Egypt's Top Muslim Authority Condemns Harassment of Women

International Women's Day in Egypt (file photo).

Beirut — A statement by Egypt's highest religious authority denouncing sexual harassment could be a turning point in efforts to crack down on abuse against women, activists said on Tuesday.

Al-Azhar, which has huge influence over Egypt's mostly Muslim population and trains most of the country's imams, took to Facebook and Twitter this week to denounce the practice of harassing women, including over their behaviour or clothing.

Activist Lobna Darwish said the al-Azhar statement would create debate around the issue, even if it did not immediately change minds.

"They have the ability to promote this language against sexual harassment everywhere in Egypt ... So they can at least change part of the culture," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Cairo. "We hope this is a new beginning or a step, a decision, a political commitment to working on sexual harassment," said Darwish, gender and women's rights officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Cairo was named most dangerous megacity for women in an international perception poll carried out by the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year.

Women's rights experts said the treatment of women in the Egyptian capital had worsened since a 2011 uprising seeking social change, with harassment a daily occurrence.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a Middle East expert with global advocacy group Equality Now, said it was "significant that al-Azhar has denounced sexual harassment because people in Egypt, or in our region, depend so much on the religious scholars".

But she said both government and civil society needed to do more to change people's views on how women should be treated.

- Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Claire Cozens

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