By Mona Eltahawy
June 20, 2014
There is a fierce battle raging in Egypt, and it’s not the one between Islamists and military rulers — the two factions that dominate most coverage of my country these days. The real battle, the one that will determine whether Egypt frees itself of authoritarianism, is between the patriarchy — established and upheld by the state, the street and at home — and women, who will no longer accept this status quo.
In recent weeks, Egypt has criminalized the physical and verbal harassment of women, setting unprecedented penalties for such crimes. But celebrations for the election and inauguration of our new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, were marred by sexual assaults, including a gang rape, in Tahrir Square. Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report on what it has called an “epidemic of sexual violence” in Egypt. A few days later, yet more sexual violence took place at a march against sexual violence.
In March, I interviewed dozens of women in Egypt, Jordan, Libya and Tunisia for a BBC World Service radio documentary called “The Women of the Arab Spring.” Many told me that very few things had changed for the better in their lives since the uprisings that began in Tunisia in December 2010, but that the revolutions had created a new and combustible power: the power of their rage and the need to use it.
“My personal revolution began 11 years ago, when I began to say ‘no’ to many things in my family,” said Nesma el-Khattab, 24, a lawyer who works at a center for women and children in a disadvantaged neighborhood in northern Cairo. “Then the revolution came and I began to say ‘I demand.”’ Ms. Khattab was subjected to genital cutting at age 9, and says she has threatened to “turn the house upside down” if her younger sisters are also cut. According to a 2008 demographic health survey in Egypt, 91.1 percent of women ages 15 to 49 had been subjected to genital mutilation.
Genital cutting is one of the patriarchy’s violations of female bodies at home. It does not spare them in public, either. Witness the mob sexual assaults that hound women whenever they congregate in large numbers, be it to celebrate or to protest. Between February 2011 and January 2014, at least 500 women were sexually assaulted by mobs in Egypt and thousands of women were subjected to sexual harassment, according to Egyptian rights groups.
Sexual violence is not exclusive to Egypt, of course. The phrase “rape culture” is used to connect examples of sexual violence around the world because it is important that discussions are not reduced to “their men: bad” and “our men: good.” But it is equally important to examine the particulars of sexual violence in Egypt.
In November 2011, during protests on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near Tahrir Square, riot police officers beat me, broke my left arm and my right hand and sexually assaulted me; their supervising officer threatened me with gang rape. I was detained for six hours by the Interior Ministry, and for another six by military intelligence officers who blindfolded and interrogated me. I was denied medical attention during those 12 hours.
Egypt’s traditional, conservative culture teaches us not just that speaking out about such assaults is shameful, but that being the victim of sexual assault is shameful. Since 2011, however, more women are voicing anger. After a female TV journalist reported on last week’s gang rape at Tahrir, a female news anchor giggled on air and said that people were just having fun. A huge outcry led to her suspension.
Mr. Sisi became the first Egyptian president to acknowledge sexual violence when he paid a visit to the victim of that gang rape, who was recovering in a hospital, and apologised to her. Mr. Sisi vowed to take “very decisive measures” to combat sexual violence and, addressing Egypt’s judges, said, “Our honor is being violated on the streets, and that is not right.” But it is women’s bodies that are being violated, not our “honour” or Egypt’s honour.
Mr. Sisi was the head of military intelligence in March 2011 when 17 female activists detained at protests were subjected to “virginity tests” by the military. The women were vaginally examined against their will by military doctors. Mr. Sisi justified the tests at the time, saying they were to safeguard the military against accusations of rape — as if only virgins could technically be raped. In other words, the Egyptian military sexually assaulted Egyptian women so that they could not “falsely” accuse officers of sexual assault.
Since Mr. Sisi overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, women who are affiliated with Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement — which has been outlawed as a “terrorist group” — have also said they have been subjected to “virginity tests.” It does not matter where you stand on Egypt’s political spectrum: If you are a woman, your body is not safe.
During a 2005 protest, our former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, used pro-regime thugs to sexually assault female journalists and activists. Police officers themselves also routinely sexually harass women. And at the state-authorized march against sexual violence last Saturday, two activists were detained for holding banners that read, “Remember Interior Ministry harassment.” When the state violates women with such impunity, it should not come as a shock when the street does as well.
We need a comprehensive campaign that tackles sexual violence with a focus on aiding the survivor rather than blaming her. It was good to see the attorney general call for an investigation into a hospital that reportedly refused to treat a sexual assault survivor last week. Hospitals do not have rape kits, and medical personnel are unprepared to deal with survivors of sexual violence. After my release from detention, when I told the E.R. nurse who treated me that the police had sexually assaulted me, she asked, “Why didn’t you resist?”
Mohamed Ibrahim, the interior minister, said this week that he would create a new department to combat violence, including sexual assault and harassment, against women. But throwing men in jail must not be considered a panacea. Accountability is necessary, but we also need a societal shift that aims for both justice and respect for women. I know that will take a long time.
We must connect domestic violence, marital rape and female genital mutilation with street sexual violence and clearly call them all crimes against women. And just as we stood next to men to overthrow President Mubarak, we need men to stand alongside us now. Where is their outrage? Do they want to be synonymous with a hatred of women?
“The revolution hasn’t reached our homes yet,” said Amira, 34, who attended a recent self-defence event in Cairo with her 4-year-old daughter, Fairouz. “Because some of the men who participated in the revolution, who act like liberals outside the house — inside the house they are no liberals.”
Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American writer and the author of the forthcoming book “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.”