In a recent report — “Egypt: Keeping Women Out” — violence against women in the public sphere is said to be a major obstacle to women’s participation in public and political life.
Released in Arabic and English on April 16, “Egypt: Keeping Women Out” is based on the findings of an investigation conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Nazra for Feminist Studies, the New Woman Foundation and the Uprising of Women in the Arab World.
The report advocates for measures to address violence against women, arguing that these are “not only crucial to protect and promote the right of women to lead lives free from violence, but are also fundamental to enabling women’s participation in defining Egypt’s future.”
Although attacks against female protesters in Tahrir Square and the response of activists towards these attacks brought the question of violence against women into the public spotlight, the issue is a longstanding one, the report notes.
The state has failed to deal with violence against women and given impunity to perpetrators, which has continued throughout the successive governments of the past three years. Impunity leads to tolerance of violence against women and a tendency to blame survivors, the report notes, adding that this discourse has been promoted not only by political representatives but also the media.
The targeting of women during marches and demonstrations has been carried out by unidentified mobs, as well as the police, security forces and military. These attacks take place against a backdrop, the report says, of “sexual harassment and assault on a massive scale in the streets and the workplace.”
The role of the police is not simply passive in terms of ignoring accusations or failing to protect protesters — particularly on days known to experience peaks in violence against women, such as Eid — but as perpetrators of violence against women. Women who go to the police to report violence are sometimes assaulted by the police themselves, the report says, and dealing with the authorities is itself often traumatic.
Attitudes of accepting violence towards women are present all the way to the top. The report quotes an official in the Office of the Public Prosecutor who said, “Sometimes a woman files an allegation of rape in order to pressure a man into marrying her, so she can cover up her mistake.” He went on to say, “Girls often make allegations of harassment because they want to break up with a guy.”
Although a provision in the Penal Code, which allowed for charges to be dropped if the rapist married the victim, was abolished in 1998, the official said that in practice, the prosecution might decide not to pursue charges in such a case. He said that in the case of a gang rape, if one of the perpetrators agrees to marry the victim, charges might be dropped against all of them.
The ways in which the police and the courts deal with complaints represents “double victimization,” the report suggests, noting that there are no measures in Egyptian law to protect survivors as are required by international law. Such measures would include for instance protecting the survivor’s identity or the exclusion of a survivor’s sexual history as evidence in court.
The report refers to an oft-cited survey carried out by UN Women, released in April 2013, which found that 99 percent of Egyptian women reported having been sexually harassed, with 91 percent saying they feel insecure in the streets as a result. It goes on to note the absence of official data as well as definitional issues that hamper reporting, adding that when complaints are filed, they are not recorded as gender-based violence.
Both in the law and in terms of social understanding, there is confusion about which terms to use. The report notes that “taharosh” covers a wide range of actions, from flirting to rape. This term, previously rarely used, has recently become a part of public discourse, largely as a result of the awareness raising efforts of NGOs. Previously, these behaviors were referred to as “mo’aksa” which means “flirtation.”
The lack of a legal definition of sexual harassment in the Penal Code means that these crimes are recorded under various different charges and are sometimes prosecuted as misdemeanors not crimes. The term ‘hatk ‘ird’ is a criminal offence meaning indecent assault, but also refers to physical assault. It is a term that carries negative connotations. The report cites the case of a woman who says, “I would report harassment if the charges were called harassment and not ‘hatk ‘ird.’” Another reported her reluctance to press charges, saying, “If my father hears that I have been a victim of ‘ hatk ‘ird’, he will think that it is more than what it was.”
This confusion around terms and definitions, the report argues, means that crimes such as rape and other forms of sexual assault become absorbed under umbrella terms that include verbal harassment, thus making victims of harassment and abuse less likely to report the crime, as well as making crimes of rape less visible.
Sexual violence is now more widely spoken about and shifts in terminology are largely attributable the report says to survivors who have spoken out, as well as the work of civil society organizations.
In 2010, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) expressed serious concern that, “violence against women in all its forms has increased, both in the private and public spheres.” This intensified after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak in a broader context of the deterioration of law and order, the report notes.
A surge of violent sexual attacks since the revolution “has reinforced the message that women do not have a place in the public sphere,” the report says, citing testimony from survivors of sexual violence who admit to being more reluctant than before to take part in protests.
A number of testimonies show how the social acceptability of violence against women means that passers-by either ignore attacks or intervene to protect the aggressor. In one testimony, the person who intervened to stand up for an offender was herself a woman, highlighting how pervasive the normalization of violence against women in society is.
The report takes the framework of international law, noting that Egypt has ratified several international treaties, and noting throughout the obligations of the state that it has failed to fulfill.
Often, where violence against women has been spoken about by politicians or in the media in a way that does not blame the survivors, it has been in terms of exploiting the issue for “political point-scoring” to discredit opponents.
Various pieces of draft legislation have circulated but have not reached a parliamentary vote, the report notes, adding that in considering a draft law, organizations working on violence against women were not consulted.
The report warns against attempts to address the issue that may in fact further support women’s exclusion. Initiatives that cast men in the role of protecting women, or separate men and women in public spaces, whether in protests or public transport, reinforce discrimination and further impact negatively on women’s right to participate in public life.