apology for the pain she experienced. Regardless of the results of the investigation, I bear part of the responsibility, which has prompted me to offer this apology,” Ali wrote.

The investigative committee was hit by another wave of criticism for failing to implement standard criteria used in evaluating similar cases. Implicit in this criteria is an acknowledgment of the skewed balance of power involved in cases of sexual violence, which means those investigating case of sexual violence should share the burden of proof with the accuser, rather than operate as a neutral arbitrator.

A statement signed by several women activists in coordination with the accuser, which was circulated on February 19, confirmed that she refused to participate in the investigation after observing several of its shortcomings. The statement said that the party only contacted the accuser on January 19, three months after her October 31, 2017, email to inform her that the investigations had already begun. The statement also said that the party rejected the woman’s request for information on the committee’s selection criteria and investigation methodology, as well as her request to nominate members to serve on the committee.

The party denies receiving any of these requests from the accuser. Party co-founder Elham Aidarus contends that the situation was confusing and difficult to resolve due to the absence of established mechanisms to address allegations of this nature. However, she asserts that, from the moment the accusations were leveled, the party knew for certain that it had to make an effort to investigate the matter. Aidarus explains that the Bread and Freedom Party remained silent until the investigative committee reached a set of concrete findings in order to protect the privacy of all the parties involved. The co-founder adds that the situation was further complicated by the prevailing political atmosphere.

“We couldn’t announce that an investigation [of this nature] was still ongoing in a country where there is a severe crackdown on any democratic movement, as well as media platforms that will take advantage of the situation to discredit political parties and civil society,” she states.

The only mechanism available to the party was a clause in its bylaws on complaints and internal investigations. Aidarus says that the party was worried about the security ramifications of any action it took and also struggled to find candidates for the committee. In response to accusations that the Bread and Freedom Party’s statement downplayed events that the accuser characterized as harassment and rape, Aidarus states, “Harassment and rape are crimes punishable by law. We cannot refer to them as such unless they have been proven. If they had been proven, we would have used those terms and taken moral and legal and responsibility for them, whatever that may be.”

Hegab, who serves on several local and international investigative committees that are called into institutions when incidents of sexual violence take place, takes us through what he would do in a similar case.

There is no standardized rulebook, he says, but the guidelines are generally agreed upon.

The first step is to suspend the accused party from employment, not as a punitive measure, but to guarantee the integrity of the investigation and as a precautionary measure. Then, the institution should call upon an investigative committee, which should be formed in advance and receive the appropriate training. Committee members can be selected from outside the institution and should be majority women, with a minimum of three members. He explains that both sides are entitled to add a member to the committee if they are not satisfied with its current formulation.

Hegab thinks that the institution is under no obligation to make a public announcement as the investigation proceeds, but it may be required to make internal notifications depending on the nature and severity of the situation.

In Hegab’s experience, the investigation should last a minimum of three weeks, with both parties questioned, other colleagues interviewed and the accused party’s past investigated to determine a precedent. These procedures are meant to compensate for the difficulty of proving the occurrence of a sexual offense when most cases lack of witnesses.

When the investigation is complete, it is up to the accuser to decide whether she wants to take further actions by pressing criminal charges or making the incident public.

Investigating sexual harassment and assault always runs into the dilemma of proof: How do you ensure that you stand by the accuser in an incident that is difficult to prove and entails no witnesses? Does bias toward the accuser contradict the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”? The bias of legal mechanisms in harassment cases remains a contentious issue around the world.

Deciding on definitions

In an attempt to combat increasing cases of sexual violence on university campuses across the US, in 2011, the Obama administration required university administrations to determine guilt in reports of sexual offenses using the “preponderance of evidence” standard of proof, instead of “beyond reasonable doubt,” which is used in court. In effect, this means that if a university reaches 50 percent conviction that the accused is guilty, it should determine his guilt. The decision remained controversial and was reversed by the Trump administration last year.

Consent is the most complicated element to evaluate in sexual violations cases. The rape accusation leveled against Belal in the woman’s October email has launched a discussion into the gray areas of consent, an unavoidable subject when addressing cases of harassment that occur in private spaces. The main contention between the two camps on either side of this debate revolve around the question: Was the woman capable of consenting to a sexual relationship? Where is the line between being intoxicated but still able to make decisions, and between having truly impaired judgement? The debate then ventured toward even more muddy waters: Where do you draw the line between consent and coercion resulting from a skewed balance of power? Do men have a responsibility to address this imbalance? What if the woman isn’t vocal about her discomfort? Is the man responsible for reading past her forced smile? Does doing so reallocate agency to the man and therefore reinforce patriarchal dynamics?

When news of an account accusing American actor Aziz Ansari of sexual assault broke in January, it destabilized the #MeToo movement and tackled some these questions. While all the testimonies that had emerged thus far entailed glaring exploitations of power imbalances that pointed to a systemic problem of sexual harassment plaguing societies, this woman’s story was somehow less clear-cut. Instead of threats, physical violence and abuses of power, the woman spoke of pressure imparted by Ansari during their date, when he ignored all her “non-verbal cues” that she wasn’t willing to engage in a sexual relationship with him.

A rebuttal to the woman’s account accused her of asking Ansari to read her mind. According to this argument, while Ansari’s behavior may well have been insensitive and that he no doubt acted “like an asshole,” his actions do not amount to sexual assault. After all, he did not force her to do anything.

A third camp, however, acknowledged that the situation is complicated, that the story is all too familiar in more sexually open societies where it is often referred to simply as “a bad date” or “bad sex,” and that labeling the incident as sexual assault only destabilized the discussion. Commentators continued to note, however, that because the story is so familiar and the pressure that the woman felt to acquiesce to Ansari’s sexual advances so relatable, maybe it is time to give his behavior a more incriminating label and to stop ceding to the fact that the frequency with which such incidents occur render them justifiable.

One blogger who identifies as a “hardcore feminist” put herself in the “I’m freaking out corner” when it comes to this incident and could only conclude “this one is hard for me.”

The Bread and Freedom Party case shed light on the failure of institutions to provide safe spaces for women and the lack of awareness prevalent in our society on this area, even in progressive communities. Nevertheless, containing the issue within a narrative of failure and collusion disregards an uncomfortable but undeniable fact: Some forms of sexual violence that have come to light after decades of bubbling under the surface in silence and denial emerge entangled in layers of complexity and confusion, whether around the gray areas of consent or in terms of balancing support for survivors with the need to guarantee justice for all parties involved. The only certain conclusion is that finding answers to all these questions will not be easy. 

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