Sunday, January 17, 2016

"Taharrush gamea" and the perils of reasoning from lexicon to culture

The media was strangely slow to report the shameful and horrible events of New Year's Day in Cologne, in which organised groups of drunk youths, most of them born in North Africa, systematically surrounded women coming out of the train station in order to sexually harass them and steal their valuables. Once they finally noticed, however, it took over the headlines for days on end. Scrambling to respond, the police issued a long and bureaucratic report including the following:
So liegen dem Bundeskriminalamt Erkenntnisse dazu vor, dass in arabischen Ländern ein Modus Operandi bekannt ist, der als "taharrush gamea (gemeinsame sexuelle Belästigung in Menschenmengen) bezeichnet wird. Darüber wurde z. B. anlässlich der ägyptischen Revolution von den Medien berichtet.
[It is thus found by the Bundeskriminalamt that in Arab countries there is known a modus operandi called "taharrush gamea" (group sexual harassment in crowds). This was reported on, for example, by the media on the occasion of the Egyptian revolution. (Update: See comments for a more precise translation.)]
The term as quoted there, misspelling and all, now gets over 116,000 hits on Google News. Most of these hits seem to take this somewhere the German police prudently did not go, leaping with shock or glee to the conclusion that, if Arabic has a name for this phenomenon, it must be deeply rooted in the Arab world indeed. Indeed, at least one prominent typologist who shall remain nameless followed in the same direction, blithely asserting that "there is nothing racist about saying that taharrush gamea (the Arabic term for the gang sexual assault of women) is an Arab custom, part of Arab culture". A closer look at the data reveals that this hasty reasoning is not only incorrect, but results in a profound misunderstanding of the problem for which this name was coined.

‍"Taharrush gamea" is a misspelled transcription of an Egyptian pronunciation of the phrase تحرش جماعي taḥarruš jamāʕiyy, literally "group (jamāʕiyy) harassment (taḥarruš)". Until this month, this phrase was no more familiar to me than to any of these reporters, but I had heard of the phenomenon it describes, although only in one country - Egypt. Abdelmonem 2015 and Ebaid 2013 provide some more background on the recent history of sexual harassment in Egypt. Basically, individual harassment has existed forever, there as in other countries, but on Id al-Adha 2006 a new, unprecedented phenomenon appeared: a mob of young men went on a "mass sexual harassment spree" after being turned away from a cinema. This event was captured on video and widely denounced online, but bloggers' denunciations were not enough to prevent it from being repeated in 2008, and then effectively turned into a political tool during the abortive Egyptian revolution after 2011.

This history suggests that the phenomenon, and therefore presumably the name, are less than ten years old. Corpus investigation confirms this: as I could confidently predict even before checking, it gets zero hits on Alwaraq.net, an extensive library of Arabic heritage texts ranging from the Umayyad period to near-modern times. Google Trends gives a more precise figure: it shows up on Google starting in 2013, only following the Arab Spring! However, the frequency of the term is so low that Google Trends' figures for it can hardly be reliable, and we may suspect that in reality it was coined sometime between 2006 and 2013.

The most obvious question this raises, given that most of the suspects are from Algeria and Morocco, not Egypt, is: were they even familiar with this phenomenon, let alone the term? Unfortunately, by 2015 they could well have been: it may have started in Egypt, but it is no longer an Egyptian monopoly. Horrified reports of it - all postdating the Egyptian revolution - can be found online for Morocco (2014), Jordan (2014), and even Saudi Arabia (2013, 2015). The obvious hypothesis is that the massive media coverage of such crimes following the Egyptian revolution was taken by some good-for-nothings as an inspiration rather than as a warning.

Obviously, any editorial writer who wants to draw conclusions from this term's existence should have started by asking themselves: how old is this name, and how widely known is it? Assuming that it represents some sort of age-old Arab custom suggests one set of conclusions, such the New York Times' superfically anodyne description of the attacks as a "culture clash". Knowing that the term seems to be less than ten years old, and has come into wider use only within the past three years, yields quite another: namely, that "mass harassment" is a new crime (or at least a new variant of an old one), appealing to a certain type of "man", and spread virally by satellite TV coverage and videos shared on social media. In which case, the role currently being played by the media may be somewhat less than constructive.

14 comments:

Alexander said...

An even worse aspect of the media coverage of this phenomenon has been the (likely deliberate) misunderstanding of "gamea" (that same misspelled transcription of the Egyptian pronunciation of جماعي) as the English word "game", resulting in misleading and alarmist coverage of an Arab "rape game".

Vale said...

In Italy, where 150 women die every year by the hands of their husband/father/boyfriend etc., taharrush gamea received some interesting translations on "newspapers": muslim rape game, ritual game, white woman harrassment, just to name some.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

You know, it hadn't even occurred to me that people might be interpreting "gamea" as "game". Thanks for depressing me even further ;)

David Gil said...

Lameen was kind enough to preserve my anonymity when citing "at least one prominent typologist who shall remain nameless followed in the same direction, blithely asserting that "there is nothing racist about saying that taharrush gamea (the Arabic term for the gang sexual assault of women) is an Arab custom, part of Arab culture". Although the comment was made in a non-public facebook post, I have no problem identifying myself as the writer, and defending the quoted comment.

The facebook posting focused on the issue of freedom of speech, not on how good or bad Arab culture might be. Please read my above-quoted sentence carefully. It consists of two parts: (1) a presupposition that taharrush gamea is part of Arab culture; and (2) an assertion that to say that taharrush gamea is part of Arab culture is not (necessarily) racist. The focus of the facebook discussion is on item (2), and I stand by what's said there wholeheartedly. As for whether taharrush gamea is indeed part of Arab culture, well that's an empirical question. My impression remains that it is, however, I would be happy to be convinced otherwise, and I commend Lameen for his contribution to the discussion.

David Gil

David Marjanović said...

Your translation can be made more precise, but the changes are not substantial:

Thus/As an example, the Federal Criminal Police Office is in possession of findings stating that a modus operandi is known in Arab countries which is called ... (sexually harrassing people in crowds together). This was reported on by the media e.g. on the occasion of the Egyptian revolution.

Tomasz Chwałek said...

Extremely interesting. Too bad there's too little of voices like that. They need to be heard!

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

David Gil: Thank you for clarifying your position. However, it remains unclear to me why, having read this post, you still remain under the impression that "taharrush gamea" is part of Arab culture in any useful sense of the word "culture".

David Marjanović: Thanks for the corrections. My German is pretty appalling, as you probably know - I'd like to do something about that one of these days...

David Marjanović said...

My German is pretty appalling, as you probably know

I didn't know you spoke any. :-) You have gone pretty far!

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

A little tangentially, I found some good efforts to gather together statistics on the frequency of sexual harassment in general at this comment at the LRB. As I would have expected based on anecdotal data and news reports, Morocco (in 2011) shows levels comparable to the rest of the world, whereas Egypt (in 2014) shows alarmingly high levels way off the charts. But I haven't checked in detail how those figures were gathered, so they too should be treated judiciously.

Anonymous said...

I'm sympathetic to causes fighting systemic racism in western culture but you need to deal with your bad facts. Head on. Any explanation you're trying to give about this needs to account for the massive rape gangs in England of Pakistani Muslims raping white girls, the Sydney race riots which were started by Lebanese men raping and assaulting white girls (which were ruled hate crimes), as well as the Egypt and German attacks. When someone hears all of that, it's very hard to think of these as isolated events. They start to look like a systemic problem with the unifying connection between all those attacks- Islamic culture. People want answers for why hundreds of men would systemically attack women. Saying that it's not part of Arab culture when the only people who seem to do it are Arabs doesn't make sense. If you want to win, you've got to deal with your bad facts.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Anonymous: If you want "answers for why hundreds of men would systemically attack women", try asking the people who did it - unless the German police are spectacularly incompetent, I would hope they'll soon be sitting in jail with plenty of spare time to talk to the sociologists and anthropologists that ought to be turning their attention to the problem. Never having knowingly met anyone who would consider doing such a thing, I'm afraid I can't help you there, though the links I provided might.

If, on the other hand, you think you already have the answer to that question, then you aren't paying enough attention. Pakistanis aren't Arabs, and the only common denominator of "Islamic culture" is Islam, a religion which these criminals were openly flouting (the fact that they were drunk should be a clue). A good starting point for answering that question would be to put together a comprehensive list of sexual crimes in recent history involving hundreds of men: such a list would not include Rotherham or Sydney (five and 14 "men", respectively), but would include quite a few cases that you haven't mentioned, such as the crimes of certain Serbs in Bosnia, or for that matter local gangs in El Salvador.

David Marjanović said...

They start to look like a systemic problem with the unifying connection between all those attacks- Islamic culture.

I'd rather say the unifying connection is patriarchal culture – even more patriarchal than the West still is, which is why these cases made the news. Being groped at an Oktoberfest, I hear, is not at all unusual.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Patriarchy is no doubt one unifying connection, but it's not a very informative one, insofar as practically all societies are more or less patriarchal. A more relevant connection, I think, is social breakdown - specifically, the formation of large concentrations of young men with no prospects or social positions. What explanations in terms of culture miss or downplay is the obvious fact that these harassers were revelling in their freedom from the moral and practical constraints imposed by the culture they were raised in and by their parents, as well as by the law. They were, in fact, conspicuously defying the rule of fathers, which seems a rather essential aspect of the notion of "patriarchy".

David Marjanović said...

True.