Egypt’s Women Fight Back

One afternoon in Cairo this summer, a young woman was brutally gang-raped in a crowd. Stumbling, badly hurt, into a subway station in search of help, she was subjected to humiliating examinations at the hands of skeptical authorities. Later, she would be beaten once more by her own "dishonored" family. This story was told to ...

Deena Mohamed, Qahera
Deena Mohamed, Qahera

One afternoon in Cairo this summer, a young woman was brutally gang-raped in a crowd. Stumbling, badly hurt, into a subway station in search of help, she was subjected to humiliating examinations at the hands of skeptical authorities. Later, she would be beaten once more by her own "dishonored" family.

This story was told to me by someone intimately acquainted with its details, but who asked that the specifics be withheld to protect the victim. Heartbreaking anecdotes such as this have become all too familiar in Egypt over recent years. These attacks usually go unreported in the media, but talk of them nevertheless circulates widely through the country’s garrulous streets, becoming an increasingly inescapable part of the national conversation. This growing public perception of sexual harassment is now inspiring many ordinary Egyptians to become active parts of the solution. As awareness intensifies and coalitions coalesce, equality may soon be on the rise at last.

That said there is a long road ahead. While Egypt’s political rollercoaster — from autocratic strongman, to flawed democracy, to military rule — has created a great many uncertainties, limitations on women in the public sphere, and rampant sexual harassment have remained tragic constants throughout.

On Nov. 12, Reuters released a poll that surveyed over 330 gender experts from around the Arab world in an effort to establish a ranking of the region’s countries regarding women’s rights and gender equality. Citing sky-high rates of female genital mutilation, anemic legal protections, ubiquitous sexual harassment, and limited professional prospects for women, the survey’s respondents ranked Egypt 22nd out of 22 countries. Dead last.

As if that fact weren’t depressing enough, many of the reported statistics underlying this finding are themselves harrowing in the extreme. In 2012 UNICEF found that, nationwide, 91 percent of women between ages 15 to 49 had suffered female genital mutilation. And according to a United Nations report from April 2013, over 99 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed at some point, nearly all of them physically.

Yet by some accounts, it wasn’t always this bad.

"In 1957, the Nasser Constitution declared women to be the equals of men, and, by the 1970s, the Sadat government was already appointing female ambassadors and ministers," says Sallama Shaker, a visiting professor at Yale University, a former ambassador, and Egypt’s first female deputy minister of foreign affairs. "Later, First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, like Mrs. Sadat before her, personally oversaw an enhancement of women’s integration into the economic life and development of Egypt …  raising awareness of the fact that women’s rights are human rights."

So what happened? Shaker’s take is that the current plight of women in Egypt was brought about, or at least greatly exacerbated, by the Arab Spring and the advent of electoral democracy under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood. "While women played a very critical role in the uprisings of 2011," she says, "Morsi’s regime denied women rights that had been granted to them as far back as Nasser."

Of course, some scholars have argued that the short-lived 2012 Morsi constitution was not all that textually dissimilar to its 1971 predecessor when it came to women’s rights. It likewise bears remembering that the ancien régime under Mubarak was certainly not without its own high-profile scandals and allegations of sexual abuse by state authorities. That said, having more conservative-minded Muslim Brotherhood allies in power did seem to call into doubt women’s ability to invoke the law as a societal equalizer, or even as a shield against abuses such as marital rape.

But Shaker finds cause for optimism in the Constitution Drafting Committee. Recent revisions to Article 11 of the newly drafted Egyptian Constitution, which will be submitted for final ratification over the next few months, now includes a commitment to "achieving equality between women and men in all of the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights mentioned in this constitution." Shaker likewise characterizes the committee itself as including several "prominent" activists, and considers its chairman, Amr Moussa, to be a firm believer in women’s rights. "The challenges remain immense," Shaker admits, "but the women of Egypt have been securing their rights since 1919, and there is no turning back. The djinn is out of the bottle."

Other voices are less sanguine, however, both about the past and the political future. According to Rebbeca Chiao, the co-founder of HarassMap, a leading effort to address sexual harassment and assault in Egypt, most of the high profile initiatives from the period predating the Arab Spring were more flash than substance. For a government often under international pressure to make democratizing reforms of some kind, women’s rights were seen as a safe avenue for doing so. There would be billboards, public discussions, and perhaps some superficial progress on the legal side (rapists could no longer escape punishment by marrying their victim, for example), but these changes rarely translated into significant benefits on the ground.

"When it comes to women’s rights and sexual harassment, things have been getting worse for decades," she explains. "The problem has nothing to do with who’s in power, but with society itself."

In fact, Chiao reports that some of the worst harassment she’s ever seen took place on the very day Morsi left power. The celebratory atmosphere of the mass gatherings so emblematic to Egypt’s 2011 and 2013 uprisings were accompanied by chilling displays of sexual vi
. "People were happy, there were fireworks, celebrating on the streets…. Harassment became just another part of the party."

Chiao recalls: "There were women of all ages and backgrounds being violently attacked by a mob in full view of thousands of people. Scores of men would single out one woman and attack her sexually. A lot of these were rapes with fingers — some even with knives. Many victims needed multiple surgeries afterwards, and practically nobody helped. Bystanders are the real problem. Not laws."

While international media coverage of the uprisings, along with high profile cases of Western journalists being sexually assaulted, have helped draw attention to the issue, most attacks occur far away from both the press and the authorities. The crisis is likewise deeply rooted, and it permeates all levels of society irrespective of age, class, or region. While it is often suggested that criminals specifically target unveiled women who are considered "atheists" (a term that bears a negative connotation in Egypt, almost on par with a slur), and that veiled women are protected by their religious adherence, this is simply not the case.

"Many men have this mentality that a woman is herself responsible for harassment, particularly if she ‘tempts’ men with how she dresses," Mariam Ibrahim, a graphic designer based in Cairo, explains. "Yet my sense is that veiled women, often from lower social strata, actually get harassed more than do more westernized, middle class women, since they’re perceived as safer targets. There’s a greater possibility of them having nobody to back them up from a socially connected family."

If the problem is social, perhaps the solution can be as well. Activists such as Ms. Chiao and her colleagues very much believe this to be the case. "There is such a diverse and dynamic group of people working in Egypt on these issues right now," she says, "one organization isn’t going to change everything, but a diversity of people and of voices can."

And that diversity is growing. Among her volunteers, at HarassMap, she says, more than 50 percent are now men, who are part of "a new generation that doesn’t look at women, or their rights, as a means to an end."

One such young man is the 26-year-old Ahmed el-Habibi. "We must all be proactive and positive, and take action when we see incidents on the street instead of so readily blaming the victims," he tells me. "Women are the engine of change in all societies, and if we do not stand with them there can be no real change of any sort in Egypt."

Today, men like Habibi are increasingly lending their own strength to a coalition of women that is ever more insistent and assertive in defending their rights and proliferating messages of gender equality and justice. Deena Mohamed, a 19-year-old student and illustrator, recently made international headlines when her web comic, Qahera, went viral. Qahera features an eponymous hijab-wearing, ass-kicking superheroine that prowls Egypt’s streets, wreaking havoc on misogynists, sexual harassers, and Islamophobes alike. (In the photo above, Qahera protects a woman from harassment.)

Referring to her work in the context of Egypt’s recent upheavals, Mohamed rightly points out that women’s empowerment has at long last becoming a powerful topic of conversation in Egypt today. "For a brief moment during the revolutions, Egyptians were in an atmosphere that seemed to welcome change, and this helped bring down a lot of barriers and taboos. Harassment is being talked about now, openly. Young people are increasingly championing women’s rights, but change needs to come from within the system as well."

And perhaps it will. Charles Caleb Colton, a 19th century British admirer of Egypt, once said of the Nile that it "begins in minuteness but ends in magnificence." As more and more Egyptian men and women stand together on behalf of the rights and dignity of both sexes, we can be hopeful that their efforts may chart a similar course. Twice now, the youth of Egypt has shown itself capable of mobilizing to topple a government. Whether they can also take down an entrenched regime of socially institutionalized sexism remains to be seen. Should they succeed, it would truly be their most astounding revolution to date.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project, and a 2013 recipient of a Gabr Fellowship, an initiative dedicated to fostering good will between Egypt and the West. He tweets at @Dlansberg.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

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