International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world on March 8. Egypt celebrates Egyptian Women’s Day on March 16, and March 9 marks the infamous day when members of the Armed Forces performed virginity tests on female protesters detained in Tahrir Square in 2011 — a crime no one has been held accountable for to this day.
This year, however, the government is trying to contain the feminist movement that picked up pace during the revolution, and which they have frequently used to save face both domestically and internationally, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to sexual crimes committed by security forces.
Police have waged several campaigns against the LGBT community in a stark violation of personal rights. This sits within a broader crackdown on civil society organizations — the closure of human rights centers and the imposition of travel bans on prominent activists, as well as the complete militarization of the public sphere, evidenced by recent raids on various cultural institutions — all with the aim of consolidating a climate of fear. Despite the recurring political failures of the revolution, however, there have been some notable social gains. The revolutionary feminist movement in Egypt has been able to bring about positive change in people’s knowledge and perceptions of sexual violence and sexual rights.
One of the major achievements of the feminist movement is related to the issue of sexual violence against women in the public sphere. It is no longer out of the ordinary today for girls and women to report verbal and physical harassment to the police. They have also exposed and confronted police officers who refuse to file such reports. This was not the case 10 years ago. Many women activists would recall how they were told not to use the words “sexual harassment” on television before the revolution, confining the practice to “harassment” only.
Many of us also remember how the media and the state used to deny the existence of the phenomenon of individual and mass sexual violence, which soared from the early 2000s. For a very long time, the demands by feminist organizations to reform the laws on sexual violence were ignored. This is in addition to demands that the state acknowledge the hurdles women face in the street and workplace.
Women who demand their rights have often had to face smear campaigns.
Testimonials from survivors of “Black Wednesday” — when female journalists and protesters were sexually harassed during a demonstration against Hosni Mubarak’s constitutional reforms in 2005 — are a case in point. According to one account, a female lawyer was able to capture her harasser on that day, but security forces freed him and refused to file an official report of the incident. The Public Prosecution’s office also refused to include the torn clothes of journalist Nawal Aly as evidence in her case, claiming it was too late to do so. Aly was one of the many women assaulted and stripped of her clothes on Black Wednesday. The Public Prosecutor dropped the charges, saying the perpetrators couldn’t be found. Pro-government media then waged a campaign against Aly, claiming she had ripped off her own clothes and fabricated claims that pro-Mubarak thugs assaulted her.
In 2008, young filmmaker Noha Roushdy sued a man who groped her, in the first case in Egypt in which the assailant was convicted and imprisoned. Noha struggled to challenge society’s normalization of sexual violence. After she was sexually assaulted in broad daylight in Heliopolis, she was surrounded by more than 40 men in the street who blamed her for her attire and tried to free her attacker and return him to his car. She eventually managed to take him to the police station with the help of a friend, but the officers tried to convince her not to file an official report. When she insisted, they refused to take the account of her friend, who was an eyewitness, and wouldn’t escort the perpetrator to the main Heliopolis Police Station to verify the police report. In the end, Noha took her attacker to the police station herself in her father’s car. The media accused her of being an Israeli and launched a smear campaign against her. Thanks to the support she received from her parents, friends and feminist organizations, she was able to take the case to court, where the perpetrator was sentenced to three years in prison and a LE5000 fine in October 2008.
The fight against sexual violence took a radical turn during the revolution, thanks to grassroots initiatives that were formed to combat violence against women during protests. Courageous women like Yasmine al-Baramawy, Aida al-Kashef and Hania Moheeb have, for example, chosen to show their faces on camera to narrate the sexual violence they were exposed to in and around Tahrir Square. By doing so, they not only challenged society’s denial of the gruesome reality of sexual violence in Egypt, but also encouraged other women to rise up and defend themselves against such crimes. The stories of those brave women have also contributed to changing the mainstream victim-blaming attitude.
Last October, social media users waged a campaign against TV anchor Reham Saeed for airing personal photos of a sexual assault survivor as a victim-blaming technique. The public outrage that led to the suspension of her television show is indicative of the normative change that has occurred vis-à-vis sexual violence over the past decade. A misdemeanor court sentenced Saeed to a year in prison and a LE15,000 fine for violating an assault victim’s privacy, and an additional six months imprisonment and an LE10,000 fine for libel and slander.
In June 2014, an amendment to the Egyptian Penal Code saw the introduction of harassment as a definitive crime. This achievement was the culmination of hard work by grassroots initiatives and civil society organizations that campaigned and pressured the government to amend the law. Unlike other amendments to the Penal Code, this has been particularly effective in combatting the crime. According to a study by Daftar Ahwal, an independent think tank, 2259 individuals were arrested in 2015 on harassment-related charges. This figure gives us an indication of how the attitudes of women towards harassment have drastically changed.
In the realm of pop culture, we can also sense a positive change in the ways in which gender issues are being addressed. In recent years, we have seen movies like “Cairo 6,7,8” (2010), Asmaa (2011) and television dramas like “Women’s Prison” (2014), which tackle issues ranging from sexual harassment to the stigmatization of people living with HIV/AIDS, and other facets of female oppression that society has long considered taboo.
What is even more astounding is how this change has hit the world of advertisement. Let us look at the controversial ad campaign that encourages its male customers to “man-up” and drink Birell, a non-alcoholic malt beverage. The campaign began in 2008 as part of a long series of ads by Leo Burnett. One of the first ads held the message, “A girl’s personality is the last thing you comment on,” insinuating that in order “to be a man,” one must objectify women physically.
Another ad, aired in 2011, clearly promoted male chauvinistic behavior, saying, “Grow your moustache and it will teach her manners.” Despite the fact that the campaign still promotes gender stereotypes, there has been a great improvement in their new series tagged, “Manhood is about good morals.” The series presents characteristics of a “real man” as one who combats harassment, and helps with household chores. This change definitely reflects a shift in the perceptions of the campaign’s target audience, namely young men, regarding what is deemed to be acceptable male behavior. In other words, the advertising company had to replace their initial chauvinistic message — which correlated manhood with harassment — with an alternative motto that identifies combating harassment as an attribute of manhood.
At any rate, the social progress that has been made thus far in terms of changing people’s perceptions in relation to gender and sexuality is not just confined to sexual violence. There has also been, for example, a significant change in public reactions towards famous paternity suits. In 2004, Hend al-Hennawy, a 27-year-old costume designer at the time, filed a paternity suit against a famous young actor, Ahmed al-Fishawy, after her daughter was born. Hennawy faced public disdain, but with the assistance of her family and support of feminist organizations, she was able to challenge the taboo of sex outside of formal wedlock. Fishawy, who was then only 24 years old, comes from a family of stars, and was hosting a television show at the time promoting religious morality. Fishawy’s family waged a media campaign against Hennawy, accusing her of lying to defame their son, a devout young star. The court finally ruled in Hennawy’s favor in a historic ruling that set legal precedent by using DNA testing to establish paternity.
Ten years later, public reaction to another high profile paternity suit was quite different. Zeina, a young actress, recently won a paternity suit against actor Ahmed Ezz, who publically denied that he is the father of her twin children. This time, however, public opinion was largely on Zeina’s side. Following the court decision, Ezz said, “I swear to God, they are not my kids,” a line which has been mocked endlessly on social media. Interestingly, many men interviewed on the streets have stated that Ezz should take responsibility for his actions.
The most astounding change, however, is related to reactions to the Bab al-Bahr bathhouse incident. In December 2014, security forces permitted TV anchor Mona al-Iraqi to capture footage of a police raid on a public bathhouse they claimed was a “homosexual” hub in downtown Cairo’s Ramses area, resulting in the arrest of 26 men. Iraqi aired the raid and presented naked photos of the arrested men on her show on a satellite television channel. Activists who work on sexual rights were extremely worried by the theatrical orchestration of this raid and many feared it would turn into another fearmongering campaign, reminiscent of the Queen Boat incident.
In May 2001, state security officers raided the Queen Boat, a disco on a Nile cruise vessel, and detained more than 60 men, who were publically defamed and accused of belonging to a “devil-worshipping organization.” Fortunately, nothing of the sort and scale took place following the Bab al-Bahr incident. Public reaction, particularly among social media users, was opposed to Iraqi’s stark violation of the privacy of the men who were arrested. Social media users launched the hashtag, “a media snitch,” accusing Iraqi of lack of professionalism and violation of people’s privacy. This was not the only incident involving Iraqi. Sawsan al-Sheikh, head of the Egyptian AIDS Society, who was a guest on Iraqi’s show, claimed her statements were manipulated and edited to promote harmful messages stigmatizing HIV/AIDS.
Public support for the men arrested in the bathhouse case continued until they were proven innocent. But, to fully explore this change in public reaction would require another article addressing the role of the revolution, and the ensuing freedom of assembly that enabled groups to organize and rally for crucial societal issues. We should also consider the role of social media platforms in the mobilization and discussion of societal taboos, and engage with generational differences vis-à-vis value systems.
All things considered, this article is not claiming that we are now living in a progressive society. We are still functioning within the confines of contentious spaces. Nor do I intend to paint a rosy picture of the current feminist movement, for how can we completely separate it from the wider socio-cultural context? There is no doubt that the feminist movement was hit hard by the defeat of the revolution. Most grassroots initiatives that have been crucial in raising awareness about sexual violence are now paralyzed. The Interior Ministry will never grant them permits to work on the ground during major celebrations to prevent harassment, nor will it allow them to launch a street campaign to raise awareness.
The militarization of the public sphere in the aftermath of the revolutionary defeat has also spread despair among those involved in the feminist movement. Many have exited public work to focus on personal projects. But we can still see new initiatives starting in Cairo and other governorates, both on and off university campuses. Women today are fighting for their financial independence, and for their right to live outside their family homes. They are also continuing the lingering struggle against female circumcision, while still fighting for freedom of movement, among other rights.
Like the faint trace of a butterfly, the impact of the revolution can be noticed today and will continue to be felt for years to come. Our political defeat should not prevent us from acknowledging the social victories that have been made, and the role of those brave women who have chosen to lead the way.
In March this year, we salute Noha Roushdy, Nawal Aly, Yasmine al-Baramawy, Hend al-Hennawy, and others who did not fear being first in line.
Happy Women’s Day.
N.B: This article has been translated and edited for clarity.