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Grappling with forms of justice: Combating sexual violence in civil society

Connie Burk, one of the co-founders of the Northwest Network of Survivors of Abuse, a network with rich experience in mediating cases of sexual violence in civil society organizations in the United States, argues that the feminist slogan, “the personal is always political,” remains very apt. But, she also adds that we must acknowledge that the personal is often way too chaotic to be accounted for by our dogmas. Burk’s reflections on the challenges of accounting for the personal using political language resonate with the crisis that emerged in recent months within leftist circles and civil society in Egypt regarding community responsibility and the pursuit of justice in cases of sexual violence and women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.

The crisis came to the fore publicly following the circulation of an email by a female member of civil society, in which she accused two members of the Bread and Freedom Party of rape and sexual harassment respectively. The reactions to the email, both officially from the party and from various members of civil society, produced a wave of discontent amid conversations that were sometimes useful, but mostly hurtful, about core issues surrounding rape, sexual harassment, consent and community responsibility in the pursuit of justice for survivors.

The intense discussions, which ensued for weeks, mostly highlighted Egypt’s lacking access to community mechanisms for pursuing justice in cases of sexual violence, beyond the criminal justice system. The Bread and Freedom Party case presented a serious challenge in terms of local practices and imaginations of community-based justice. At the core of these challenges linger unanswered questions about for whom justice should be sought, and how to account for wider societal inequalities and power imbalances in approaching different mechanisms of justice. These questions forged a space for wider reckonings with the shortcomings of the criminal justice system in cases of sexual violence, and raised further questions about what other forms of justice can be sought in these circumstances.

In this article, I present the experiences of some civil society organizations in pursuing alternative methods of justice. I start by addressing the ways in which the criminal justice system has failed survivors of sexual violence, and then outline the different approaches to justice that civil society organizations have resorted to worldwide, highlighting both the challenges and possibilities they offer. Rather than address the issue from the standpoint of a dialectic of a failed criminal justice system in cases of sexual violence and a successful community-based one, I highlight the challenges of both systems, and the issues they have had to grapple with to reach satisfactory outcomes. Throughout, I revert back to the case of the Bread and Freedom Party to illuminate how an attempt to introduce community-based justice on the ground was fraught with ambiguities, uncertainties and a lot of failed attempts to make sense of what “community” really means in understanding community-based justice systems.

A few months after the circulation of the email, the Bread and Freedom Party initiated an internal investigation into the accusations presented against its members. It formed a committee composed of three civil society figures who are not members of the party, selected on the basis of their “integrity and professionalism.” The committee was tasked with investigating the accusations by communicating with the different parties involved, collecting evidence and declaring a final verdict.

The decision to investigate the case and to hold party members accountable was a definite step forward, given a long history of silencing women and members of the LGBTQ+ community who have spoken up in various social and political contexts about sexual violence. The ghost of Arwa Saleh, an activist in the 1970s student movement, was present and often invoked in discussions to highlight the systemic nature of these accusations. Saleh produced a memoir titled Al-Mubtasarun (The Stillborn) in 1997, the same year the author took her life, accounting for, among other things, the grave injustices women in activist communities experience at the hands of their male comrades. Her narrative became a timeless testimony as to exactly how deep these issues run.

But the initial hopes that civil society would find ways to address systemic issues of sexual violence were quickly dashed when the party released its official statement following the conclusion of the committee’s investigation. The statement prompted a great deal of outrage by critics who found its language and content to be wanting, if not deeply flawed. The report described the act of rape as a “shameful act,” and the sexual harassment as a conflation of “public and private” matters. The member accused of rape, the statement also mentioned, had already resigned from the party, and thus the party argued that no further action could be taken against him. The statement also focused a great deal more on the party and its integrity, rather than addressing the difficulty of conducting community-based justice and finding means to support women and LGBTQ+ communities in continuing to speak about the injustices they experience.

With the approval of the woman who initially circulated the email documenting the allegations, a statement was released by community members expressing their outrage at the party’s response and their objections to the course of its investigation. A few days later, in response to widespread anger on social media, the Bread and Freedom party leader, who was accused in the email of sexual harassment, resigned, in an attempt to assume responsibility for both his personal shortcomings, and those of the party’s in addressing this issue. Shortly afterward, a summary of the investigative committee’s report was made available to the public in order to review and assess the process.  

The decision to investigate the accusations, and later the resignation of the Bread and Freedom Party leader, in an attempt to assume responsibility for the party’s response, are respectable steps toward dealing with the larger questions of sexual violence in civil society. Despite the understandable disappointments and outrage with the process, the investigation and resignation should be seen as perhaps marking a new era, both locally and globally, in which sexual abuse is no longer silenced, and the struggles for gender equality have led to some fruition. But the general unease that followed the party leader’s resignation still reflected the challenges of attempting community justice outside the criminal justice system.

After a sense of exhaustion by the end of the process, many were left with more questions: Can justice be served if those filing complaints are not involved in the process? Can a community be vindicated if accusations lead to disengagement and a fear of speaking up? Are alternative justice systems really alternative if heated public discussions end up re-traumatizing many individuals? What forms of responsibility should those accused take? Are resignations enough? What other mechanisms, other than investigative committees, could be sought? Who pays the price of these failed processes? And will we ever be able to flirt freely again? These questions, among many more that were raised, remind us of Burk’s comments on how chaotic the personal can be when made political.

Luckily, members of civil societies from all around the world have grappled with similar questions for a few decades. My reading of their experiences in this article is framed around the central theme of the different forms of justice they deployed and their associated mechanisms. I highlight how attempts to use the criminal justice system, or to mimic its processes in community based initiatives, has been behind many of the latter’s shortcomings. Although other justice systems do not offer magical solutions to systemic problems, and it would be wishful thinking on our part to assume they might, they do highlight core issues that need to be worked on if we are to ever see concrete gains in dealing with questions of sexual justice.

A final caveat that needs to be articulated is the choice to focus on women’s experiences in attaining justice in cases of sexual violence. This is not a denial of the abuses that both men and gender variant individuals suffer. However, global power imbalances in most patriarchal societies between men on the one hand, and women and gender variant individuals on the other, have dramatically influenced rates of sexual violence and their documentation. This makes it easier to build on women survivors’ experiences for the purpose of this article. Non-binary individuals continue to suffer drastic rates of sexual abuse equal to, if not higher than, women, but such violations and attempts to combat them are less frequently documented.

Has the criminal justice system failed survivors of sexual violence?

In their introduction to the seminal text Rape Justice: Beyond the Criminal Law (2015), Nicola Henry, Anastasia Powel and Asher Flynn note that global statistics show that only 5 to 10 percent of all rape cases result in conviction. This is particularly shocking given data from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicating that one in every four women experiences some form of sexual violence from someone close to them. These statistics documenting how rampant sexual violence is, in comparison to how rarely rape convictions occur, have compelled scholars to ask what lies behind these numbers. Scholars, such as professor of psychiatry and prominent feminist writer Judith Herman, argue that formal criminal justice procedures often force survivors of rape to endure “a second rape.” At a time in which survivors of rape need to be heard and believed, their stories are often doubted, and when they need to feel control over their stories the most, they are turned into mere witnesses to events, thus aggravating their initial sense of denial of agency.

Why do victims/survivors of sexual violence resort to the criminal justice system, then, if one has to endure all of this? People often resort to the criminal justice system because, as sociologist Emile Durkheim would suggest, it is reflective of a society’s commonly held values and norms. Courts thus impart a message that violations of these morals and values will not be tolerated and should not be repeated. For a message like this to be realized, however, prominent criminal sociologist and law professor David Garland explains that criminal courts rely on a ritualistic enactment of rules and procedures that form an emotional education, which produces and reproduces certain sensibilities and ways of thinking. Henry, Powel and Flynn thus argue that these rituals, which make courts so appealing, also force sexual violence survivors to relive their trauma, without empowering them to take back a sense of control over their narrative of the experience. In turn, the survivor is often forced to bear the burden of a challenge to her credibility.

But the criminal justice system is wanting in cases of sexual violence for other reasons related to who perpetrates these acts. Although, in the public imaginary, for instance, rape is mostly perpetrated by strangers, in reality, the majority of sexual violence incidents are carried out by individuals who are close to the survivor — the WHO reveals that three in every four cases are perpetrated by people close to the survivor. This makes the disclosure of rape specifically, and sexual violence more generally, even more challenging, because one risks losing all emotional and financial security. Not only that, but given the social stigma surrounding speaking about sex in public, the survivor often bears the burden of the fear of public judgement over breaking these social rules. Allegations of rape aside, the very act of a woman speaking about sex often already causes her to experience shame, guilt and anxiety.

The shocking revelation is that reforms to laws regarding sexual violence have not increased the number of lawsuits filed, nor the number of convictions made, as Kathleen Daly, a scholar focusing on rape issues, has documented in the volume Rape Justice. This is a horrific finding that shows how much work needs to be done for rape survivors to attain a semblance of justice. This is not to mention that reforms to rape laws commonly refer to contexts of “peace,” in which states are considered to be functional. In post-conflict contexts, following, for instance, the Rwandan Genocide or the South African apartheid, sexual violence cases were documented at such dramatic rates that the criminal justice courts could not possibly investigate all of them. Situations like these, where state bodies could not possibly handle the degree of violence, have seen community members resort to other forms of justice, such as restorative justice, to begin instilling peace in their communities where the criminal justice system failed.

Alternative justice systems or wishful thinking?

Alternative forms of justice concerning sexual violence have taken a variety of forms globally. Some are considered to be in violation of the criminal code: when women kill their abusers, for instance, or when they respond to violence by forming groups that attack domestic abusers, such as with the Pink Sari movement, Gulabi Gang, in India, where groups of women carrying sticks and wearing pink saris attack wife beaters to respond to the widespread phenomenon of domestic abuse. Their actions, though reprehensible by law, are sometimes tolerated by society. But if one would simplify the other prominent approaches to alternative justice, those that do not contradict the criminal justice system or break its laws, they could be roughly divided into three categories: “restorative justice,” “transformative justice” (which is often also referred to as “community accountability”) and a third approach called “accountable communities.” The three justice systems evolved through consideration of the criminal justice system’s shortcomings and later those of the restorative justice system.

Restorative justice, the term that has become tied to post-conflict truth and reconciliation processes, is a form of justice that attempts to include all members of the community (perpetrators, victims/survivors, witnesses, etc.) in identifying effective forms of deterrence for future violations. The aim is to reconcile the community and restore some degree of functionality. Restorative justice has been used from Northern Ireland to South Africa, not just in relation to sexual violence, but to all sorts of violence committed in different communities.

The second approach, transformative justice, or what is often referred to as community accountability, is an approach that emerged out of frustration with the restorative justice system, since the latter assumes that there is a pre-existing community that can be “restored;” a community that is willing and able to encourage its members to abide by different justice mechanisms. Transformative justice is based on the premise of liberation. That is, in order to have justice, one would have to first take into account and combat the different inequalities in communities and evaluate the context in which violations occur. Like restorative justice, it involves members of the community working together and coming to an agreement about the various penalties for offenders. But it is also founded on protecting those least able to be represented, even under alternative justice systems — women of color, those with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, etc. Transformative justice has been widely used by civil society members and activist organizations in the last two decades. For instance, an anthology published under the title, The Revolution Starts at Home: Combating Intimate Violence in Activist Communities, documents the use of transformative justice in cases of sexual violence.

The Chrysalis Collective, a civil society organization that has engaged the transformative justice system in the successful resolution of a sexual violence case committed by one of its members against another, has been mindful of the issue of lack of representation of some of its members — in this case, women of color — in community-based justice systems. They thus assembled two action teams: one to support the survivor, and an accountability team to work with the perpetrator and encourage him to admit to the assault and take responsibility for his actions. While the first group worked on ensuring that the survivor had all the resources she needed in continuing to fight her case, the second included respected members of the community known for their integrity, and who also knew both the survivor and perpetrator well and could communicate with both with a degree of compassion. While urging both teams to work with a survivor-centered praxis, one that takes into consideration disparities within the wider community that make women wary of reporting assault cases, they also attempted to separate the investigative work from survivor support in order to be fair to all. Long laborious weeks of working with both parties eventually encouraged the perpetrator to admit the assault. He was assisted in getting the communal and psychological support he needed in order to address his behavior.

At the core of the transformative justice/community accountability approach is an understanding — which could be disturbing to some who might see it as a form of compromise — that accountability is not something that happens to “evil” people, but is a process applied to community members who fall into the trap of committing evil actions. In a sense, one could say that this resonates with a philosophical tradition in understanding evil that was conceived a few decades earlier, when philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her book on the tribunals of Nazi Germany, used the term “banality of evil” to indicate that most perpetrators of violence are not necessarily “evil” or “psychotic” individuals who are abnormal. Instead, Arendt sees them as deeply implicated in structures of power that they do not actively distance themselves from. She uses the term “the banality of evil” not to absolve individuals of their moral responsibilities for the violence they commit, nor does she mean that we should not hold them accountable, or that individuals do not have a choice in resisting their subjugation; rather, she presents a notion of evil that is far more complex. For Arendt, offenders should be reprimanded, whether they have carried out their offenses once or repeatedly. For Arendt, evil is committed in the most banal ways, because of people’s thoughtless association with social and national oppression that normalizes evil and renders it banal in the lives of individuals, communities and nations. The banality of evil necessitates that individuals and communities remain constantly accountable for their actions, and aware of the risks of thoughtlessly collaborating with power.

Moreover, those who exercise transformative justice often fear that attempts to investigate outside the criminal justice system fall into the same trap, especially when community discussions and accusations make survivors relive the psychological distress of sexual violence. INCITE! — one of the first groups to adopt a transformative justice approach in incidents of sexual violence — has been particularly pre-occupied by this. They drafted some basic principles to protect survivors of sexual violence and to encourage the wider community to embrace accountability. INCITE! continues to provide various workshops and collective writing groups that facilitate making accountability an actual and concrete project.

Accountable communities is a third approach to justice that has been recently promoted by the NorthWest Network of Survivors of Sexual Abuse (NW). Having mediated many cases of sexual violence, NW have come to the conclusion that survivors and civil society organizations often lack examples and prior experience outside the framework of criminal justice. They have found that attempts at self and community preservation during investigations are often time consuming, since organizations and individuals often require time to build skills and experience, and to foster trust and commitment from different parties. NW thus acknowledge that the cost of learning and executing mechanisms often falls on the shoulders of survivors, who have to bear the burden of waiting for the community to build itself up and acquire the necessary expertise.

This, for instance, became quite obvious in the case of the Bread and Freedom Party. The time and expertise necessary for community-based investigations was not readily available. This was detrimental to all parties involved, including the different community members, who found themselves re-traumatized and alienated by the process, or stigmatized by the responses. But perhaps the greater burden for mediating the case fell on the shoulders of the female plaintiff, who had to endure having her story reckoned with and her agency denied.

This is exactly why NW has been developing an approach that works on creating communities that hold themselves accountable at all times, not only during crises and investigations. NW holds workshops on healthy relationships, for instance, and helps people develop the skills needed to be constantly accountable for their behavior. The organization promotes principles that may seem “too liberal” or dubious if power dynamics are not taken into account, such as always attempting to engage the accused parties before taking counter-action, and considering that abuse is often perpetrated by complex individuals who should be engaged throughout the process, whenever possible. Of course, all this would sound too wishy-washy if NW was not working from the assumption that justice systems need to always acknowledge the context in which they function, which often means that power dynamics between different community members leaves some people better able to represent themselves than others.

These approaches have thus all worked on a variety of mechanisms to stress that justice is served when the context in which they operate is given prime consideration. The context here is about the power dynamics at the core of the community that shape a women’s ability to consent, to speak up about abuse, to own her narrative and the community’s willingness to listen and make members accountable. It also involves realizing the wider scope of accumulation (or lack) of skills and expertise about community-based justice among those seeking to investigate cases of sexual violence and abuse. To do so, civil society organizations have been encouraged to become survivor-centric, i.e. to take into account that in a patriarchal system, female survivors are often blamed, both for their actions and experiences, and for seeking justice. Civil society organizations using transformative justice mechanisms are thus encouraged to be creative in taking these power imbalances into account. Being mindful of the context has also meant understanding how evil and accountability work through messy and precarious human relations that mean that the most atrocious acts could be committed at any moment by anyone of us if we do not actively distance ourselves from power. In this light, sexual violence remains, as Nicola Henry, one of the editors of the Rape Justice volume suggests, paradoxical, in that it is “inevitable, yet unspeakable,” always very common and yet hardly ever discursive.

How could a transformative justice system have served the case of the Bread and Freedom Party?

A 2013 UN survey indicated that 99 percent of women in Egypt have been sexually harassed — with 96.5 percent of them experiencing physical harassment, and 95 percent experiencing verbal harassment. In addition, 64 percent of men admitted they had harassed women before. Local rape statistics are harder to ascertain, particularly because of how rarely rape is reported, given persistent social stigmas. This is not made easier by the fact that Egyptian law does not consider marital rape a crime, which would presumably be the highest percentage of rape reported, given that sex most often happens in Egyptian society within the institution of marriage. However, in 2008, the Ministry of Interior reported that an average of 200,000 rapes occur per year. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights’ estimated figure is 10 times higher.

Therefore, in Egypt, women experience sexual violence on a sustained and horrific basis, even when much of it remains “unspeakable.” To enable survivors to engage with processes of alternative justice, one would then have to acknowledge this background. Hence the suggestion that justice mechanisms should be set up to be survivor-centric. This seemed to be a core problem in the way the Bread and Freedom Party dealt with the accusations leveled against its members. Although the investigative committee and the Bread and Freedom Party made an effort to seek justice, the investigation was modeled on the criminal justice system, which assumes that both parties are able to be represented equally, and ignores the power dynamics between them. After communications between the investigative committee and the complainant had reached a stalemate — when the complainant felt unsafe and unheard, as she later reported in a statement — the investigation proceeded without her involvement, to the detriment of all parties.

But some seem to protest the fact that justice need not to be survivor-centric. For many, transformative justice mechanisms that are geared towards providing the appropriate measures for survivors to engage in the process jeopardize the defendant’s right to a fair investigation. While, it is easy to sympathize with this argument in its pursuit of justice for all, this reasoning simply mimics the criminal justice system’s blindness to power. Furthermore, it also assumes that being survivor-centric denies defendants their rights. Cases like that of the Chrysalis Collective mentioned previously, which managed to create two sets of teams — a survivor support group and an accountability group — prove how there can always be creative ways to acknowledge power imbalances while also being fair to all parties.

Being survivor-centric means taking into account power imbalances between the female complainant and the two accused male members of the party, both in terms of gender, but also in terms of social power that comes from one of the defendants being a party leader and the other a member of a prominent party. Additionally, an individual who is in a position of power, a moral authority, someone who is financially responsible for the other person, or that is involved in a framework of professional cooperation, bears greater responsibility to be cautious in their conduct. This disparity, which is central in the case of the Bread and Freedom Party, is at the heart of the critiques of the criminal justice system mimicked by the investigation. This became particularly obvious in relation to two aspects: how the committee understood notions of consent, and the investigative strategies it adopted.

Consent and messy relations: What transformative justice offers

Criminal law, as Rape Justice suggests, utilizes an overly simplistic consent/coercion dichotomy, founded on the assumption that consent is always clearly articulated. But many of the discussions surrounding the “Me Too” campaign that have emerged in recent months have highlighted the complexity of consent and the need to consider the messiness of personal relations. As Connie Burk from NW notes, this includes instances where the lines around consent are blurry. This messiness requires working with a context specific understanding of justice that transformative justice offers, but which the Bread and Freedom Party failed to acknowledge.

For instance, the medical expert that the investigative committee consulted argued that the complainant’s levels of intoxication, given her inability to drive her car, would likely make her unable to recall events, and hence placed doubt on her narrative. But this erroneous conception of consent negates what many feminists have established and advocated for decades (and which some criminal courts worldwide take into account), which is that intoxication places the responsibility on the party that is sober to discontinue engaging in sex. As the intoxicated person becomes incapable of clearly expressing their desire, the moral duty thus falls on the sober party not to proceed.

Although the committees’ report acknowledges that the defendant was morally obliged not to engage in any sexual activity given the complainants’ vulnerable state, the committee still questioned the woman’s account, and held both parties equally responsible. This is contrary to global precedents, which have found that alcohol and drug use incriminates the sober party, and not the drunken one. It is quite interesting, however, that the “expert” selected by the committee to assess the situation was a medical professional. While medical professionals are certainly important in some contexts, giving them the only “expert” say in assessing complex situations takes us back to the age of enlightenment, when doctors monopolized authority over our bodies. Transformative justice mechanisms, if deployed here, would have encouraged a broader scope of morality that is not exclusive to medical opinions, but rather to social reckonings of power and vulnerability.

The need for a contextual assessment of power and vulnerability extends also to understanding survivors’ complex reactions to sexual violence. In the Bread and Freedom Party case, the complainant was criticized by the public for not fleeing or screaming for help when she claimed to have been raped. That she did not terminate the sexual act was perceived by some as an indication of her consent. Moreover, the committee reproached the witnesses present in the house, though not in the room, for not interfering to stop the rape. Their assumption that the witnesses should have interfered is built on popular but mistaken imaginations that rape victims can always protest and call for help.

This ignores what transformative justice experiences have called trauma-centric understandings of consent. When a person’s wishes to not engage in sex are ignored and they engage in non-consensual sex, they, in many cases, experience traumatic effects, in which psychological responses — as documented by the DSM, the main psychological manual acknowledged in the profession — include flight and freeze. Flight, for instance, is not necessarily physical, it can take the form of dissociation, where the person mentally exits the situation but remains physically in it. The gravity of the situation should not be underestimated. The trauma of rape has been compared to the trauma experienced in war, and has been documented at length in Judith Herman’s account Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Abuse to Political Terror. But some commentators also blamed the complainant for engaging in sexual relations with her abuser following the sexual assault, and took this as a sign of her consent.  This again ignores, as Herman suggests in her work, that women sometimes remain in relationships where they have been abused or raped in an attempt to overcome the abuse and challenge their victimization.

The case of the Bread and Future Party shows how transformative justice mechanisms could widen the possibilities of accounting for vulnerabilities and power differences that are behind much of the messiness in making sense of consent. But some people are unhappy about the need to continuously check that consent has been given. They argue it is “damaging to intimacy” and “turns sex into a mechanical transaction.” However, in a context where sexual violence is rampant, and where major offenses are often committed by well-meaning people, it is surely better to ask again and again than to infer. One Facebook commentator suggested that these conditions may make men more hesitant in pursuing intimate relationships, or apprehensive in flirting with women. But this, he proposed, was surely no disaster, and perhaps is the price to be paid by men, at least in the short term, until the power imbalance is redressed. 

Justice for survivors, justice for communities: The long road ahead

The accusations brought against members of the Bread and Freedom Party and the investigation and discussions that ensued have been deeply troubling for many who feel they are a part of Egyptian civil society. For many, the complainant spoke of abuses she had silently endured. For others, too many people paid a price for a wider and systemic social problem. Many felt justice was not served. Most felt attacked, unheard and unrepresented. However, the process, as this article has tried to argue, also shows that there is still much to learn. Exploring approaches such as transformative justice and accountable communities offers potentials and possibilities, even when these approaches do not, of course, offer comprehensive solutions. What these mechanisms affirm, however, is that there can be no community justice without survivor-centric justice. But survivor-centric justice is wishful thinking if accountability is not a regular praxis of individuals and organizations.

Of course, in the end, survivors should choose if they wish to use the criminal justice system. For some, having the state acknowledge the atrocities they have experienced is crucial to feeling vindicated and to keeping their abusers at bay. Others, however, decide to spare their abusers prison punishments and prefer to engage in community-based justice investigations. Egyptian law at least offers the opportunity for organizations to reprimand their members outside the criminal justice system — without, of course, being in violation of it. But these are not and should not be the only forms of justice for survivors. For some survivors, justice is seeking a public apology, for others it is creating communities that discuss matters such as consent in intimate relations. For others, healing comes from regaining control over the narrative of sexual violence that is sometimes tied to attempts to raise awareness about it. Project Unbreakable, for instance, where survivors quote the words of their sexual abusers on signs and are then photographed holding them — often while the posters cover their faces — is a great example of this attempt to regain agency and control over the narrative. For other survivors, inflicting physical or emotional pain on their abusers, such as in the case of India’s Gulabi Gang, is the only way to affirm that they will no longer tolerate domestic abuse.

Feminists and women’s rights organizations in Egypt have had small wins in certain aspects of combating sexual violence within civil society over the last few decades. Having worked on changing the discourse around sexual harassment by encouraging people to label such incidents as harassment, instead of simply calling them “flirtation,” (mu’aksa), they have widened the term to include more than the sexual molestation of children, which (taharrush) harassment had been strictly used for. During the 2011 revolution, direct intervention squads that stepped in to stop sexual harassment and assault and to rescue survivors during demonstrations were crucial in creating a public discourse about sexual violence. These wins are important, but, as the case of the Bread and Freedom Party suggests, there is still a long way to go. The resignation of a key party leader may be a step in the right direction in acknowledging the gravity of such situations, but the ghastliness of sexual violence requires much more work to sustain a culture of personal and community accountability.

Alternative justice mechanisms are not easy to adopt, of course. The case of the Bread and Freedom Party shows how tricky and demanding it is to implement these types of mechanisms. The party was pressured by the public to produce a report as quickly as possible, particularly because the assumption was that they were not going to investigate the case, given the history of silencing those who speak up against sexual violence, and that one of the accusations was directed against the party leader. To show their willingness to take the issue seriously, the party proceeded with the case without the complainant’s testimony, referring only to the incidents she reported in her email. This remains one of the deepest flaws of the process: it failed to be survivor-centric. While the Bread and Freedom Party bears the largest responsibility for failing to make the complainant safe and able to participate in the process, the entire case also showed that establishing communities that are accountable and instilling trust in alternative justice mechanisms takes a lot of time and effort. Perhaps what would have served the community and complainant best would be to have taken as much time as necessary to generate safe mechanisms that would have made the complainant able to participate. This would have probably only been possible if measures to create accountable communities had been established through regular and open communication within the Bread and Freedom Party, and if skills had been accumulated over the years through creating more accountable civil society organizations and communities. This, however, confirms that grappling with alternative forms of justice is demanding, messy and, if anything, requires unwavering willfulness.

More than 20 years after Arwa Saleh’s publication of the Stillborn, of one the most heartbreaking testimonies of sexual violence within Egyptian civil society, there is perhaps a bit more hope now that things are beginning to change. But we remain far from being able to say that the times when men had complete impunity in public life are behind us.

Dina Makram Ebeid