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Egypt’s women under siege: pre and post-revolution gender inequality and abuse

Vanessa Beeley

“It is a shameful state we have created where a victim chooses to endure the pain and suffering, silenced by fear that judgment will come before justice.” –Aysha Taryam

As far back as the 1990s, Egypt’s Ministry of the Interior employed baltagiyah (thugs or gangs) masquerading as “depraved elements” from poverty stricken neighbourhoods to infiltrate protests and sexually assault demonstrators with the sole aim of discouraging women from taking part. This practice intensified in ratio to the increase in protests against Mubarak’s regime culminating in the assault on four women on Black Wednesday (May 25, 2005) under the complicit gaze of high ranking ministry officials and police officers. It has been a protest suppression tool of every oligarchical regime in Egypt, from Mubarak to el-Sisi.

The recent International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) report claiming a “surge” in sexual violence and assaults under el-Sisi’s rule is misleading. It would be more accurate to state that sexual abuse of detainees and protestors has incrementally increased in line with opposition protest in response to repeated revolution hijacks and loss of the “freedom, dignity and justice” that were the staple demands of the people’s 2011 revolution in Egypt. It is, however, true to say that under el-Sisi, the police have seen a resurgence of power and a return to the Mubarak days of bribery and corruption.

The FIDH report is a shocking indictment of Egypt’s security forces. It has documented sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault, rape with objects, anal and vaginal “virginity tests” (testing to see if the hymen is broken), electrocution of genitalia, sex-based defamation, and blackmail perpetrated by police, state security, and military personnel. When considered in conjunction with the daily abuse, harassment and assault that women and minorities face in Egypt, an alarming patriarch-centric image is conveyed of a society spinning out of control into an abyss of depravity, immorality, and inequality.

The number of women sexually harassed on Egypt’s streets has risen from 83% in 2008 to 99.3% in 2014. At least 62% of Egyptian men admit to harassing women and a more worrying trend is perhaps the 53% who claim that it is indisputably the fault of the woman. These figures mean that every woman in Egypt has, at some point, experienced the humiliation of sexual harassment or the ultimate devastation of actual rape.

Legislation: success or failure?

The UN’s attempts to introduce measures to protect Egyptian women were vehemently opposed by Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, who argued that to accord women greater freedom would lead to the “complete disintegration of society,” oblivious of, or instrumental in the palpable descent into patriarchal oppression of women under their rule. Post-Mursi, pressure was brought to bear upon the interim government and in 2014, amendments were made to the harassment laws prior to their inclusion in the penal code. However, women’s rights and anti-harassment NGOs have informed this writer that these changes are largely ineffectual as they are not supported by a cohesive political strategy or recognised enforcement procedure.

Nihal Saad Zaghloul, herself, a survivor of sexual assault, founder and CEO of Imprint established in 2012 to offer protection for women in Egyptian society, told this writer,

We don’t have any political parties who support us, they are so far from putting women on the agenda or discussing women’s rights. It is not their priority right now to consider women important to their political agendas. We are at the bottom of the food chain.

Mariam Kirollos founding member of OpAntiSH (Op Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault) made this sobering statement in an interview in 2014,

All crimes against women are a cultural practice to the extent that it has become a norm in Egypt and people don’t find that there is anything wrong with it. Egyptian law does not criminalize it. Rape is defined in a very narrow sense: “actual penetration.” One of the survivors once told me, if an entire train drove into my sexual part, this is not considered rape! So rape with an object is not rape, rape in the marital home is not rape, anal rape is not rape, virginity tests are not rape. Male rape is not even recognised in the Egyptian penal code.

The majority of survivors say that the term “sexual harassment” is not strong enough. What is happening to women in Egypt is “sexual terrorism.” The irony is not lost on these women that the battle against “terrorism” is one of the underpinning policies of el-Sisi’s government, while the true terrorism against 50% of Egypt’s citizens goes largely unnoticed and unpunished.

According to Nihal Saad Zaghoul, the sexual assaults are not limited to streets. Many women suffer abuse in their own home at the hands of their husbands or other family members, even their own sons,

The big problem is that many women choose not to act. They feel isolated, afraid. They know their family won’t back them, the system won’t back them. In the case of street harassment it is easier to speak out and perhaps even file a police report. When we come to the cases of domestic violence, there is very little support or recourse for women. Where would they go if they leave their home? Many women will tell us I have nowhere else to go and so being violated by a husband or brother or even son in the household is preferable to being on the streets. It’s a lack of support from the system that ensures the continuation of this cycle of violence behind closed doors. A whole system, not only the state but also the community. In this instance it is rare that women will take the steps to prevent their own violation or abuse. This issue does not only apply to women but to every Egyptian citizen.

Passive and aggressive harassment

The work of Imprint involves confronting those who actively and aggressively harass and those who passively support it by failing to intervene. Imprint strongly advocates education as a preventative measure particularly for the latter category. According to Nihal Saad Zaghoul,

The passive harassers often simply don’t understand how women think or feel. Their attitude originates from their own domestic environments which are frequently violent. As soon as we enable them to identify how their behaviour affects women, a lot of men will alter their perceptions and view women with renewed respect and empathy.

Others are being misled by incorrect interpretation of the Qur’an and they need a good role model, a progressive religious leader to advise them and to show them that what they are tacitly condoning is the abuse of those they should in reality honour and respect, according to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh).

The media plays a vital role in how women are treated or mistreated. So we need to influence the media or provide alternative media to reinforce the message that women should be protected and respected.

In the case of the aggressive harasser, the male who actively abuses, assaults or verbally harasses women, the overarching opinion is that the only viable option is punishment, imprisonment and financial penalties. It must be reinforced that abuse of any member of society is punishable by law and that law must be upheld and enforced, not only by the state but by the community as well.

Segregation or integration?

Nihal Saad Zaghoul is vehemently against gender segregation. The emergence of women-only metro carriages, the very recent introduction of the Pink Taxis for women are, in her opinion, a step in the wrong direction,

This is not a solution, it’s a way to push women out of the public space and gives the community a pain killer so they don’t actually have to face what is happening and work to prevent any kind of minority harassment. It is treating the symptoms not the cause. It’s completely unacceptable that instead of punishing the perpetrators we put the victim into quarantine and put the onus of responsibility onto them.

Ahmed el-Fiky, a young Egyptian author and women’s rights advocate also has strong views on integration as opposed to segregation,

I would consider religion to be key to the integration of women into all aspects of society. Contrary to what many people would expect me to say, I believe “religion” is a fundamental component of the oppression of women. Distorting the religious message and advocating religious extremism is a huge contributory factor… We need educated women who are religious scholars because when I read the interpretations of the Qur’an, they have been done predominantly by men. Men are interpreting it according to their backgrounds, mindset, and traditions. We need women to interpret the Qur’an and to rectify the misinterpretations. To summarize, we are equal from a philosophical standpoint, we are not in conflict, we are helping each other, we are completing each other not competing with each other. To achieve this equality, we need to give women the same space we give to men.

According to Ahmed, there are a multitude of excuses for gender issues in Egypt. The high poverty levels mean that marriage is economically out of reach for many young men until their early- or late-30s. The resulting sexual frustration, emasculation, the accessibility of hard-core pornography, the availability of over the counter drugs like Tramadol, street hashish, and alcohol can all lead to loss of control. Religious teaching that unequivocally blames the woman if she is “inappropriately” dressed or not properly covered is also cited as a cause of degenerating attitudes and the objectification of women, “If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street… and the cats come and eat it, whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat? If she was in her room, in her home in her hijab, no problem would have occurred,” says Shaykh Taj al-Din al-Hilali, Grand Mufti of Australia (2006). However, Ahmed also concludes that too many abusers don’t adhere to this profiling and in his opinion the underlying cause is a disturbing moral deficit in Egyptian society.

Education is key

Organisations like Imprint or activists like Ahmed el-Fiky believe fervently that education is key to the future redressing of the gender imbalance in their society. Both have an unassailable optimism that future generations will benefit from the painful transition that Egypt is currently experiencing. The world of a rape or harassment survivor will literally spin completely out of their control and self-worth plummets. The belief is that the courage of the survivors to come forward and speak about their experiences, testifies to the determination of women in Egypt to fight back from their humiliation and shame. Education in the community can ensure that the filth of their experience will be cleansed by cultural and familial empathy and comprehension. “Their stories empowered me and many others to continue our struggle, to open our eyes and most of all not feel we are alone,” says Nihal Saad Zaghoul.

I have written about Egypt because it is a country I feel great affinity for. This article is not an attack on a Muslim country; it is an opening of a window onto a world we all live in to varying degrees. What we see through the fractured prism of Egyptian society is reflected globally. It is time to confront these men who have sunk to a predatory and sadistic level of intimidation in an attempt to both regain their own power and to reduce the threat of women’s emergence as a social and political force. It is time for women’s voices to be heard above the cacophony of patriarchal orchestrating and for men to unite with women to ensure the “circle of hell” becomes the “circle of hope.”

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 6

Shawwal 15, 14362015-08-01

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