One of the most conspicuous issues coming to light after Egypt’s “Arab Spring” in 2011 and the more recent round of protests has been the high levels of violence directed towards women. Before I proceed, I want to acknowledge that a majority of Egyptian men present at the protests did not assault women and many acted to protect women and facilitate their involvement.
However, news reports of gang rapes became common during the protests that deposed former President Hosni Mubarak as well as those that preceded the ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The number of attacks against Egyptian and foreign women is astounding; in the security vacuum that occurred in major protest locations, Human Rights Watch reports that 91 women were assaulted in just four days during the last week of June.
This is symptomatic of a wide and dangerous phenomenon that is preventing women from taking part in the country’s revolutions, and will ultimately harm their opportunities for advancement in the future.
In the wake of the attacks, responses have oscillated between blaming religion and socio-economics. I would argue that a country’s treatment of women is largely based on culture and the position women have in it. Egyptian men didn’t begin to rape women because of the lack of security in Tahrir Square or because they were frustrated with the country’s economic stagnation. Violence against women stems from a lack of respect and a low position of women in society – a problem that takes shape long before protests begin.
Cultural acceptance of sexual violence has long been a known, if quiet, phenomenon in Egypt. Prior to the revolts, women were more likely to come to terms with their attacks in the offices of psychiatrists than they were in hospitals or police stations due to denial, victim-blaming, and other negative responses.
In the case of Egypt, women there say that sexual harassment has been a part of their daily lives for as long as they remember – in fact, some surveys show that as many as 99.3% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed. Some claim that protests worsen the situation because enormous groups of men gather, knowing they will not be caught or in most cases, even sought.
The acceptance of violence against women is seen at all levels of Egyptian society, which makes the phenomenon more difficult to fight. Of course police will ignore complaints and violent men will continue acting on their most brutal impulses when officials in the top echelons of government, such as the Salafist member of the Shura Council General Adel Afifi, say things like, “Women contribute 100% to rape because they put themselves in such situations [such as partaking in protests]”.
Female activists agree that the Islamist government and Muslim Brotherhood are not to blame for the violence as the culture resulting in such behavior took root long before the protests made mass gang-rapes easier. The only difference between then and now is that now there are gatherings of thousands of people without any police presence or accountability, which didn’t happen when the country was ruled by Hosni Mubarak.
Part of why Egyptian women are so frustrated at being treated poorly now is due to their active involvement in the overthrow of Mubarak. If women and men are standing together to get rid of a corrupt leader, why should those women later be thrown aside and worse, attacked? Unfortunately, one side effect of the violence is that women avoid protests and neglect to take part in revolutionary changes, which will only hurt their cause later on.
One way for women to strengthen their status in society is to gain economic power – in countries where women see increased economic participation they wind up with more power in the home, in the government, and in the boardroom.
In some cases, this could lead to an increase in violence if men feel threatened. In fact, many claim this is inevitable – men in Egypt get more violent the more women make themselves heard in these large protests. This echoes the evidence that, psychologically, rape is not about sex but about power and control. If men realize they cannot control the women in society, they might be more likely to lash out against them.
It is for this reason that men must be a part of the societal change. At a local level, they must intervene if they see violence against a woman taking place. But on a societal level, the issue is much larger – police need to be told that finding rapists is a priority, and hospital workers (as well as other officials) must be taught how to talk to women who have been attacked – they are more likely to go to the police or hospital if they know they won’t be blamed, told it is their fault, or asked why it happened.
In order to enact this change, women cannot shy away from being a part of the revolutionary movement, and instead continue to make themselves heard and ensure that new leaders have their interests in mind.
Women have every right to take part in the protests in Egypt, and officials have a role in making sure that it happens. Egyptians are seeking justice after decades of poor treatment at the hands of dictators. Why should women be exempt from this new wave of liberation and human rights?