Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 December 2010
Issue No. 1026
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ways out from violence

Two weeks ago was the annual commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Sarah Eissa reviews the status of Egyptian women

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Will violence against women ever come to an end?

Finding Prince Charming and living happily ever after could be considered every girl's dream. Unfortunately, this was not the happy ending to Samah's (not her real name) story. "I wanted romance like other girls, but we used to argue daily," Samah recalls. In the arguments that took place during Samah's engagement, her fiancé did not abuse her physically. However, once they were married, Samah's husband began to use physical violence against her, turning what should have been a happy marriage into a nightmare.

"When I asked him why, he ignored me and continued hitting me and swearing. He only calmed down when he saw me collapse," Samah said.

In spite of the fact that Samah is educated and holds a Bachelor's degree, she accepted this brutality in her marriage and hid the bruises on her face by wearing heavy make-up. Her husband also abused her psychologically by ignoring or belittling her. "He used to beat me if I asked for money. Sometimes he would hit me for no reason at all," she said.

Eventually, when the couple's daughter was six months old Samah decided that she could no longer remain silent. She told her parents about the abuse, and the couple were divorced. Nevertheless, her former husband sent friends of his to try to convince Samah to remarry him, promising that he would never hit her again, and Samah's parents, worried about the social stigma on their granddaughter, convinced Samah to remarry her ex-husband.

The old pattern started again, and he started to hit her again just one month after the second marriage. "I will hit you until you die," her husband told Samah.

The couple separated once again, and now Samah's ex- husband slanders her in the district where she lives, saying that he divorced his wife because she had had extra-marital affairs. Having lost her confidence, Samah no longer leaves the house, and she avoids talking to people.

NGO SUPPORT: To help women who find themselves in similar circumstances, many NGOs are mobilising to assist abused women. The Women's Health Improvement Association (WHIA), for example, an NGO in Cairo, conducts a project in Nagaa Hammadi and Cairo to help abused women, aiming to raise awareness of violence and particularly of violence against women.

The association tries to help women become more aware of their rights and to offer them support on the sociological and psychological levels. Helping such women claim their rights can help them to escape from the spiral of violence.

According to Thanaa Hassan, the project director, women need to be aware of their rights and need to claim them. "Most women in the places we work don't realise that being beaten is unacceptable violence," Hassan says. Sometimes they believe that they are even being beaten out of love, or for reasons of jealousy.

Yet, in addition to the physical and mental injury involved, violence against women also limits their choices and their ability to act to help themselves, which prevents them from participating in societal development. According to Hassan, many Egyptian women are belittled in their marriages or by society, being thought of as ignorant and their opinions not being seen as important, unlike those of men.

In working with such women, the WHIA has to overcome such attitudes, as well as fears among the women concerned that their husbands will find out that they are visiting the association.

"Husbands may believe that their wives are coming to complain about them, which is why many women ask us to keep their visits confidential," Hassan says. "We want women to be able to trust us and to help them find ways of solving their problems. Women should understand that we will try to find alternatives that can suit them, even if these alternatives are unfortunately sometimes not altogether ideal solutions."

The WHIA programme does not only target women who have suffered from domestic violence. It also targets women who may be vulnerable to abuse. "Some women may not understand what is happening to them, or may not realise how best to deal with the situation. When such a woman is scolded, she may pass this on and scold her children, leading to family disintegration."

The project conducts sessions in both Cairo and Nagaa Hammadi, where a sociologist and psychologist discuss problems with the women concerned. It also conducts sessions with both men and women, in order to help raise their awareness of violence, women's rights, and the ways in which Islam honours women.

"I can't tell women to claim their rights, if I don't also tell men that women have rights," Hassan comments. "If we did not hold sessions for both men and women, our sessions could exacerbate conflict between them."

Men who use violence are invited to workshops to help them reflect on their conduct and to rehabilitate them. Psychological and sociological themes are emphasised, though those organising the workshops also talk about legal and religious matters as these affect the family.

"Our slogan is 'Towards a Happy Family Life,' and the last solution we seek would be a legal one. We do not want to separate women from men. We just want to help men and women to live equal lives together," Hassan said.

Patterns of violence in Cairo and Nagaa Hammadi are similar, she added, with differences commonly being related to inheritance. "Women in Upper Egypt sometimes do not get their proper inheritance, and sometimes they are given money instead of land."

Shadya Suleiman, director of the WHIA's Nagaa Hammadi branch, adds that poor economic status can often be a contributory factor behind domestic violence. A husband may hit his wife out of frustration at his socio-economic condition, or he may prevent her from buying the things she needs. However, even if such violence can begin with economic factors, it swiftly takes a physical and psychological form as abuse.

LEGAL SOLUTIONS: Despite the value of the WHIA's work, the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR), another NGO, works from a different perspective. According to lawyer Nehad Abul- Qomsan, chair of the ECWR, the organisation is mainly concerned to defend women's rights in the legal domain.

As a result, much of the organisation's work consists of suggesting improvements to the legislative framework protecting women, while at the same time raising awareness of the law. Thus far, as a result of its work the centre has been able to contribute to some 20 pieces of legislation affecting women's rights, Abul-Qomsan explaining that it can take years to get a law through parliament.

The ECWR is currently working on domestic violence, considering this to be an area where the law needs to be clarified and strengthened. "If a woman is exposed to domestic violence, her abuser may get a lighter sentence than if he had simply used violence against her in the street," Abul-Qomsan said, arguing that this situation needs to be rectified.

At present, the only direct service the ECWR offers women is free legal advice should they find themselves the victims of domestic violence. Many women still fear becoming involved with the law, believing that it will discriminate against them in practice. "Our aim is to eliminate the abuse of women. If a woman comes to us asking about how she can get a divorce from an abusive husband, our first move will be to explain the legal framework and consequences to her," she said.

"Unfortunately, for many women divorce can be just the start of a new series of problems. If the woman has children, there may be economic and other considerations to bear in mind. However, it is also important that a woman has the confidence to go to court to claim her rights, since this strengthens her personality. Instead of being the victim and feeling down, she starts to speak up for herself and plans her own future."

If the woman has been abused, the ECWR may also try to interview the husband to help solve the problem. "An abuser may think that his victim is weak. When we appear in support of his wife, he may begin to understand the consequences of his actions and the fact that his wife is not as weak as she appears. This may be enough to halt the abuse."

The ECWR organises legal seminars and training courses in family law, with those trained at such courses then going on to train others. Teachers and doctors are given instruction in how to spot the signs of abuse, with such training often being cheaper and more effective than other forms of intervention. The centre asks teachers to apply what they learn at such seminars in their daily work, and it can provide training materials to people interested in passing on what they have learned to others.

With various state officials, the ECWR is also participating in a Safe City campaign, the idea of which is to raise awareness that safety is the responsibility of the whole society, not just of the police or law-enforcement agencies. "Our role is advocacy, and we are continually on the look out for problems of violence against women and solutions for them. One example may be women potentially being exposed to violence because of poor street lighting, and here we can advocate on their behalf with the local authorities responsible."

Learning to respect others is also vital in combating violence, and here school programmes can play an important role. "Violence is an expression of weakness, and we need to break the circle of violence at its source," Abul-Qomsan says. In her view, there have been few studies of violence against women in Egypt, and more need to be commissioned. "We must have studies to show officials and decision-makers that we have real problems in this country. However, changing people's ways of thinking cannot be done just by pressing a button. Even amending a law can take years."

PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS: Can psychology provide insights into violence against women?

According to psychiatrist Dalia Mokhtar, head of the women's section in a Cairo psychiatric hospital, violence can be physical, sexual, or verbal, and it can consist of belittling or ignoring a woman's opinions, not giving her space to exist.

In this way of thinking, some girls may be abused from the time when their mother makes them do domestic work, or tidy their brothers' rooms. A boy is favoured simply because he is a boy, and a girl may not be given space to develop or may be denied her freedom. Various reasons are given for this unequal treatment, Mokhtar comments, including that "God made him stronger, and he can protect himself."

In Mokhtar's view, some men use violence because they cannot control their feelings. They may have been exposed to abuse themselves, or they may have witnessed abuse of parents. Personality disorders, such as anti-social disorder or borderline personality disorder, can also be contributory factors. In the latter case, a man may have difficulty establishing relationships, or he may suffer from aggression and depression in equal measure. He may feel suspicious of his wife and find it impossible to trust her.

According to Mokhtar, some women may even give their sons psychological medicines without the sons knowing it, hiding them in their food or drink, for example. When the sons get married, they stop taking such medicines and then problems appear.

Nada Salah, a psychologist working with the WHIA, says that some men abuse women because they do not know how to relate to them. They may be manual workers, and after an exhausting day they may return home to find their wives complaining and talking about their problems. They may not know how to react, so they may end up by hitting or swearing at their wives.

Some women endure such violence because they feel dependent on men, but in these cases they will often suffer from depression. Such women may not have independent housing, and they may not be educated, or they may have children to look after, reducing their options. Women who have financial independence, employment, and education refuse to submit to domestic violence.

RELIGION AGAINST VIOLENCE: Father Moussa Nasry of St Mark's Church in Cairo says that "all religions reject violence against women, and all kinds of physical abuse are prohibited because they mean the oppression and humiliation of women. In the Book of Genesis, the Bible says that "a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife," which means that man and wife become like one body. A man will only hit his own body if he is mad."

Ahmed Ali, a lecturer at the Faculty of Sharia Law, adds that the Prophet Mohamed had explained that Eve was created from Adam's rib, such that women are a physical part of man. Throughout his life, the prophet had enjoined people to treat women kindly.

Treating an abused woman requires wisdom, Nasry said, because we should also remember the humiliation of the abuser. "An abuser is a weak person, who may need psychological help and may need help becoming closer to God." A man may hit his wife out of feelings of powerlessness, and he may resort to violence in order to show his strength.

"I advise women to pray in order to know the source of such problems. If the problem is within her, she must find ways of supporting her husband"

Do women have the right to divorce if they are abused? According to Ali, "a woman should at first be patient and try to endure it and ask God to solve the problem. Divorce is a solution, but it should only be used if all others fail."

Nasry commented that it could be dangerous to recommend divorce as a solution, since this could mean that every woman would ask for a divorce as soon as she encountered problems in her marriage. Each case must be studied separately, he said. In some cases, the church would recommend separation. If the husband threatens a woman's life, the marriage could be annulled.

If, on the other hand, a woman got divorced and then remarried, only to find that her second husband also beat her, she should consider the possibility that the problem may lie within her. In any case, divorce in such cases would not be a solution to the problem.

Something to think about:

Violence against women is widely regarded as missing Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target, undermining efforts to reach all of the goals. For example:

- Violence against women has enormous direct and indirect costs for survivors, employers and public sector in terms of health, police, legal and related expenditure as well as lost wages and productivity. In Australia, violence against women and children costs an estimated $11.4 billion per year.

- Violence against girls at and on the way to school is a major barrier to increasing girls' enrolment and retention. In South Africa, in 1999, a third of reported rapes among girls under 15 were perpetrated by a teacher.

- Adopting multi-sectoral national action plans, with adequate funding for implementation is critical. These plans should include effective public services to provide a holistic response to all aspects of violence against women. For example, women's police stations, which have been established in at least 13 countries in Latin America, have increased the visibility of violence against women and reporting rates have gone up.

source: United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) online publication on gender justice (2010-2011)

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