Revolution is a mighty animal; it can transform not just societies but history. It is the people who are the vehicle for political and socio-economic change but penetrating change is dependent upon dismantling patriarchal, cultural and institutional norms and practices that undermine the visibility and agency of those marginalized. They are those who want to continue to marginalize Egyptian women despite their strong contributions to society and the revolution. While Egyptian women were central to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak they have now been told they are no longer wanted in the public sphere, and sexual assault, especially gang rape, is one of ways to make them invisible. Unfortunately, Egyptian institutions and laws, with their embedded patriarchal norms, fail to grant women full equality and rights making it harder for women to contest their treatment. This is why I am going to explore the intersection between inequality, the law and sexual assault in this article and leave the reader with some questions that apply to all of us globally.
Women, of all ideological backgrounds, took to the streets demanding “Bread, Dignity and Justice;” the call for freedom from authoritarian rule and neo-liberal policies that impoverished could no longer be smothered. Women would sacrifice their lives in the fight for a new Egyptian society, and Tahrir Square became the symbol of that fight. When Mubarak left the moment was one of historic jubilee but soon the political and physical visibility of Egyptian women was attacked.
All women regardless of their identity and political affiliations or actions became targets of sexual assault by security and armed forces as well as others; some even claim that the perpetuators were paid. Of course, not all the attacks were politically or socially motivated but the majority were aimed at silencing and deterring women, particularly those in the opposition, from resisting against elected and non-elected individuals and groups. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, along with other parties in Parliament, did not express outrage about the attacks and one could interpret this as indirect support for the violence. As a result, sexual assault became the weapon of choice to send the message that women were no longer “wanted” or “needed” in the public sphere.
Indeed, on January 25th, 2013 the 2nd anniversary of the revolution, 19 women were assaulted in Tahrir Square. Women were not only gang raped but had their genitals mutilated with knives and blades; one woman had to have surgery the night she was attacked. Groups such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntish), which formed to battle sexual assault via rescue teams, was able to intervene in 15 of the 19 reported cases. While there are few credible statistics regarding the sexual harassment and assault of Egyptian women, one report conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights in 2008 concluded that 80% of women had endured some form of sexual harassment. The issue of sexual assault, specifically gang rape, is not new; previous public protests and gatherings have seen women assaulted as was the case in protests against Mubarak in 2005. As a result, OpAntish passionately argues: “the fight against sexual assault is [at] the heart of the revolution, against a regime and a mentality that is killing us. We won’t stop.” Thus, the fight against sexual assault is not just a fight to protect physical integrity but one that seeks to eradicate the cultural norms and laws that systematically discriminate against women.
The Egyptian constitution and laws, like many others across the globe, reinforce discriminatory attitudes and practices towards women. This reality stems from multiple problems. Firstly, women were both underrepresented in Parliament and the legislative committees and forums that involved drafting of the new constitution. In fact, women comprise only 2% of the elected body in Parliament; women are also underrepresented in ministerial and judicial bodies. This is ludicrous considering that women constitute half of the Egyptian population as well as 49% of its college graduates. As a result, women are not only absent from government positions in a transitional state but from crafting laws and policies that concern the rights of women and minorities. This leads us to a second problem.
If women are not present in the revision and creation of laws then they cannot counter the norms in them that undermine the status of women; equally, they cannot strengthen weak attempts at upholding equality. While Article 36 in the constitution asserts that the state is committed to the equality of women and men, equality is truly contingent upon compliance with Islamic jurisprudence and values. Islam is declared the basis of the Egyptian state. I do want to be clear that Islam is not inherently patriarchal or discriminatory towards women. The real issue is the tension between the secular Egyptian legal code and the informal influence of Shariah on rulings means that there is no clear consensus regarding women’s equality. You may wonder why is this important? Well, a body of laws called Personal Status laws (PSLs) arose in the 21st century to address the political and socio-economic status of women in what was then an emerging nation-state. These laws, which mainly dealt with marriage, divorce and inheritance, sought to regulate not only the status of women but what they were legally allowed to do in the public and private spheres. Unfortunately, PSLs were highly inadequate in addressing women’s equality. Therefore, the subsequent reforms of PSLs provoked heated debates and social movements about the status of women. The rise of Egyptian feminism, in all its political variations, would find itself in the streets fighting PSLs, inequality and violence.
Egyptian feminists not only fiercely articulated new ideas on gender equality and relations but also mobilized others to create political groups and practices that would attack the barriers that marginalized them. Unfortunately, legal remedies to address gender inequality in PSLs were so minimal there was no progression of rights or so radical that their repeal was inevitable. Additionally, PSLs did not cover the full spectrum of rights for women; the right to vote or enter into the labor force had to be introduced outside the scope of PSLs. Hence, PSLs have and remain inconsistent, thereby, highlighting the inability of the state to develop a clear and fair stance on the status and rights of women; part of this is political. Indeed, the state, especially during the regimes of the Free Officers, has utilized the “women’s question of equality” in the quest to either secure legitimacy for their rule and/or divide political opposition by pitting opponents against each other, and blaming women for the violence they have experienced. This is what is happening in Tahrir Square.
As gang rape increases in Tahrir Square Egyptian officials transfer all accountability to the victims. As Adel Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, a police general and lawmaker said “sometimes a girl contributes 100 percent to her own raping when she puts herself in these conditions.” Not to be outdone Reda Saleh Al al-Hefnawi, a lawmaker from the Muslim Brotherhood Party, asked: “How do they ask the Ministry of Interior to protect a woman when she stands among men?” This is patriarchy and rape culture at its most virile; it is reproducing violence and shame. It is keeping power for half of the human race: men. While women were needed in the overthrow of Mubarak their participation in politics, which threatens male power & privilege, will not be tolerated. As discussed the lack of women within Parliament and judicial bodies means that the constitution and laws, especially PSLs, afford women no definite rights or legal processes to address violations nor the opportunity to craft laws and policies with their interest in mind. Indeed, there is only one thing rampant: a culture of rape based on immunity. The only solution that the government can propose is that women fall back into the obscurity of the private sphere but Egyptian feminists will not accept this.
Egyptian feminists and activists, such as Nawal El-Saadawi, Asmaa Mahfouz, Gigi Ibrahim and Mona Eltahawy, have been instrumental in keeping the momentum alive on women’s equality through mobilization of the Egyptian people. There have been protests and other forms of actions against the violence women are experiencing but questions remain. If the constitution guarantees no absolute rights for equality, and the government is complacent in the violence against women then where is justice for women? How can women have their grievances addressed in a transitional state that seeks to silence them? How do women fight for representation in the Parliament, judiciary and other public spaces? Would representation make a difference in institutions that have internalized patriarchal attitudes? Could international treaties, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, offer a framework for transforming domestic laws? Could gender mainstreaming, “the inclusion of gender perspectives to policy development, research, advocacy, legislation, resource allocation, planning, implementation and monitoring of programmes and projects,” be appropriate for addressing inequality in the long-term? What are the implications of global movements against violence and inequality for Egyptian women? What legacies will the revolution have for equality? Ultimately, the most urgent question is what do women do now?
Egyptian women must continue to fight against invisibility, inequality and violence, and as they do they show us how solidarity and mobilization can save lives while transforming society. Their solidarity and mobilization reveals that their fight is not just an “Egyptian” problem but a global patriarchy problem! From Tahrir Square to Delhi to Ohio we face the same threat of violence, and even if that violence manifests itself differently one thing remains the same: we are women. And as women we must commit ourselves to the motion of change even in the face of violence because we are here to part of an equal world and nothing less.