The organization's office is located in one of Cairo's poorer neighborhoods. Dogs chase a herd of goats across the street, taxis zigzag between potholes and long, faded garments hang from a clothesline in an alleyway. The air reeks of exhaust fumes and garbage, and dust seems to work its way into every pore.
But step inside the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance (CEWLA) and it feels like you have entered a parallel universe. The rooms are bright and clean - the lawyers at the desks are young, dedicated and well-educated. Women who find themselves in dire predicaments come to the center to seek free legal advice and assistance. This includes teenagers like 16-year-old Sherifah.* Her case is being handled by CEWLA coordinator Nada Nashat, who tells the girl's story:
Sherifah was raped for the first time at the age of 12 - by an uncle who was living with her family in her grandmother's house. The man abused her regularly until she got pregnant at the age of 15. When Sherifah's condition could no longer be concealed, her mother found out what had happened. She brought the girl to an imam she trusted and asked for advice. "Your uncle is a devil," said the cleric, "but you're also going to hell because you stayed silent for three years." Then he sent the family to CEWLA to get legal advice.
The imam accused the frightened girl of attempting to cover up the sexual offense, as if she were an accomplice. But that wasn't Sherifah's only problem. There was no question of getting an abortion, which is an illegal procedure in Egypt, punishable by imprisonment or forced labor. The only accepted justification for a termination of pregnancy is if the mother's life, or that of the fetus, is in danger.
After the birth, pressing questions had to be addressed: Under what name should the infant be officially registered? "Since the baby resulted from a liaison that is classified as incestuous in Egypt, the young mother could not divulge the name of the biological father - otherwise she would have risked being sent to prison herself," says CEWLA coordinator Nashat.
Sherifah didn't want to give the child her own name because it would have been stigmatized as an illegitimate "bastard." Sherifah's parents could have given the child their name and basically raised it as their daughter's sibling. But even in that scenario, the biological mother would have run the risk of her and her parents being sent to prison if the ruse had been discovered.
Sherifah decided to file rape charges against her uncle. It was a courageous step that would cost the girl her family, her home and her reputation.
When the grandmother heard about the charges, she flew into a rage and attacked her daughter, Sherifah's mother, beating her and biting off a number of joints from the woman's fingers. Then she threatened to throw the entire family out of the house. The victim's father sided with the rapist. "I would rather kill you than send my brother-in-law to prison," he said. The grandmother offered to pay Sherifah compensation if she would withdraw the charges, and an agreement was reached. But it was too late. The case had already gone to court and the accused uncle was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Sherifah received death threats. The uncle appealed the court's decision. In a particularly absurd twist, as soon as he was out on bail, he said that he wanted to see his newborn son and take him into his family, where he already had a daughter.
In Sherifah's case, the rapist was convicted in the first instance according to Article 268 of the Egyptian Penal Code. This law states that raping or sexually assaulting a minor under the age of 16 is punishable by forced labor.
A decision has yet to be made in the appeals process filed by Sherifah's uncle, but he could very well get off with a lighter punishment. Under Article 17 of the penal code, a judge in a rape case can reduce a sentence, which means that the uncle could theoretically get off with as little as six months in prison.
Sherifah's pregnancy served as evidence of the crime, but in other cases it's often difficult to prove that a rape has occurred. There's a lack of credible physicians who can compile professional medical reports. To make matters worse, victims who live outside of major urban areas have little access to free legal advice, and the authorities generally provide them with no protection from the perpetrators.
Until 1999, Article 291 of the penal code allowed a rapist to avoid prosecution by marrying his victim. It was only thanks to years of dedicated work by women's rights activists that this article was finally revoked.
Sherifah has taken her child and gone into hiding from her own family. She lives in permanent fear of being discovered and now ekes out a living without any family or financial support. It is not a lifestyle that meets with approval in Egypt. Just last November, a TV presenter was sentenced to three years in prison for daring to talk about the advantages of being a single mom.
Sherifah's case highlights how many families in Egypt deal with rape, child abuse and violence in their own homes - they try to handle the matter on their own. People harbor a deep mistrust of the police and the justice system, and the social pressure is enormous.
"The victims don't dare to speak about what happened. They are terrified of being stigmatized," says Azza Soliman, a co-founder of CEWLA. "Entire families often turn against the victims. It can escalate to violence, and sometimes even murder. Our lawyers can also become a target if someone believes that they have to defend the family honor."
A survey taken of 450 students in 2012 at the University in Sohag, a city in central Egypt, revealed that nearly 30 percent of the respondents, men and women alike, had been the victims of various degrees of sexual abuse as children. The study is not representative, though, and in view of the widespread reluctance to file charges, it is estimated that the actual figure is much higher. Furthermore, even though child marriage is illegal in Egypt, it is still to a certain extent socially acceptable.
In the Egyptian Constitution of 2014, the state pledges to achieve equality between men and women (Article 11) and protect women against all forms of violence. At the same time, however, Article 2 of the Constitution states: "The principles of Islamic Sharia are the principle source of legislation." In practice, this means that court decisions are made with reference to governing law and, if necessary, underpinned by the Koran or the hadith.
In the charged arena between Western law and religious influence, there is a great deal of scope for interpretation and arbitrary discrimination. Corrupt judges are also a problem. Transparency International ranks Egypt 117 out of 180 countries on its annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI). In a comment presumably directed at the regime of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the watchdog organization said that corruption levels in the country remain high "in the absence of a real political will to fight it."
The National Council for Women (NCW) has presented a strategy for combating violence against women. Many ministries and representatives of diverse faiths have been invited to contribute to this campaign, which runs until 2020. Egypt also signed the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. But there remains a huge gap between the vision and the reality.
Soliman, the CEWLA co-founder, says: "Women continue to be discriminated against by the current laws. In cases of adultery, for example, they are given much harsher punishments than men."
The country's divorce laws have been particularly criticized. If a man no longer wishes to be married to his wife, he can demand a divorce and it becomes legally binding if he registers the divorce within 30 days. "A woman has to list five reasons for divorce and file a case in court. It can take years before a judge grants her a divorce," says Soliman. "The legal requirements for divorce could easily be changed," she contends, "but this would require the political will to do so."
Soliman is a Muslim and believes in "equality, fairness and justice under the Sharia." She says it's important to be familiar with fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, which gives lawyers a wide range of legal tools: "I'm interested in how I can use the Sharia to help women receive greater justice." For instance, she says that currently one out of every three Egyptian women has to raise her children alone: "Where are the men who, according to the Koran, should be looking after these mothers? I want answers to questions like this."
Soliman has been campaigning for judicial reform for many years - and this has evidently drawn the ire of the military government. The regime's crackdown on nongovernmental organizations has also targeted CEWLA. Bank accounts were frozen, the organization was forced to close offices and Soliman was slapped with a travel ban. This may have limited the mobility of this internationally networked legal expert, but it did not spell the end of her struggle.
"I was insulted and treated like a criminal, but I keep going. I'm prepared to make sacrifices for my dream - Egyptian women deserve a better life."
Speaking with Soliman, it becomes clear just how far removed Egypt is from the elaborate feminist discourses of the West. After all, Egyptian women are discriminated against not only by current legislation, but also by unwritten laws that have been handed down from generation to generation. This strict code of conduct has its roots in the patriarchal culture of the country and exerts enormous influence on society. For instance, women lawyers are in some instances not allowed to represent their clients in court after nightfall. The paternalistic reasoning behind this rule is that women have to be kept out of harm's way.
Many feminists like Soliman are essentially human rights activists on the front lines. "We live in a dictatorship," she says, adding that "nobody trusts the judiciary, the police or the courts." And she knows from firsthand experience why.
In January 2015, she witnessed the fatal shooting of a female acquaintance who was attending a demonstration in Cairo. She went to the police to make a statement and describe the perpetrator - supposedly a member of the security forces. But at the police station she was arrested and charged with disrupting the public order, despite the fact that she had not even taken part in the protest herself. Soliman was acquitted, but she remained deeply shaken by the experience.
"The violent death of the activist was a scandal, but the regime couldn't have cared less." The message was patently clear: "No one should ever think of staging a revolution again."
This is in fact the official view of President el-Sissi. When prominent politicians recently called for a boycott of the upcoming presidential elections in March, the former general said that there would never again be a revolution in Egypt like the one in 2011. "I would rather die than allow someone to jeopardize the country's security," he said.
And the enemy, so it would seem, is lurking everywhere.
Sara is a dentistry student. She is a delicate woman with small hands and long, fragile-looking fingers. The 23-year-old wears a hijab and silver-rimmed glasses that are slightly too large for her face. During the interview, she sinks into the cushions of the sofa and nervously clicks her fingernails while speaking. But Sara's apparent delicacy belies great resilience.
In 2014, she witnessed a demonstration on the campus of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. She was a bystander who had nothing to do with the event, as she points out. But a tiny detail became her undoing. On her lapel she was wearing a pin with the "R4BIA" symbol - a black hand with outstretched fingers and a folded thumb.
This emblem is interpreted in Egypt as an expression of solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood. It takes its name from Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, where Islamists held a sit-in that was brutally dispersed by security forces in August 2013. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed during the clashes.
Sara was wearing the button because she had been so shocked by the massacre. But since late December 2013 it had been illegal to show the "R4BIA" - with penalties of up to five years in prison for offenders - because the Muslim Brotherhood had been classified as a terrorist organization.
"I was 19 years old and I had no clue about politics," says Sara. She was addressed by a policeman and then three plainclothes officers emerged from the crowd and arrested her. "I was only standing near the demonstration. I never would have thought that they would just arrest me," she says. The student was held for a week at the police station, and then taken to a jail to await trial for another 15 days.
Sara was charged with wearing a terrorist symbol, inciting a riot, attacking a police officer and preventing students from taking their exams. "I've never scuffled with a policeman," says Sara, "and I've never incited anyone to do anything or prevented people from doing anything."
During Sara's first four months in detention, her parents were allowed to visit her once a week. Later, she was only allowed a visit every other week. "Every three or four weeks I would find myself in court, and with every hearing I thought I would finally be released. But I was wrong." Finally, she was sentenced to two-and-half years in prison, but on appeal it was reduced to one year.
The 19-year-old was sent to Cairo's Al-Qanater prison, which is notorious for its physical abuse and horrendous hygiene conditions. "I was beaten often," says Sara. "The guards dragged me through the room by my hair and smashed my head against the wall. That's how my right ear was damaged. I've been deaf on one side ever since." She says that the injuries were never documented and prison doctors refused to treat her. "When it was necessary, my father would bring me medicine and bandages."
Inmates in Egyptian prisons are regularly punched, kicked and beaten. Adequate medical treatment is a rarity. Prisoners often need outside help to get enough food, money and medicine to survive. When they are banned from having any outside contacts, they lose access to these essential items. Prisons are sometimes overcrowded by up to 160 percent of their capacity. The el-Sissi regime has had to build 19 new detention centers to house an estimated 60,000 political prisoners.
According to Human Rights Watch, torture is so pervasive in Egyptian prisons and police stations that it amounts to a crime against humanity. According to the independent Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr, in October 2017, 223 Egyptian prisoners went on hunger strike to protest arbitrarily extended pretrial detention periods, physical abuse and insufficient access to legal counsel. One of the protesters fell into a coma and died shortly thereafter.
President el-Sissi has expanded the authority of the country's military tribunals. Since 2014, these courts have handled over 7,400 trials of civilians. When the general was elected president in May 2014, Sara says that riots broke out in the women's wing of Al-Qanater after the guards had provoked the political prisoners. The subsequent punishments for these acts of defiance were draconian: "I had to live in the lavatory for two weeks. The women would go to the toilet and wash themselves while a guard kept an eye on me. I had to sleep on the floor."
When she was released from prison, more unpleasant surprises awaited her: "I had to interrupt my studies and was suspended for a semester," she says. "Now, everything is different. My friends have withdrawn - they're afraid to be seen with me. They have totally different interests, too. We've drifted apart. But even friends who share my political views are afraid."
How does she cope? "I'm not angry, just lost. I don't want revenge, but I want my rights. I was attacked by guards, yes, but also by female prisoners. I was sexually abused." When she asked her lawyer if she could sue for compensation, he only wearily shook his head and said: "Impossible."
*Sherifa's name has been changed by the editors in this story in order to protect her identity.
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
Translator: Paul Cohen
This story is part of the project Expedition BeyondTomorrow.