Last October, a young woman was sexually assaulted and slapped twice in one of Cairo’s malls. Instead of bringing the perpetrator to justice, the young woman found herself blamed. In an interview on a popular TV show in Egypt, the victim was asked whether she knew that her clothes were inappropriate and provocative. In a later episode, the TV presenter without any respect for the young woman’s privacy aired personal photos of the girl that had been stolen from her mobile phone by the program’s team; one photo in her bikini on the beach and being carried by a man, and another one of her holding a drink. Encouraging the sexist behavior that is spreading in the society, the presenter implied that a girl with such manners shouldn’t be surprised that she was harassed.
This is what you get when you as a woman live in a patriarchal social system, raised and treated as though you are inferior to men. The least you need are laws that preserve your rights as a human being, but even that becomes too much to hope for.
Sexual harassment is one of the most critical social problems worldwide for its physical and psychological harm, and Egypt ranks the second country in the world after Afghanistan in terms of sexual harassment. A research—“Study on Ways and Methods to Eliminate Sexual Harassment in Egypt”—carried out by UN Women in 2013 showed that over 99.3% of Egyptian women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime.
In 2014, for the first time in modern Egyptian history, a sexual harassment law was introduced. According to the law, verbal, physical, behavioral, phone and online sexual harassment could attract imprisonment for 6 months to 5 years, and up to 50,000 Egyptian Pounds in fines. But the law is rarely enforced, as the police agents, who are supposed to be enforcing the law are part of a male-biased society. Most of the victims choose not to report acts of sexual harassment out of fear of social pressure, as people in the Egyptian community usually tend to justify such acts and blame the victim, implying that they have contributed to their rape or harassment because of the way they dressed or through their attitudes. Other victims choose to remain silent out of fear of being harassed and assaulted in police stations. In 2014, a female law student at Cairo University was sexually harassed by a group of male students inside the university campus and the university’s president blamed the student because of the tight and colorful clothes she was wearing. A TV Presenter, Tamer Amin, also blamed the victim for what happened, saying that the girl’s clothes were not appropriate, and justifying the actions of the perpetrators by saying that they were sexually repressed young men who live in difficult circumstances.
While the sexual harassment law is considered an accomplishment regarding women’s rights in Egypt, there are many sections in the Egyptian penal code which still carry forms of discrimination against women. According to Egyptian adultery laws, a man is considered to be committing adultery only if he has sex with a woman within the home he shares with his wife. For this, he faces the penalty of imprisonment only up to six months. On the other hand, a woman is considered to be committing adultery whether she has sex within the home she shares with her husband or outside of it, and faces a penalty of imprisonment for up to 2 years, under articles 277 and 274 of penal code.
In addition, according to article 268 of the Egyptian, penal code the crime of anal rape is considered as an “indecent assault,” in which the assaulter does not face the same penalty as for rape.
According to article 261, and 262 of Egyptian Penal Code, abortion is prohibited in all circumstances. However, according to article 61, a woman can only have an abortion if the pregnancy is life-threatening, or on grounds of necessity like cases of severe foetal impairment, but it has to be with the husband’s consent. For cases of rape, the grand Imam of Egypt has issued a fatwa stating that a raped victim can terminate the pregnancy at any point, but this is exclusive to supposedly “chaste” women—which is a controversial debate on its own. However, the members of the Center of Islamic Research disagreed with the grand Imam, saying that a woman is not allowed to have an abortion when the fetus is already living. In all other cases, a woman is strictly forbidden from getting an abortion.
According to a study by the Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey in 2005, 47% of the married women in Egypt reported being a victim of physical violence, and the perpetrator was an intimate partner in most of the cases. However, there is no law that either criminalizes spousal rape or deals directly with domestic violence. What is worse is that article 60 of the Egyptian penal code states “the provisions of the Penal Code shall not apply to any deed committed in good faith, pursuant to a right determined by virtue of sharia” which justifies this kind of violence under the terms of good faith.
Despite the fact that in 2008, another accomplishment regarding women’s rights in Egypt was achieved when the Egyptian Parliament passed a law criminalizing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the first conviction for FGM was held in 2015 after the death of a 13-year old girl. In a conference which was held to reveal the results of the 2014 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey, the Egyptian Health Minister announced that 92% of married Egyptian women experienced FGM. Regardless of the health and psychological consequences, FGM remains widespread in Egypt as a result of religious and traditional beliefs, most commonly in rural areas. The horrifying general belief is that such a procedure preserves a woman’s honor.
At the same time, there are many organizations which actively attempt to provide women with legal, and psychological support, and try to increase awareness about these incidents through different channels:
Established in 2010, HarassMap was the first independent initiative to work on sexual harassment. Its main purpose is to create an anonymous reporting and mapping system for harassment. This has yielded great results, so much so that activists from different countries have asked them for help to create similar initiatives.
Nazra for Feminist Studies is a group that aims to employ different programs, initiatives and activities surrounding feminism and gender issues. Nazra launched a campaign recently called “One Square Meter” in order to emphasize a woman’s right to privacy and personal space. They have also been trying to increase awareness of sexual violence and the related legal framework surrounding this issue in Egypt.
Speak Up is a campaign that was launched by UN Women in Egypt aiming to end domestic violence, asking every woman to speak up for her rights. They put up a billboard on the 6th October Bridge—one of Cairo’s biggest highway—with the picture of a woman’s face full of bruises, starting a conversation about domestic abuse.
Ikhtyar is a feminist group which is concerned with providing knowledge-based production in the Arabic language about social and gender identity. They have conducted self-funded activities over the past two years, which include study circles, and reading and discussion groups about gender. Ikhtyar is currently facing continuity obstacles because of the funds and needs everybody’s support.
Women groups and organizations play an important role in empowering women in Egypt in all aspect. Some of them try to improve the legal status of women by fighting discriminatory laws, while others work on educating women about their rights and encouraging them to demand these rights and to never back down under any circumstances. It is important in the coming years for these organizations to concentrate their efforts not only on demanding the government to change discriminatory laws, but also on enforcing them properly.