By Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Egypt researcher
Violence against women in Egypt gained international attention following a series of sexual assaults on women in the vicinity of Tahrir Square earlier this year during protests commemorating the second anniversary of the “January 25 Revolution.”
Unfortunately, these instances of violence against women were neither isolated nor unique. Whether in the public or private spheres, at the hands of state or non-state actors, violence against women in Egypt continues to go mostly unpunished.
Most cases go unreported for a plethora of reasons. Even when women do turn to state institutions for protection, justice and reparation, they are often confronted with dismissive or abusive officials who fail to refer cases to prosecution or trial and lengthy and expensive court proceedings if they want to get divorced. Women who do manage to obtain a divorce then face the likelihood that court orders for child support or spousal maintenance will not be enforced.
In recent weeks during an Amnesty International mission to Egypt, I met several women and girls who were assaulted by their husbands and other relatives. Many suffer in silence for years while they are subjected to beatings, severe physical and verbal abuse and rape.
Om Ahmed (mother of Ahmed) told me that her husband began drinking and beating her after three years of marriage. She recounted daily abuse, punctuated with particularly vicious attacks. In one instance, her ex-husband smashed a full glass bottle on her face, leaving her without her front teeth.
She stayed with him for another 17 years, partially, she explained, because she had nowhere else to go, and partially because she did not want to bring “shame” on her family. She never considered approaching the police.
“The police don’t care,” she said. “They don’t think it is a problem if a husband beats his wife. If you are a poor woman, they treat you like you don’t even exist and send you back home to him after hurling a few insults.”
Eventually, Om Ahmed’s husband kicked her out of their home, and for the next year she lived with her three children in an unfinished building in an informal settlement without running water and electricity. After two years in family court, she was awarded a meager 150 Egyptian pounds (about 21 USD) per month for her daughter’s child support. Her other two children didn’t qualify for support as they were over 18. Her own spousal maintenance decision is still pending.
Unlike Egyptian Muslim men who can divorce their wives unilaterally - and without giving any reason - women who wish to divorce their abusive husbands have to go to court and prove “fault” or that their marriage caused them “harm.” To prove physical harm, they have to present evidence, such as medical reports or eyewitness testimony, in proceedings that are drawn out and expensive.
Many women’s rights lawyers and lawyers working in family court cases told me that this is a very difficult task for many women because they don’t always report the abuse to the police, and neighbors, who are usually the only witnesses other than household members, are reluctant to get involved.
In 2000, a second option for women seeking divorce was introduced, whereby women can obtain khul’ (a no-fault divorce) from the courts without having to prove harm, but only if they forego their right to spousal maintenance and other financial rights. These court proceedings can still take up to a year and put women who are financially dependent on their husbands at a severe disadvantage. Despite this, several divorcees told Amnesty International that they opted for khul’ after waiting for a court fault-based divorce for years.
During my visit to Egypt in May and June this year, I also met women and girls who suffered violence and sexual abuse at the hands of other relatives. A 17-year-old girl told me that she ran away from home after a particularly brutal beating by her brother, who stabbed her in the nose with a kitchen knife and burned her with a hot iron. Her scars corroborated her story. She was too scared to report the incident at the hospital where she sought treatment, as her brother had accompanied her and threatened to kill her if she spoke out. She spent months wandering the streets before being admitted into a private shelter for children.
There are only nine official shelters across Egypt, which are severely under-resourced and in need of capacity-building and training. Most survivors of domestic violence don’t even know they exist. The idea of shelters is not widely accepted, because of the stigma attached for women living outside their family or marital homes.
A staff member at a shelter recounted to me how, after an awareness-raising session in a village in Upper Egypt, a village leader got up and - in front of all those gathered - threatened to “stab to death” any woman who dared to leave an abusive household and run to a shelter. In another instance, the husband of a woman living in a shelter threatened to set it on fire.
In May, the authorities announced the establishment of a special female police unit to combat sexual violence and harassment. While this may be a welcome step, the Egyptian authorities need to do much more to prevent and punish gender-based violence and harassment, starting by unequivocally condemning it. They also need to amend legislation to ensure that survivors receive effective remedies. They must also show political will and tackle the culture of denial, inaction and, in some cases complicity, of law enforcement officials who not only fail to protect women from violence but also to investigate properly all allegations and bring perpetrators to trial.
Egyptian women were at the forefront of the popular protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak’s presidency some two-and-a-half years ago. Today, they continue to challenge the prevailing social attitudes and gender biases that facilitate violence against women, in all its forms, to continue with impunity - while they continue their fight against marginalization and exclusion from the political processes shaping the country’s future.
Meanwhile, with the help of human and women’s rights organizations, seven women who were sexually assaulted around Tahrir Square lodged a complaint with the prosecution in March 2013 calling for accountability and redress. Investigations were started, but have since stalled.
One of the lawyers for the women was told by a prosecutor that the case was not that “important” compared to other cases on his desk. But the plaintiffs are not giving up.
As one of them told Amnesty International, “Even as I was being abused, I felt that I will not stay quiet, I will not back down. They have to be punished.”