There is no room for doubt that violence against women is a worldwide phenomenon that is not exclusive to any specific culture or race. The phenomenon merely manifests itself in varying shapes and degrees in different parts of the world and strikes different nerves in the respective societies. In Egypt, perhaps one of the most glaring indicators of the growth of this phenomenon is sexual violence and the politics of “shaming” Egyptian women. In the aftermath of the January 25th revolution and the ongoing struggle for freedom in Egypt, the question of state sponsored sexual violence and capitalization on the discourse of “shaming” has become a critically important topic of discussion.
Although sexual violence predates the revolution, Egypt has been making headlines for the past two years for mob street harassment. As security in the country began to wane, such incidents have rocketed for many reasons. In part, this exists in order to deter Egyptian women from taking to the streets in protest.
In a country where women’s “chastity” is held at high regard, such gross violations of a woman’s physical space have been successful in shaming Egyptian women – they have successfully struck a nerve. Blame is always cast on a woman’s “tight” clothes, her flirty body language and sometimes even on her “seductive looks.” In another life, these arguments would be too ludicrous to be taken seriously but they comprise a social and political tool of coercion.
Again, this is not new, but has recently magnified in size and frequency. What has become glaringly “new” as far as shaming and sexual violence is concerned is the role of the state in capitalizing on such discourse.
In November of 2011, as female activists were targeted by many sexual offenders, Egyptians witnessed an unforgettable scene in which three army soldiers stripped naked, and violently assaulted a female protester. As protests against military rule rapidly increased, stripping female protestors became a widespread trend.
The strategy was deliberate and successful in fuelling accusations of immorality against victims of such violence. The victim in question was criticized for failing to wear “enough” layers of clothing and an avalanche of theories about “immorality” of Egyptian female protestors ensued.
So where does the process of “shaming” and immortalizing women come from? The most commonly made argument is religion, but such an argument is also furthest from the truth. Islam calls for modest dress, but there is no evidence in the Quran or Hadith granting men the right to judge a woman’s conformity to this principle, let alone the right to sexually assault her! Indeed, assuming that a man comes across a woman deemed as sexually provocative, the following Quranic verse provides clear instructions that provide no excuse neither for sexual assault or shaming the woman in question:
“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts). That is purer for them. Verily, Allah is All-Aware of what they do” [al-Noor 24:30]
Instead, how is this process perpetuated as a matter of political strategy? When presidential elections eventually took place, “putting an end to military rule,” a new President, Mohamed Morsi, was instilled in power. Soon enough, as dissatisfaction with the Morsi regime grew, finally erupting into violent clashes, female activists were again targeted and deliberately assaulted.
This time, a number of anti-sexual assault movements began to emerge, so that women could challenge these targeted assaults. One of the most vibrant movement is Tahrir Bodyguard, an organization created solely for the protection of women protestors in Tahrir Square against all manners of sexual violence.
Like several challenges brought by women to the violent status quo, Tahrir Bodyguard immediately picked up mass support. Indeed, never before 2012 had Egypt witnessed such high awareness about and resistance to sexual violence against women.
Before the revolution, sexual violence and especially street harassment had been hidden effectively. Even reporting a case of sexual harassment seemed ludicrous to many, as the police failed to take the crime seriously. Instead, women were blamed for their dress or behaviour and for “provoking” the incident. But today, numerous movements have targeted sexual harassment specific to certain occasions, such as during Eid vacations and during protests in Tahrir Square.
These activist movements are met with a resilient opposition. When one such anti-harassment group took to the streets during Eid – a peak occasion for harassment – to spray harassers as a mechanism of defamation, they were met with violent reactions. This week female protestors have been targeted more than ever outside the Presidential Palace and assaulters take specific pride in taunting them in spite of the massive effort trying to ensure a safe environment for women.
At the end of the day, despite such formidable resistance from individual women and from their movements, the reality on sexual violence remains fraught unless two developments take place. Firstly, Egypt’s upcoming constitution and legal system must install legislation that protects women.
This is one of the main criticisms of the rushed constitutional draft that is expected to be voted on in a referendum. It fails to ensure that sufficient penalties will be applied to the perpetrators of violence against women.
It is also crucial that the discourse of “shame” centered around women’s manner of dress and personal conduct starts to shift. “Shame” should instead be used to describe crimes of sexual violence, especially when perpetrated by state officials.
The Egyptian revolution set out to end corruption, ensure justice and to grant its citizens human dignity. Indeed, it has set out to expose multiple levels of shame in Egyptian politics and society, one of the most important of which is the oppressive notion that shame can only be found in the body of woman as opposed to the conduct of man.
We see now a revolution against shame.
Yasmine Nagaty is a political science graduate from the American University in Cairo and a project coordinator in the NGO, Misr ElKheir, in Egypt.