Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Attacks on Egyptian women escalate, Egyptian law-makers blame victims

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While sexual assaults in Tahrir Square are sadly not new, recently they reached "epidemic" proportions. And while many are asking the Egyptian government to condemn these organised attacks on women, instead some Egyptian parliamentarians have blamed the victims.

On January 25, there were 19 reports of sexual assaults in Tahrir Square, with many being beaten and/or threatened with knives, blades and other weapons, and at least two women cut with blades, including on or near their genitals. Those attacked included leaders in the Egyptian women's rights movement, those attempting to rescue victims and passer-bys.

Amnesty International has documented in a report released on February 6, the rise in sexual assaults in Tahrir Square and noted that according to testimonies of survivors "there is a clear pattern of attack", and that many Egyptian women's groups believe the sexual assaults are "organized and co-ordinated - possibly by state actors - with the aim of silencing them, excluding them from public spaces and the political events shaping Egypt's future, and breaking the resistance of the opposition."

In a list of recommendations Amnesty International called on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to "publicly condemn all forms of sexual harassment", and to "Ensure that full, impartial and independent investigations are conducted into all alleged cases of gender-based violence and attacks on those attempting to rescue survivors, including in the vicinity of Tahrir Square, with a view to identifying and bringing perpetrators to justice in fair trials, without recourse to the death penalty" and that "such investigations should also focus on whether the sexual assaults were organized and whether any state or organized non-state actors were behind these attacks."

However, such calls for the Egyptian government to act to protect women from sexual violence and punish perpetrators have so far gone unheeded. Instead, on February 11, members of the human rights commission for the Islamist dominated Shura Council (Egypt's upper house of Parliament) held a press conference, reportedly stating that women are to blame for the sexual assaults against them. Adel Afify, a member of the committee representing the ultra-conservative Asala Party reportedly said:"They [women] should protect themselves before requesting that the Interior Ministry does so. By getting herself involved in such circumstances, the woman bears 100 percent responsibility." In addition, another member of the council reportedly claimed that the tents at protest sites encourage "prostitution."

However, women in Egypt are fighting back. On February 12, Egyptian women activists protested in Cairo's Talaat Harb Square, with one banner reading: "Sexual assault doesn't pay. Try again - we'll cut your hand." Solidarity protests were also reportedly held around the world including Amman, Copenhagen, Washington DC, London and even Melbourne.

Political commentator Vivian Salama in the Daily Beast refers to the epidemic of sexual assaults in Egypt as "sexual terrorism", and criticises the Egyptian government for not acting:

"The government doesn't deny the problem-Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said last year that the increase in sexual attacks is a ‘catastrophe that threatens society.' However, unlike India, which this month responded to popular protests by passing tougher laws cracking down on sexual predators, the Egyptian government, which has been without a Parliament since June, has proposed no new legislation.

‘What does our government do? Instead of implementing laws that make sexual assault a crime, they are making the publicity of these attacks a crime.' said Nancy Omar... the spokeswoman of Egyptian Women; Red Line, a group of volunteers from various political factions united to defend the rights of women. ‘And then they question our motives for going to these protests-how silly!'

Many human rights groups have urged the Egyptian state to ensure greater protection of women on issues ranging from domestic abuse to divorce settlement rights, and activists have long worked to change attitudes about female genital mutilation, a common practice in more traditional parts of Egyptian society".

The Amnesty International report notes that systematic gender discrimination could be fuelling these attacks, it states:

"It is clear that these attacks are facilitated by the deep discrimination against women in law and practice, the institutionalized attitudes that discriminate against women, and the failure of the authorities to prevent, combat and punish violence against women and adopt antiharassment legislation proposed by women's rights activists.

The authorities announced plans for new sexual harassment legislation in October 2012 and again after the public outcry following attacks on 25 January 2013, but have yet to carry through. In March 2011, amendments to the Penal Code had already increased penalties for various forms of sexual harassment and assaults. For instance, Article 268 imposed prison terms of up to 15 years for "sexual assault", while Article 306 (Bis A) prescribed prison sentences between six months and two years and/or fines for verbal harassment. Women's rights activists and lawyers note that the introduction of these amendments has done little to combat or decrease the phenomenon and impunity for sexual violence and harassment remains rife.

The Egyptian Constitution adopted following a public referendum in late December 2012 failed to protect the rights of women and to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender. This entrenched discriminatory practices and attitudes."

It appears that fighting entrenched and even growing gender discrimination in Egypt will continue to be difficult under the Muslim Brotherhood government. Dalia Ziada is an Egyptian liberal human rights activist reflected on this challenge on CNN's website in June last year:

"For while it [the Muslim Brotherhood] may use the same terminology that we do, its perception of what those terms mean is completely different to that of liberal activists like me. They cannot see a woman outside the biological stereotypes as a mother, child-bearer, and housewife.

On the other side, activists like myself are working to establish women rights and gender equality in social, political, and civic spheres. Actually, they always describe 'women's rights' as a western value and used to call it 'women's issues.' The space provided for women on the Brotherhood's Ikhwan website, for instance, is called "family oasis" and is full of stories about bringing up children, making your husband happy, the proper dress for the woman, and such topics that views women's role exclusively within the family.

The Muslim Brotherhood in fact has a shameful record of marginalizing women in the group, until it needs to abuse them to beautify the group's image. All through its history, the Muslim Sisters have never been allowed access to the leadership office of the Muslim Brotherhood group. The Muslim Brothers have changed this only in the past year by establishing the Freedom and Justice political party. It hired some women in the supreme committee of the party, but they are the wives, daughters, or relatives of leading brothers. We do not know much about them and they rarely -- if ever -- appear in public to speak on behalf of their party.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood allows women to run for parliamentary elections, they put them at the bottom of the ticket or support them with weak campaigns. The women chosen are merely the wives of the leaders, regardless of their skills or qualifications. Thus, their chances to win are limited. This makes the group appear to be respecting women rights; in reality it is doing the opposite.

Regardless of the fact that Muslim Brotherhood declared in 2007 that they may never allow Egyptian 'women or Coptic Christians' in decision-making positions, they did not hesitate to exploit women to appear more moderate than other Islamist groups and appeal more to the political scene. In 2005 parliamentary elections, they put three women among the 133 candidates on their parliamentary election campaign platform. These women were the wives of prominent members in the group. They were politically weak and generally unpopular. One of them was Makarem Eldiary, who included many items in her political agenda that were clearly discriminatory towards women.

Her equivalent in the post-revolution parliament is Azza Al-Garf who has been lobbying against the 2003 legislation that criminalizes the savage practice of female genital mutilation. A few weeks after her statements, the Muslim Brothers' Freedom and Justice Party launched a medical convoy that roamed Upper Egyptian cities looking to circumcize girls ...

I do not know Morsi to pre-judge how women will be treated under his rule. Yet, I know the history of the Muslim Brothers that our new president came from. I know that they show respect to women rights only to hunt a political gain and then go back to mistreating them. If this happened this time, they will not be abusing the group's women, they will be abusing Egypt's women. I hope and pray every day that Morsi will prove me wrong and does his best -- despite the Muslim Brotherhood attitude toward women -- to empower Egypt through empowering its women in their non-biological roles."

However, the issue of gender discrimination is not unique to Egypt and exists around the world but especially under Islamist regimes, as Australian writer and psychiatrist Dr. Ida Lichter pointed out in the Huffington Post:

"An article in a Hamas daily accused women for spreading a recent outbreak of Swine flu. The columnist blamed women for being transmitters of epidemics, due to their predilection for congregating in groups to exchange news and rumors. He suggested that outbreaks could be averted if men imposed more limitations on women's movements. These claims might be dismissed as laughable but they are not isolated allegations of female culpability. Ayatollah Kazim Sadighi, a leading Iranian cleric, warned that women who did not dress modestly could promote adultery, which in turn increases earthquakes. A Nigerian woman was brought before a sharia court and accused of initiating a girl into witchcraft. An influential Saudi cleric believes that women who wear a full veil with slits for the eyes still look too seductive with eye make-up, and he ordered that they cover one eye... In Saudi Arabia and Iran, where religion is the principal source of law, ‘morality police' have the power to enforce Islamic dress and sexual segregation... Under Islamist occupation, women in Mali have suffered flogging and gang rapes for not wearing a face covering..."

In her piece, Lichter mourns what has become of Western feminisim, and calls for a new wave of feminism to advocate for the rights of women living under Islamist regimes, she writes:

"the Western feminist movement that was once an inspiration for human rights has become a shadow of its former luminous self, and in its post-modern form, third generation feminists are silent on Muslim women's rights. Instead, they are preoccupied with issues dear to the far left, like radical versions of moral relativism, post-colonialism and anti-Americanism. The movement has sunk into hypocrisy and double standards. It has allowed an alliance with the far left to trump women's rights. Sadly, feminists have ignored the victims of shameful patriarchy, and abandoned the courageous reformers who are battling to reinterpret religious texts in favor of sexual equality. Choosing to share their bed with Islamist misogynists, feminists are betraying their Muslim sisters. At the same time, they forgo historic feminist ideals based on absolute values and guarantees provided by international protocols. Hillary Clinton has pledged to continue her support for Afghan women's rights. Perhaps she could also lead a new wave of feminism."

While Lichter's call for Western feminism to ‘wake up' and reassess its priorities is important, it is also clear that there are growing advocates for women's rights that are living under Islamist regimes (especially in Egypt, such as Dalia Ziada) and their voices need to be heard, supported and encouraged - as these groups have the best chance of achieving real and sustainable change in their society.

Sharyn Mittelman

 

 

 

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