Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1412, (4 - 10 October 2018)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1412, (4 - 10 October 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Challenging patriarchy

The empowerment of women requires a broad-based alliance that includes government, cultural and religious institutions, and civil society organisations to bring about genuine societal transformation, writes Dina Shehata


The year 2018 may be remembered as a defining one for women everywhere in the world. It is the year in which thousands of women have broken their silence and spoken up against long-standing violence against women in the form of unwanted sexual advances, rape and sexual harassment.

The Harvey Weinstein affair in Hollywood opened up a Pandora’s Box of stories and scandals across the world, showing sexual abuse to be a worldwide phenomenon spanning the developed and the developing world and perpetrated by men in positions of power and authority everywhere.

Movements such as #metoo and #timesup have encouraged women to break their silence, to tell their stories and to expose predators. Powerful men in the media, politics and the business world have lost their positions because of some of the stories that have been told, giving hope that a new world in which women are protected from sexual violence may be possible.

The latest and perhaps most significant manifestation of this new challenge against deep-seated global patriarchy is the controversy surrounding the appointment and confirmation of American Supreme Court judge nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The controversy has brought the #metoo movement to the upper echelons of the American state where privileged white men continue to dominate. Its outcome will be important for defining the future direction of American politics and society.

Egypt is no stranger to the issue of sexual harassment and violence against women. In fact, it is widely considered to be one of the most dangerous places for women in the world. Levels of sexual violence in Egypt are among the highest in the world, with more than 90 per cent of the country’s women reporting that they have been subjected to sexual harassment and abuse in one form or another.

Sexual violence against women in Egypt is as omnipresent as the air women breath, and it has been perpetrated by men from all segments and social classes in society, including the state apparatus, the Islamists and the so-called progressive opposition movements. In recent years, sexual violence even became a tool in the repertoire of political repression in Egypt, with the former Mubarak regime using it in 2005 to quell protests against proposed constitutional amendments and the Muslim Brotherhood using it in 2012 to suppress protests against former president Mohamed Morsi.

Even the leaders of the so-called progressive movement in Egypt have sometimes been guilty of sexual violence. Recent allegations against Youssri Foda, a prominent journalist and media personality, are the latest in a series of allegations against the leaders of the progressive movement, illustrating that even the proponents of progressive values in Egypt can be guilty of violence against women.

Moreover, the culture of honour and shame that prevails in Egypt makes it unlikely that women will come forward and expose their abusers. Most women would rather remain silent than be shamed for having been violated. The dominant tendency in Egyptian society is to blame women who are violated by accusing them of dressing or of behaving immodestly and thus of inviting unwanted sexual advances.

In recent years, a famous poster highlighting this point of view was plastered by the Islamists across university campuses and metro stations. It showed two lollipops, one covered by a wrapper and one uncovered, thereby attracting flies. The poster was suggesting that women who cover their bodies remain pure, while women who are uncovered attract impurity.

However, sexual violence against women in Egypt is but one aspect of a much broader and deeper social problem concerning women. The statistics highlighting the position of women in Egyptian society are horrifying and present a picture in which violence and exclusion are practised against women in all aspects of life.

Egypt has the highest rates of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the world, with some 97 per cent of women having been mutilated. Seventeen per cent of women in Egypt get married before the age of 18, and 33 per cent of women are still illiterate. Women’s participation in the labour market is less than 23 per cent, and half of those who do work do so in the informal sector where their rights are not protected. Family law is archaic and denies women many of their basic rights. Finally, approximately one third of Egyptian households are supported by single mothers.

In recent years, and largely due to the policy priorities of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, important measures have been taken to advance the rights of women. These include the election or appointment of eight female cabinet ministers, one female provincial governor and five assistant governors, and 89 MPs, now for the first time constituting 15 per cent of the seats in parliament.

Moreover, the state has adopted measures to curb violence against women including a law criminalising FGM and another criminalising sexual harassment. In recent weeks, the Muslim legal authorities at Al-Azhar in Cairo issued an unprecedented declaration in which they condemned sexual harassment and maintained that it was unacceptable irrespective of a woman’s dress or appearance. A special police unit, called the anti-harassment police, has also been created to protect women in public spaces and during large public gatherings such as national holidays.

Yet, while these advances are important and significant, they only begin to scratch the surface of the problem. Many activists maintain that reforms at the top do not have a sufficient trickle-down effect and that societal attitudes towards women have yet to change. This indicates that the empowerment of women requires going beyond laws and appointments and must instead aim at building a broad-based societal alliance that includes government, schools, the media, cultural and religious institutions and civil society organisations in order to bring about a process of genuine societal change and transformation.

The examples of Morocco and Tunisia come to mind. In both countries, the state has forged an alliance with civil society movements representing women’s interests. As these grew and strengthened over time it was able to promote the rights of women not only from the top down but also from the bottom up. These movements now constitute important bulwarks against reactionary trends in both countries and have been able to provide real societal support for women’s rights.

However, sadly, as the case of women in the more advanced countries indicates, where they nevertheless enjoy a broad spectrum of political, social and economic rights, women still have a long way to go everywhere in the world. The recent rise of populist movements in many parts of the Western world can be seen in part as a backlash against the growing social and economic independence of women and the rejection of long-standing patriarchal values. The struggle for women’s rights is thus far from over everywhere in the world, and gains made in the past can still be reversed.

It is from here that the realisation comes that politics is too important a matter to be left to men and that it is time for women everywhere in the world to enter the political fray in much larger numbers in order to advance and protect their hard-earned rights.


The writer is a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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