Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Women’s rights eroded

The historic changes Egypt has undergone in the last 12 months have done nothing to lessen the threats of violence against women, writes Reem Leila

Al-Ahram Weekly

'We do not need guns and bombs to bring peace, we need love and compassion

– Mother Teresa'

Although women participated in the 25 January and 30 June revolutions they have made few gains. In fact the opposite is true as what gains had been made were steadily eroded. The quota system which had allocated 64 seats in parliament for women has been cancelled and female protesters have been subjected to harrowing incidents of violent sexual assault and harassment. 

Violence against women has long been recognised as an issue of national concern by the government. A wide variety of forms of violence against women have been identified, including physical, sexual, psychological, political and economic violence. Violence against women can occur from the very beginning of life and continue through childhood, marriage and into old age.

A survey conducted in 2013 by Thompson Reuters Association found that 99.3 per cent of Egyptian women reported being the victims of some form of sexual harassment. It estimates that 27.2 million women had been subjected to female genital mutilation and 63 per cent were victims of domestic violence. Less than one per cent of women who ran for elections in 2012 were elected. The study concluded that Egypt was the worst Arab country for women.

Mervat Al-Tellawi, head of the National Council for Women (NCW) and a member of the 50-member committee charged with drafting the constitution, says the study is “a black mark” in the history of Egyptian women.

“When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power women’s status in Egypt began to deteriorate,” says Al-Tellawi. The ensuing political strife saw further erosion of women’s rights.

She is not optimistic that the new constitution will make up for lost ground.

“Women have been deprived of the quota system which they gained in 2010. The new constitution annulled any quota system. This is a kind of violence exercised against women because they are still politically weak and inexperienced and need society’s support.”

“After extensive discussions the committee rejected any parliamentary quota though this is the only way to realistically up the number of female MPs,” says Al-Tellawi. 

“Yet women are the ones who pay the price of revolutions,” she adds. “When their fathers, husbands or sons die they carry the burden of the family.”

In the wake of the 25 January Revolution came a wave of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, says Al-Tellawi, the laws are not strong enough for the Interior Ministry to take serious action. “Another law is currently being drafted to suit the seriousness of the crime and its impact on women. Only it must be approved by parliament and currently there is no parliament. Therefore, our hands are tied.”

Around 100 people protested outside the Shura Council building in Downtown Cairo last month demanding that the constitution contain articles protecting the rights of women.

“Women are abused in Egypt. This happens all the time,” says Al-Tellawi. “We need to fight for women’s right to participate in politics.”

Tellingly, she points out, just five of the 50-member committee drafting the constitution were women.

On 11 November the Foreign Ministry issued a press release titled “Egypt’s efforts to combat violence against women”. The statement pointed out that violence against women encompasses everything from a lack of opportunities for political participation to violent rape. The ministry stressed the importance of the role of civil society associations in the fields of research and in holding training sessions to combat violence against women.

Much of the press release addressed the constitutional and legal protection of women and the NCW’s efforts in monitoring the commitment of governmental and non-governmental agencies to thwarting all forms of violence against women.

The National Council for Motherhood and Childhood (NCMC) is seeking to counter FGM by implementing a national programme to raise people’s awareness about the dangers and limit the social and cultural pressure to practise female circumcision.

FGM carries health risks that are life-threatening. It can result in urine retention, inflammation of the genitals, injury to adjacent tissues, septicemia and infertility. The multiple side-effects include shock, haemorrhage and infections which can be potentially fatal. The operation is practised on females between four and 14 years of age.

“During the rule of Islamists this violation was committed against young girls without any fear of the law. They also claimed the barbaric practice was supported by Islamic Sharia,” says Azza Al-Ashmawi, secretary-general of NCMC. Following Mubarak’s ouster, says Al-Ashmawi, there was a huge increase in the number of girls who were forced to undergo the operation in Upper Egypt. 

According to a recent NCMC study, 80 per cent of the poor families and 30 per cent of the wealthy ones force the operation on their daughters.

The wave of protests that ousted Mohamed Morsi was accompanied by increased violence against women. Female demonstrators were systematically harassed, and groups of vigilantes were formed in an attempt to protect them in Tahrir Square. Old, young, veiled or not, Egyptian or foreign, everyone was targeted. Attacks included verbal harassment, violent assaults and gang rape.

Mona Hassan, head of the watchdog group Nazra for Feminist Studies, has been monitoring sexual assaults and harassment since 2011. She said that the situation was bad in November 2012 and got worse in January 2013, the second anniversary of the 25 January Revolution.

“We demanded investigations and presented the idea of restructuring security and judicial authorities in order to deal better with such cases but the state ignored us. There were 101 cases of sexual assault that occurred in the vicinity of Tahrir Square between 28 June and 3 July.”

Hassan criticises both anti- and pro-Morsi forces during 30 June protests for taking advantage of the assaults and seeking to politicise them.

Anecdotal evidence, including press reports, suggests an increase in domestic violence against women. According to a recent survey conducted by the Association for Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW) on different forms of violence since the 2011 revolution, 33 per cent of married women reported having been beaten at least once in their marriage, 43 per cent of the surveyed women by their fathers and 37 per cent by their brothers. Eighty per cent of rural women in Egypt report beatings are common and 96 per cent of the surveyed women reported some kind of sexual violence.

“Among those who have been beaten less than half sought help,” says Gehan Agrama of ADEW.

According to Agrama, incidents of domestic violence appeared to rise under Morsi.

“Many Islamists claim the only proper way to behave to a woman is to hit her,” says Agrama. “It will take years to erase the wrong beliefs instilled by the Islamists’ one year rule.”

The plight of women is particularly severe due to the conditions of political life in Egypt after the 25 January and 30 June revolutions. It was expected during this time of historic change that the upcoming constitution would have better protected the status of women than its predecessor but little concrete has been achieved. 

“We can only hope for the best in the coming days,” says Agrama.


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