Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 November 2007
Issue No. 869
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Condoned by the victims

Egyptian women remain far too often subordinate to the supremacy of men. Reem Leila attended a conference addressing violence and discrimination against women

Domestic violence tops a long list of discrimination and abuse against women in Egypt. Other crimes include sexual violence, female genital cutting (FGC), sexual harassment and human trafficking, as well as poverty and inequality. All these issues were extensively discussed at a three-day conference entitled 'Violence against Women' organised by the Suzanne Mubarak Regional Centre for Women's Health and Development. The gathering, which took place in Alexandria, was held under the auspices of the Ministry of Health and Population and attended by representatives from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in addition to Egyptian experts.

The conference found that gender oppression and discrimination are prevalent, while male supremacy is accepted as the norm. This gives rise to domestic violence and the exploitation of women, and despite successes in raising awareness and setting new standards for the treatment of women, very little has actually changed. Violence remains a fact in their lives which is rarely discussed. "Only by understanding the various dimensions of Egyptian culture which regulate violence against women, can we develop programmes and interventions to empower women to refuse and resist this violence," stated Gihan Gewaifal, representative of WHO.

Violence against women impedes the creation of well-functioning institutions which are capable of providing an ample level of security for them. Gewaifal described trafficking and violence against women as "the curse of recent times". The illegal business of trafficking is part of an enormous illegal trade which has been escalating in the last decade, and reaps tens of billions of dollars as millions of victims are traded within and across the borders every year. "More than two million women and girls are trafficked every year, and nearly four million women are forced into the sex trade," revealed Gewaifal. Statistics show that every 15 seconds a girl is circumcised; nearly 3,000-5,000 women are smuggled to countries on Egypt's eastern border to work as prostitutes; 95.6 per cent of Egyptian women are circumcised; and 80 per cent of women support the continuation of circumcision.

A report issued by UNICEF in 2001 estimated that nearly half the women and girls in developing countries have experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner or family member. In fact, figures reveal that violence against women generally occurs within the family and domestic violence is divided into three main types. First, there is physical violence such as battering, hitting, burning, slapping, murder, honour killing and crimes of passion; the second is sexual abuse, such as incest and forced sex; thirdly, psychological abuse, such as criticism, humiliation, threats and verbal abuse, the destruction of personal belongings and accusations of mental illness.

According to Faysal Abdel-Gadeer of the UNFPA, sexual harassment in the workplace is also another type of violence against woman which violates their simple right to work safely and in a healthy environment. Equality in employment can be seriously damaged when women are subject to gender-based violence, and sexual harassment is sometimes used as a tool to dissuade women who might be competing for power at work. "Domestic violence is usually regarded in many parts of the Mediterranean region as a private family affair," stated Abdel-Gadeer. According to him, the lack of reliable statistics, effective legislation and sufficient quality services for victims and survivors of violence in countries like Egypt are among the main obstacles which makes addressing domestic and sexual violence almost impossible.

A study conducted by the National Population Centre (NPC) in 2004 on women between the ages of 15 to 49 reported that nearly 86 per cent of those surveyed thought that husbands were justified in beating their wives under certain circumstances. In fact, almost 70 per cent believed that husbands had the right to beat wives who refused to have sex. Nearly 69 per cent of women between the ages of 20 and 29 believed that violence was justified if a woman "talked back" to her husband; 63 per cent said a beating was justified for talking to another man; 42 per cent for spending too much money; 28 per cent for burning dinner; and 50 per cent for neglecting the children.

Although these figures are high, they are perhaps not surprising. According to Amal Sedqy Winter, professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC), many women tolerate violence because they witnessed their parents doing it, hence they copy the same behaviour with their off-spring. Section 60 of the Criminal Code stipulates that, "the provisions of the penal code shall not apply to any deed committed in good faith, pursuant to a right determined by virtue of the Sharia [Islamic Law]." This law is used to justify domestic violence because, according to Winter, deeds committed in "good faith" are those which take place when the beating is not severe, not directed at the face, and is not aimed at vulnerable fatal blow areas.

She believes that the government must address the issue of violence against women seriously and take effective measures to prevent aggression at home, in the workplace and in public places. The government must also amend current family legislation to guarantee adequate protection to women, and that any act of violence against women, including beating, sexual assault and all gender-based abuse, is met with a suitable penalty for the perpetrator. This, asserted Winter, is certain to maintain respect for a woman's integrity and dignity.

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