afternoon in Cairo this summer, a young woman was brutally gang-raped in a
crowd. Stumbling, badly hurt, into a subway station in search of help, she was
subjected to humiliating examinations at the hands of skeptical authorities.
Later, she would be beaten once more by her own "dishonored" family.
This story was told to me by someone intimately acquainted
with its details, but who asked that the specifics be withheld to protect the
victim. Heartbreaking anecdotes such as this have become all too familiar in
Egypt over recent years. These attacks usually go unreported in the media, but talk
of them nevertheless circulates widely through the country's garrulous streets,
becoming an increasingly inescapable part of the national conversation. This
growing public perception of sexual harassment is now inspiring many ordinary
Egyptians to become active parts of the solution. As awareness intensifies and
coalitions coalesce, equality may soon be on the rise at last.
said there is a long road ahead. While Egypt's political rollercoaster -- from
autocratic strongman, to flawed democracy, to military rule -- has created a
great many uncertainties, limitations on women in the public sphere, and
rampant sexual harassment have remained tragic constants throughout.
On Nov. 12, Reuters released a
surveyed over 330 gender experts from around the Arab world in an effort to
establish a ranking of the region's countries regarding women's rights and
gender equality. Citing sky-high rates of female genital mutilation, anemic
legal protections, ubiquitous sexual harassment, and limited professional
prospects for women, the survey's respondents ranked Egypt 22nd out of 22
countries. Dead last.
As if that fact weren't depressing
enough, many of the reported statistics underlying this finding are themselves
harrowing in the extreme. In 2012 UNICEF found that, nationwide, 91 percent
of women between ages 15 to 49 had suffered female genital mutilation. And
according to a United Nations report
from April 2013, over 99 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed
at some point, nearly all of them physically.
Yet by some accounts, it wasn't
always this bad.
"In 1957, the Nasser Constitution
declared women to be the equals of men, and, by the 1970s, the Sadat government
was already appointing female ambassadors and ministers," says Sallama Shaker,
a visiting professor at Yale University, a former ambassador, and Egypt's first
female deputy minister of foreign affairs. "Later, First Lady Suzanne
Mrs. Sadat before her, personally oversaw an enhancement of women's integration
into the economic life and development of Egypt ... raising
the fact that women's rights are human rights."
So what happened? Shaker's take is
that the current plight of women in Egypt was brought
about, or at least greatly exacerbated, by the Arab Spring and
the advent of electoral democracy under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood. "While
women played a very critical role in the uprisings of 2011," she says, "Morsi's
regime denied women rights that had been granted to them as far back as Nasser."
Of course, some scholars have argued
that the short-lived
2012 Morsi constitution was not all that textually dissimilar to its 1971
predecessor when it came to women's rights. It likewise bears remembering that
the ancien régime under Mubarak was certainly not without its own high-profile scandals
of sexual abuse by state authorities. That said, having more
conservative-minded Muslim Brotherhood allies in power did seem
to call into doubt women's ability to invoke the law
societal equalizer, or even as a shield against abuses
such as marital rape.
But Shaker finds cause for optimism
in the Constitution Drafting Committee. Recent revisions to
Article 11 of the newly drafted Egyptian Constitution, which will be submitted
for final ratification over the next few months, now includes a commitment to "achieving
equality between women and men in all of the civil, political, economic,
social, and cultural rights mentioned in this constitution." Shaker likewise
characterizes the committee itself as including several "prominent" activists,
and considers its chairman, Amr
Moussa, to be a firm believer in women's rights. "The challenges
remain immense," Shaker admits, "but the women of Egypt have been securing
their rights since 1919, and there is no turning back. The djinn is out of the
Other voices are less sanguine,
however, both about the past and the political future. According to Rebbeca
Chiao, the co-founder of HarassMap,
a leading effort to address sexual harassment and assault in Egypt, most of the
high profile initiatives from the period predating the Arab Spring were more
flash than substance. For a government often under international pressure to
make democratizing reforms of some kind, women's rights were seen as a safe
avenue for doing so. There would be billboards, public discussions, and perhaps
some superficial progress on the legal side (rapists could no longer escape
punishment by marrying their victim, for example), but
these changes rarely translated into significant benefits on the ground.
"When it comes to women's rights and
sexual harassment, things have been getting worse for decades," she explains. "The problem
has nothing to do with who's in power, but with society itself."
In fact, Chiao reports that some of
the worst harassment she's ever seen took place on the very day Morsi left
power. The celebratory atmosphere of the mass gatherings so emblematic to
Egypt's 2011 and 2013 uprisings were accompanied by chilling
displays of sexual violence. "People were happy, there were fireworks, celebrating on the
streets.... Harassment became just another part of the party."
Chiao recalls: "There were
women of all ages and backgrounds being violently attacked by a mob in full
view of thousands of people. Scores of men would single out one woman and
attack her sexually. A lot of these were rapes with fingers -- some even with
knives. Many victims needed multiple surgeries afterwards, and practically
nobody helped. Bystanders are the real problem. Not laws."
international media coverage of the uprisings, along with high profile cases of
Western journalists being sexually assaulted, have helped draw attention to the
issue, most attacks occur far away from both the press and the authorities. The
crisis is likewise deeply rooted, and it permeates all levels of society
irrespective of age, class, or region. While it is often suggested that
criminals specifically target unveiled women who are considered "atheists" (a
term that bears a negative connotation in Egypt, almost on par with a slur),
and that veiled women are protected by their religious adherence, this is
"Many men have this mentality that a
woman is herself responsible for harassment, particularly if she 'tempts' men
with how she dresses," Mariam Ibrahim, a graphic designer based in Cairo,
explains. "Yet my sense is that veiled women, often from lower social strata,
actually get harassed more than do more westernized, middle class women, since
they're perceived as safer targets. There's a greater possibility of them
having nobody to back them up from a socially connected family."
the problem is social, perhaps the solution can be as well. Activists such as Ms.
Chiao and her colleagues very much believe this to be the case. "There is
such a diverse and dynamic group of people working in Egypt on these issues
right now," she says, "one organization isn't going to change everything, but a
diversity of people and of voices can."
And that diversity is growing. Among
her volunteers, at HarassMap, she says, more than 50 percent are now men, who
are part of "a new generation that doesn't look at women, or their rights, as a
means to an end."
One such young man is the 26-year-old
Ahmed el-Habibi. "We must all be proactive and positive, and take action
when we see incidents on the street instead of so readily blaming the victims,"
he tells me. "Women are the engine of change in all societies, and if we do not
stand with them there can be no real change of any sort in Egypt."
Today, men like Habibi are increasingly
lending their own strength to a coalition of women that is ever more insistent and
assertive in defending their rights and proliferating messages of gender equality
and justice. Deena Mohamed, a 19-year-old student and illustrator, recently
headlines when her web comic, Qahera,
went viral. Qahera features an eponymous hijab-wearing, ass-kicking
superheroine that prowls Egypt's streets, wreaking havoc on misogynists, sexual
harassers, and Islamophobes alike. (In the photo above, Qahera protects a woman from harassment.)
Referring to her work in the context
of Egypt's recent upheavals, Mohamed rightly points out that women's
empowerment has at long last becoming a powerful topic of conversation in Egypt
today. "For a brief moment during the revolutions, Egyptians were in an
atmosphere that seemed to welcome change, and this helped bring down a lot of
barriers and taboos. Harassment is being talked about now, openly. Young people
are increasingly championing women's rights, but change needs to come from within
the system as well."
And perhaps it will. Charles
Caleb Colton, a 19th century British admirer of
Egypt, once said of the Nile that it "begins in minuteness but ends in
magnificence." As more and more Egyptian men and women stand together on
behalf of the rights and dignity of both sexes, we can be hopeful that their
efforts may chart a similar course. Twice now, the youth of Egypt has shown
itself capable of mobilizing
to topple a government. Whether they can also take down an entrenched regime of
socially institutionalized sexism remains to be seen. Should they succeed, it would
truly be their most astounding revolution to date.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a
fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project, and a 2013 recipient of a Gabr
Fellowship, an initiative dedicated to
fostering good will between Egypt and the West. He tweets at @Dlansberg.
Deena Mohamed, Qahera