Egypt: Historically neglected, gender equality richly deserved & essential in rebuilding the nation Print E-mail

 17 - 23 February 2011 Issue No. 1035

Now for the gender revolution

Women were among the keenest demonstrators in Tahrir Square, and they have as important a role to play as men in rebuilding Egypt

By Fatma Khafagy*

Scroll down to also read Fatma Khafagy's analysis of "Violence Against Women" in the region
I want to see the opposite of what has always happened after revolutions take place now in Egypt. History tells us that women stand side by side with men, fight with men, get killed defending themselves and others along with men, and then nurse the wounded, lament the dead, chant and dance when the struggle is victorious and help to manage the aftermath when it is not. However, history also indicates that after the success of a political struggle, women are too often forced to go back to their traditional gender roles and do not benefit from the harvest of revolution.

I am sure the Egyptian revolution will not allow this to happen. In the same way that the Egyptian revolution was an inspiring pioneer movement in every sense of the word, it will also break new ground when it shows the world that women and men will be equal in all walks of life after the revolution as much as they were during it.

Young Egyptian women proved to be brave, effective, fervent, devoted and valuable partners in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in all the governorates during the revolution. All the divides that were institutionalised by the former corrupt regime in Egypt, intended to make us fight each other instead of fighting the real enemy, have now fallen.

During the 18 glorious days of the revolution, there was no divide between men and women, between Muslims and non-Muslims, between rich and poor and between the educated and the illiterate: all were undertaking the same responsibilities and acting freely by disregarding the conventional gender relations that have been entrenched in our minds by a vicious media, unethical education and an inconsistent political discourse. The former regime sometimes used religion and sometimes used culture to justify the strict gender division that put women aside and that prevailed for decades.

Despite the millions in Tahrir Square, women of all ages were treated with respect, and there was not a single case of sexual harassment reported. Some young women slept side by side at night in Tahrir Square, and women prayed side by side with men during Friday prayers. Men and women kissed one another when victory was achieved.

Before the revolution, no one could have thought that these things could happen. We spent much of our time as feminists counting cases of sexual harassment and trying to explain them. Other people kept themselves busy answering questions such as should women pray beside or behind men. Now, the revolution has put such petty discussions aside, and Egypt's young people have acted freely to throw away in 18 days what we have speculated about and analysed for decades. How can we now make ourselves useful to our revolutionary youth?

Let us examine the gender discrimination that prevailed in the pre-revolution era and was institutionalised by corrupt governmental institutions. The Egyptian family law has been in place since 1920 without change, and the parliament has refused to change it for almost a century. This law has discriminated against women in the private sphere and has enslaved them.

In addition, when a gender quota system was finally enacted for political institutions, the result was to increase the number of parliamentarians who belonged to the former ruling National Democratic Party, and it was in no sense an act of positive discrimination in favour of women. The government also insisted on keeping those who work in the informal sector of the economy, the majority of whom are women, unprotected by laws guaranteeing a decent level of pay or social and health insurance.

There is a high rate of illiteracy among women in Egypt, amounting to at least 30 per cent, and the rate of illiteracy among women is almost double that among men. These are only examples of institutionalised gender discrimination. Let us make use of the revolution to dismantle what the regime strived to do for decades, in other words to divide and rule. Let us use the revolution to free women in order to be able to stand side by side with men to rebuild a just and equal Egypt.

The Egyptian revolution, as I witnessed every day and night in Tahrir Square, was not only about getting rid of a political system. It was also about creating another more beautiful and just Egypt that would guarantee human rights to all its citizens. I saw young women discussing with young men what kind of life they wanted to achieve for Egypt. I feel sure that the gender equality that was witnessed in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt will now prevail because we need it to create a better Egypt.

I would like to seize this opportunity to ask all old and newly formed groups that support the 25 January Revolution to pay attention to the need to include women in their memberships and not only as a token. Let us aim to include at least 40 per cent women in all groups and organisations that support the young people in their revolution.

I would like to call on all the country's media, especially radio and television, to talk to women as much as you talk to men, put women in your pictures, interviews, programmes and talk shows. In whatever you do, act to confirm that the new Egypt will now be built by both women and men.

* The author is a women's rights activist and a board member of the Alliance for Arab Women.


14 - 20 December 2006 Issue No. 8

Violence against women

Poor record in addressing the gender-specific nature of violence against women

By Fatma Khafagy*

In 2001, UNICEF estimated that globally up to half of all women and girls in some countries have experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner or family member. Statistics based on research data from around the world show that violence against women generally occurs within the family.

(Moody Youssef)

At any given time, approximately 20 million of the 230 million women living within the European Union (EU) are facing situations of violence. On average, two women per week are killed in England and Wales by their partners/ex-partners. In Portugal a 1997 survey showed that 43 per cent of acts of violence were committed within the family. A Belgian study in 1998 indicated that 68 per cent of women had been victims of physical or sexual violence. At present there is more data available on gender- based violence in Europe. Such data is scarce in the majority of South Mediterranean countries.

Gender-based violence takes many forms in South Mediterranean countries. Within domestic the domain of violence, which takes place in the context of a close relationship, there are three main types. First, there is physical violence such as battering, hitting, burning, slapping, murder, honour killing and crimes of passion. The second type is sexual abuse, such as female genital mutilation, incest, enforced prostitution and forced sex. The third type is psychological abuse, such as criticism, humiliation, threats and verbal abuse, the destruction of personal belongings and accusations of mental illness.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is also a violation of the right of a woman to work in a safe and healthy environment. Equality in employment can be seriously impaired when women are subjected to gender-specific violence, such as sexual harassment at the workplace. Sexual harassment is also a tool to discourage women who may be seen to be competing for power at work.

Domestic violence is usually regarded in many parts of the South Mediterranean region as a private family affair. Sexual harassment is sometimes justified as being a form of flirting that women like.

Across the majority of the South Mediterranean countries there are three kinds of obstacles that make addressing domestic and sexual violence difficult: lack of reliable statistics and data; lack of effective legislation; and lack of sufficient good quality services for victims and survivors of violence.

Statistics on gender-based violence

Compiling reliable statistics on gender-based violence is often difficult. It is frequently regarded as a "private" affair. Data and information, however, should be complete, accurate and current on the prevalence and incidence of violence and its various manifestations. Without data effective and comprehensive strategy to combat violence against women can be developed or implemented. Considering data on gender-based violence in Egypt, for example, we find that we have information only on battering and on female genital mutilation. The Egypt Demographic and Health Survey for 1995 reveals:

ï One out of three ever-married women has been beaten at least once since marriage.

ï Almost all women who say they have been beaten, irrespective of background characteristics, report being beaten exclusively by their husband.

ï Eighty-six per cent of women agree that husbands are justified in beating their wives under at least one of the scenarios presented in the survey.

ï Ninety-seven per cent of ever-married women (15-49) were circumcised.

ï Eighty per cent of women support the continuation of circumcision

In 2005, 10 years later, the situation has not improved. The Egypt Demographic and Health Survey for 2005 indicates that 95.8 per cent of ever-married women were circumcised and that 47.4 per cent of women above 15 years have experienced physical violence.

Police data on the different types of violence perpetrated against women in Egypt in the years 2002 and 2003 are considered woeful underestimates. The total number of cases of violence against women that were reported in 2002 and 2003 were 292 and 235, respectively.

Laws are crucial to ensure that perpetrators of acts of gender violence are punished. Women should be able to access the justice system.

Law has the potential to play a leading role in combating violence against women. It can set standards of right and wrong, as well as wielding the deterrent of incarceration or other remedies. Resources should be allocated to make the legal system a crucial site for initiatives to improve a country's response to violence against women.

Besides being able to contribute to specific deterrence measures, legal practices should contribute to public awareness of -- and public responsibility for -- violence against women. The legal system should empower individual women who are victims of violence. Domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment and other forms of violence often deprive women of their sense of control, autonomy, self-respect and personal privacy. The legal system should restore and reinforce those qualities, while avoiding measures that "re-victimise" the victim. The legal response to violence against women should strengthen women's place in society by enhancing women's overall equality.

Many sexually harassed individuals put up with the damaging physical and psychological effects of the harassment because taking action can be daunting, especially in environments that do not provide moral and practical support. Most often victims are ashamed and embarrassed and worry that they will be labelled as "loose women" and thus prefer to keep quiet. Specific laws that deal with both domestic violence and sexual harassment at the workplace are necessary so that women do not continue to suffer in silence.

Egypt, like the majority of South Mediterranean countries, has not yet brought forward specific legislation that addresses domestic violence or sexual harassment in the workplace. Neither form of violence is addressed in current laws. In fact, domestic violence in Egypt is dealt with in the same manner as any other form of violence, namely through Articles 240-243 of the Penal Code. Likewise, sexual harassment in the workplace is dealt with in the same manner as any kind of sexual harassment committed in the street.

Further, Article 17 of the Egyptian Penal Code gives judges the authority to reduce punishment sentences if they decide that the condition of the accused requires so, and without needing to provide justification. Article 17 is used often in cases of rape and honour killing to reduce the sentences of perpetrators.

Services for victims and survivors
Services should aim at assisting women to overcome multiple consequences of violence in a way that empowers them to rebuild their lives and relationships.

Unfortunately such services in Egypt, as well as in many South Mediterranean countries, are minimal. There are only four shelters in Egypt and they are in dire need of capacity building, including the development of quality standards, the training of staff in counselling, and the provision of psychological services. Many South Mediterranean countries do not have any of such shelters. There is also a need for legal aid in support of victims and survivors of violence. There is no 24-hour helpline for women suffering from violence in many South Mediterranean countries. While there are a number of NGOs in some of South Mediterranean countries that provide legal aid for women, including victims and survivors of violence, the capacity of these services is far below what is required.

Honour killing
Honour crimes constitute a major violation of women's human rights. It is the most extreme form of domestic violence. Murder to cleanse family honour is a type of crime committed against women, with impunity, in many parts of the world.

Honour crimes refer to the murder of a woman by her male family member(s) for a perceived violation of the social norms of sexuality, or a suspicion of women having transgressed limits of social behaviour imposed by traditions. This includes seeing or meeting a man, even if this is only suspicion or gossip. A family's honour is seen as being dependent on the sexual conformity of its female family members -- the virginity of its unmarried female members and the chastity of its married ones.

Honour crimes include also a husband killing a wife whom he or other family members suspect of adultery. Such crimes take place in several South Mediterranean countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Palestine. It is difficult to estimate the overall number of honour killings that take place yearly in Egypt. However, an Egyptian report in 1995 counted 52 honour killings out of 819 murders reported. In Jordan, in 2003, 17 women were reportedly killed in the name of "family honour".

Modern laws in many South Mediterranean countries have not appropriately penalised this crime due to the strong influence of the tribal system and popular beliefs about women's sexuality. Modern penal codes and practices reinforce the notion that men have a "right" to punish women for improper sexual behaviour.

As mentioned, Article 17 of the Egyptian Penal Code allows judges to decrease sentences passed according to their discretion. Murder can result in a sentence of as little as six months, which likely would be spent by the end of the trial.

In Jordan, honour killing rarely carries a sentence of more than one year of imprisonment. This sentence can be reduced to six months if the victim's family pardons the perpetrator. Although such provisions are often gender- neutral in language, in application they only benefit men.

In the Egyptian Penal Code, a married man is adulterous only if the sexual act is committed in the marital home (Article 277) while a woman is adulterous wherever the act is. She does not need to be found compromised in the marital home for the husband to claim the defence of inflamed emotions. Activists in Egypt have challenged the constitutionality of this law.

In both Jordan and Egypt, there are four main sources of discrimination against women: dependency; male control of sexuality; conservative interpretations of Islam; and certain provisions of secular law that reinforce women's low status and gender inequality.

Such low status is evident in most of the personal status codes in South Mediterranean countries and it puts women at risk of domestic violence. For example, family law in Egypt permits not only male polygamy but also the right of the husband to divorce his wife without reason and the expulsion of a divorced woman from the marital residence if she has no children or her children are beyond custody age.

What to do?
Governments must seriously address and break the cycle of violence against women They should take effective measures to prevent violence in the home and in the workplace, and also in the public places such as streets and on public transportation. They have also to redress family laws that are gender discriminatory.

Governments should take effective steps to bring laws, practices, policies and procedures into full conformity with international human rights instruments. They should ensure that laws against abuse, including beating, rape, sexual assault, and other gender based violence, provide adequate protection to all women and respect their integrity and dignity.

The police should be trained to prevent and investigate domestic violence including honour crimes. The responsiveness of the judiciary to the problem of honour killing should be increased.

Both governments and NGOs should collect and analyze regularly data on gender-based violence. They should also provide good quality services for victims of violence such as help-lines, shelters, housing, medical treatment and jobs.

* The writer is policy/legal expert, European Commission- funded project "The Economic Role of Women in the Mediterranean Region".