Women in Egypt
Harassed, Mutilated and Disenfranchised

By Annette Langer (Text) and Roger Anis (Photos)

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Part 1

Violence Against Women

"As an Egyptian woman, you spend your entire life dealing with sexual violence."

Sexual harassment is part of everyday life in Egypt and gang rapes continue to shock the country. Where does this excessive violence come from?


When was she first sexually harassed? Nour energetically sips her mint lemonade through a straw. "When I was eight," she says, as she eyes a passing group of young men who are talking boisterously and blatantly staring at her.

It's a hot and humid evening in downtown Cairo. The air is filled with the usual sound of hundreds of blaring car horns, and Nour has to speak loudly to make herself heard above the din. Unlike many Egyptian women who suffer in silence, though, she is determined to speak -- and be heard.

She recalls going to the Shubra area east of the Nile to buy drawing paper for school, when she ran into a roughly 60-year-old man struggling with two heavy shopping bags. "Give me a hand!" he said to her, and Nour dutifully carried the bags to his house. On the way there, the man placed a hand on her shoulder. Then she says his hands wandered across her entire body. "I simply froze," Nour says. "He wanted to take me to his apartment. That's when I started crying."

Nour was lucky, at least this time. Friends of her parents came by and confronted the groper. A heated argument ensued, and shortly thereafter the man moved out of the neighborhood. Nobody filed a complaint with the police or talked about the incident. Nobody told her this wouldn't happen again, either -- the daily gauntlet was only beginning for Nour.

Nour

"As an Egyptian woman, you spend your entire life dealing with sexual violence," says the 24-year-old. "My mother is in her mid-fifties and she still gets harassed." According to a 2013 study by the United Nations, more than 99 percent of all Egyptian women have been the victim of harassment -- which is to say, basically all of them.

According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Cairo is the most dangerous megacity in the world for women.

Nobody knows how often children are the victims of harassment. The Twitter hashtag "The first time I was confronted with sexual harassment was…" first made the extent of the problem clear in 2014. Countless women tweeted that they had been assaulted before they reached school age.

The #MeToo debate shows that sexual violence is suppressed, covered up and downplayed even in societies with functioning democratic institutions. Egypt shows how much more difficult the struggle against patriarchal culture is in an autocracy -- in an unstable country that is plagued by terrorism and embroiled in countless conflicts, and where the opposition is quashed and human rights are systematically violated.

In a cynical move, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has declared 2017 the "Year of the Woman." The problem goes far beyond tongue-flicking, whispers, vulgar come-ons and groping. The gang rapes on Tahrir Square during the demonstrations for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and in support of his Islamist successor Mohamed Morsi sparked global outrage -- but were only the tip of the iceberg.

This type of mob violence against women has marred public gatherings for many years. The culprits often include state-sponsored provocateurs who, regardless of who happens to be in power, are hired to infiltrate and disrupt protests, discredit the opposition and, through systematic scaremongering, exclude women from the political process. According to a report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the so-called Baltagiya -- thugs and gangs employed by the government -- have existed since the 1990s. The report says that sexual violence is a "historic weapon of the Egyptian authorities," regardless of who happens to be in power.

Mob rapes are often more brutal and dangerous than assaults by individuals, and experts say that opportunistic crowds often participate in these assaults. The perpetrators egg each other on and humiliate and dehumanize their victims. After these attacks, the members of the crowd are said to feel a sense of exhilaration comparable to the jubilation of winning a sporting event.

But it's not just these acts of excessive violence that are frightening. The pervasive violence and contempt that Egyptian women experience on a daily basis makes their lives a living hell.

Nour

"I try to come across as self-confident," says Nour, "but as soon as a man stares at me, I get nervous." Last summer, she went to a party in Faisal, a neighborhood of Gizeh, far from the center of Cairo. It was on the day after Ramadan, when Muslims are not expected to fast any longer, and the streets were filled with relaxed revelers. At around 2 a.m., Nour wanted to take a taxi home when a man, who she had previously rebuffed, forced his way into the vehicle and tried to pull her out of the car by her legs and a necklace.

"I fought back with tooth and nail, and the taxi driver tried to throw the attacker out of the car, but then he pulled out a knife and threatened to kill us." The taxi was surrounded by gawkers who, instead of helping, joined the orgy of violence, tried to pull Nour out of the vehicle and ended up smashing its rear window. "It was total chaos, I was covered with broken glass, and I just screamed until I managed to get into an auto rickshaw hired by a married couple who protected me from the mob."

Afterward, nothing was the same. Nour hid herself and didn't venture outside for two weeks. She had nightmares, panic attacks and became depressed. A doctor prescribed medication that she has now stopped taking. "It's not good for me -- I need to have a clear head." Nour is now severely limited in her movements. She avoids places, people and situations that are reminiscent of the traumatic attacks. Her life is governed by fear.

Nour didn't go to the police -- what was the point? "When you are out alone at two in the morning, you're seen as a prostitute," she says. "If you're attacked, it's your own fault." The furious taxi driver went to the police station, where he was told, "Don't get so worked up, we're not going to write a report for a girl like that." Then he was sent home.

Military Government

According to Article 306 of the penal code, sexual harassment is punishable by up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds (about 2,400 euros) and a prison sentence ranging from six months to five years.

Feminist Mozn Hassan fought long and hard for this amendment to the law in 2014. "Legal punishments work because they carry a stigma for the perpetrator," she says. But she adds that they are largely ineffective if predatory men don't understand why they are in the wrong. "We live in a culture of sexual violence. Our society accepts the disrespectful treatment of women. That needs to change."

Mozn Hassan

In Egypt, where over 85 percent of women are victims of genital mutilation and domestic violence is endemic, the female body is all too often demoted to a mere object that is subject to the whims of men. To make matters worse, Hassan says that survivors of sexual assaults are stigmatized. "No woman will talk about her experiences or report these incidents to the police if she knows that she will be regarded with contempt by everyone around her."

Not surprisingly, many perpetrators get off scot-free. "The regime isn't interested in enforcing these laws," says Hassan. But the autocratic government apparently has no trouble passing off this legislation as a serious reform initiative.

Victim Blaming

Two gender equality organizations, UN Women and Promundo, have conducted a survey of masculinity and gender relations in the Middle East and North Africa. The study has revealed that 43 percent of Egyptian men believe that women like to be sexually harassed, supposedly because they enjoy the "attention." Approximately two-thirds of the male respondents admitted to having sexually harassed women, and more than three-quarters blamed their behavior on "women's provocative clothing."

It's worth noting how little solidarity exists among women: Eighty-four percent of Egyptian women believe that "women who dress provocatively deserve to be harassed."

The propensity for violence in Egyptian society appears to be generally rather high: Half of the men admitted to being violent with their wives on at least one occasion. Ninety percent of the men, but also 70 percent of women respondents, believe that women should "tolerate violence to keep the family together."

With their traditional beliefs, women are also fueling inequality and violence: Sixty percent of female respondents believe that "if a woman is raped, she should marry her rapist."

There are, so it would seem, many ostensible justifications for raping a woman. A lawyer named Nabih al-Wahsh said on a talk show that there was absolutely no problem with abusing women who wear jeans with holes in them. "Sexually harassing these kinds of girls is a patriotic duty, and raping them is a national duty," he said. The subsequent uproar on social media showed that, at least in some segments of Egyptian society, people are fully aware of the dangers of this extreme type of misogynist thinking. In this case, the state prosecutor pressed charges against the lawyer, who was sentenced to three years in prison in early December.

A video in which adolescent boys talk about sexual harassment shows how deeply rooted "victim blaming" is in Egyptian culture and how early stereotypes about women are formed.

'Purely Symbolic' Government Action

The regime of President el-Sissi is doing everything in its power to ensure that it has the final word on the issue of women. Its flagship is the National Council for Women (NCW), which was founded in 2000 at the instigation of then-President Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne.

Former diplomat Mervat Tallawy of the left-liberal Social Democratic Party is the grande dame of the Egyptian women's movement. A representative of the old regime and a close friend of Suzanne Mubarak, whose dedication to women's rights she expressly praises, Tallawy led the NCW from 2012 to 2016. "During its one year in power, but also before that, the Muslim Brotherhood did everything it could to prevent gender equality," says the 80-year-old activist. Tallawy says that the religious extremists turned back the wheel of time. "It's terrible -- we were more liberal in the 1960s and 1970s than today."

The political agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood included lowering the minimum age for marriage from 18 to 12, abolishing women's right to divorce and decriminalizing the practice of female genital mutilation. The duration of a mother's custody of her daughter was to be reduced from 15 to seven years.

Tallawy's successor at the NCW, Maya Morsy, has a more positive take on the situation for women in the country. Maya maintains that "only" 9.6 percent of Egyptian women were harassed in 2016 and contends that the UN's figures are clearly biased. She points out that in 2015 the el-Sissi government launched an initiative to combat violence against women, but Amnesty International has described the move as "purely symbolic."

In the struggle to keep conservative and Islamist elements of society in check, the defense of women's rights appears to be the first thing that the government is prepared to sacrifice to secure its grip on power. When he was the leader of the military intelligence service in 2011, el-Sissi explicitly approved conducting "virginity tests" on female pro-democracy demonstrators. El-Sissi attempted to justify this abusive treatment by claiming that the army doctors needed to prove that the women hadn't been raped by soldiers.

The National Council for Women is now seen as an extension of the military government. Critics contend that the organization lacks political will, effective measures and transparency. They say that allegations of sexual crimes by security forces are not adequately investigated. When Human Rights Watch denounced widespread torture by police and state security officials in early September, the human rights committee of the Egyptian parliament called it "a pile of lies aimed at tarnishing Egypt's reputation."

Activists from many non-governmental organizations say that the regime is massively impeding their work. Mozn Hassan's NGO, Nazra, which provides victims of sexual violence with legal, medical and therapeutic help, is among those being targeted by the crackdown. Hassan has not been allowed to leave the country since June 2016, and her personal and professional bank accounts have been frozen.

A law that came into force in May allows the authorities to supervise the work and financing of NGOs and, if deemed necessary, shut them down. "It's about stopping our work, but also destroying our reputation. The government wants to portray us as corrupt thieves," says Hassan.

The feminists at Nazra are fighting on a number of fronts: They are labeled as whores, vilified by pro-regime media and branded as Westernized traitors by Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood. When Nazra activists spoke out about the sexual harassment and rapes that took place during the protests of the pro-democracy movement in 2011, they were accused of tainting the ideals of the revolution. The work continues, but it is difficult. The repression is clearly crippling the country.

What Role Does Religion Play?

Nour is a young Christian who dresses in Western style and doesn't like being patronized. Do these kinds of things play a role in the sexual attacks in the Muslim country?

"Sexual harassment in Egypt has nothing to do with religion," says journalist and Coptic Christian Karoline Kamel. Muslim women who wear hijabs, she says, are harassed just as often as women of other faiths, not to mention atheists. Likewise, the risks appear to increase if women are wearing more Western and revealing clothing.

Kamel was first inappropriately touched by a man when she was five years old, and she had other unpleasant experiences in the chaotic period after Mubarak was toppled in 2011. "During the revolution, we only dreamed of freedom, of finally being able to walk through the streets in a miniskirt, without being harassed," says the 32-year-old. She says this dream has now ended. "The situation for women in Egypt has, for as long as I can remember, only gotten worse."

She says the reason is simple: "It's about power. Egyptian men believe that women are their property. That's why they treat them like objects that they can manipulate and use as they please." The survey by UN Women and Promundo revealed that over 90 percent of all Egyptian men want to know where their wives are at all times, and want to control when they leave the house and what they wear. Ninety-six percent of men expect wives to agree to have sex whenever their husbands want it.

"It's the Aliens' Fault"

Anthropologist Angie Abdelmonem of Arizona State University argues that Western clothing can be interpreted by Egyptian men as a provocation because it is an expression of liberalism, which, she says, threatens to erode Muslim values. These men, she argues, are afraid of losing their identities.

Sociologists say that the economic situation in the country also adds to the growing sense of insecurity. In view of rampant unemployment and poverty, these academics argue that men can no longer fulfill their roles as the sole breadwinners. Likewise, for financial reasons people are getting married later and their entry into adult life is delayed. Researchers argue that sexual harassment is a way for males to publicly demonstrate that they are "real men" in this crisis of masculinity.

Mozn Hassan sees explanations like this as an attempt to make excuses for the perpetrators. "Families are not able to draw the connection between their private lives and public harassment. It's almost as if aliens had landed in Egypt, groped women, demeaned them, raped them and then climbed back into their UFOs and flown away. It is never their fathers, their brothers or their sons who are harassing women -- it is always some mysterious foreigner."

Map of Shame

A constant feature in the struggle against sexual harassment in Egypt is the HarassMap, a website where women and men can anonymously post places and times where they were sexually harassed. It's a kind of map of shame that has largely contributed to raising public awareness of the magnitude of the problem.

"When we started in 2010, sexual harassment was a total taboo," says Alia Soliman of HarassMap. "People were afraid to talk about it, privately and in public." She says this has now changed. "People are more willing to report crimes and to write about them on social media."

Soliman says that the recent flurry of reports and awareness campaigns has encouraged many bystanders to intervene when they see harassment or violence against women. "The intervention of passersby has proved to be very successful in the struggle against harassment."

HarassMap offers tips for anyone who no longer wants to watch helplessly as women are harassed. "Together, we can combat this epidemic," says Soliman.

It is remarkable what independent activists have accomplished in the struggle against sexual harassment. But it is no less remarkable how energetically the state is working to keep them from succeeding. Aside from jeopardizing women's safety and the country's social stability, this plays right into the hands of radical groups. "Whether in Egypt or other Arab societies -- if the situation for women doesn't improve, and if we fail to harness their potential, there will be no progress," says former NCW head Mervat Tallawy. "That's dangerous -- very dangerous."

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Harassed, Mutilated and Disenfranchised

Imprint


Author: Annette Langer

Photos: Roger Anis

Editing: Benjamin Schulz, Patricia Dreyer

Graphic and Programming: Dawood Ohdah

Photo-Editing: Ireneus Schubial

Layout: Hanz Sayami

Fact-Checking: Almut Cieschinger, Mara Küpper

Copy Editing: Lena Ekelund

Additional Photos: AFP, Reuters Getty Images/Corbis

Translation: Thomas Rogers



This story is part of the project Expedition BeyondTomorrow..