The mob-sexual assault of a university student in the early hours of Friday 31 March 2017 in the Qawmia area of the city of Zagazig, Sharkia governorate, tragically corroborates the persistence and prevalence of sexual violence against women in the Egyptian public sphere. Although the state has recently adopted policies to protect women from gender-based violence, the mob-sexual assault and the enduring endemic nature of gender-based sexual violence throughout Egypt confirms the need for a truthful evaluation of these policies, and a revised strategy to ensure perpetuators are held accountable.
Policies to deter sexual violence were adopted by the Egyptian state in the past few years, in response to pressure from several local women’s rights groups. Units monitoring and combatting violent crimes against women in all Egyptian governorates, associated with the Ministry of Interior, was established in May 2013. Sexual harassment was explicitly criminalized for the first time in 2014, with Article 306 of the Egyptian Penal Code. In May 2015, the National Council for Women launched the National Strategy to Combat Violence against Women. Despite the importance of these policies and legislation, the recent mob sexual-assault underscores the reality that they have not been applied effectively and have significant shortcomings.
The wave of mob-sexual assaults and gang-rapes perpetrated in Tahrir Square and its vicinity were not an anomaly in a society where daily sexual violence and harassment is the norm for almost all women. It is not adequate for the state to view policies enacted in response to the mobilization after the Tahrir violence as temporary, only to be ignored now. The mob sexual-assault in Zagazig confirms the continued need for effective mechanisms combatting the unremitting scourge of sexual violence in Egypt’s towns and cities.
The culture of victim-blaming has dominated both the governmental and cultural responses to the mob-sexual assault. Members of the Egyptian Parliament (MPs), rather directing their efforts towards preventing men from brutally assaulting women, have instead conducted ad-hoc meetings blaming cultural decay or women themselves for male sexual violence. PM Ahmed El-Awady stressed the importance of “saving new generations from the demise of morals.” PM Amaal Tarabeya focused on halting the spread of pornographic websites in addition to “conducting seminars to reclaim morals and piety in society, away from wearing make-up and short clothes, as this attracts the attention of young men, resulting in flirtation.” Further adding insult to injury, the Zagazig Security Directorate stated that the survivor was wearing “extremely short clothes in front of a café, so several young men gathered around her, trying to harass her.”
Media outlets and popular culture also diffuse a victim-blaming discourse that ignores the fact that male violence against women is a natural outcome of the gender-based discrimination defining patriarchal society. The perpetrators themselves are often the last ones to be condemned for the violent acts they commit, if they ever are condemned at all. Instead, both popular and governmental ire are often directed towards societal circumstances such as a general lack of piety or religiosity. The survivor herself is often blamed for inciting the men to violence through her appearance. This sexist societal discourse shapes the deficient laws and policies adopted by the state to address the pervasive gender-based violence in Egypt. Even when potentially effective mechanisms are devised to safeguard women, the state and other relevant parties do not abide by or implement these mechanisms.
Crimes of sexual violence against women are not isolated from the patriarchal context wherein they occur; in other words, these crimes cannot be separated from the degrading views of women and the rejection of their presence and freedom in the public sphere. While the enactment of policies to combat sexual violence against women is a state prerogative, it does not absolve society as a whole from taking action to ensure women are safe in Egypt’s public spaces. Society must not be shut out from governmental dialogue regarding this issue, rendering them unable to monitor policies adopted by the state. This is why we have repeatedly called for a comprehensive and transparent monitoring and evaluation mechanism for the National Strategy to Combat Violence against Women, in order to effectively address the current shortcomings in the strategy’s application. Any legislation intended to effectively counter all forms of daily violence against women must ensure widespread societal monitoring of these policies.
Sexual violence against women afflicts all citizens. The only way to effectively confront the rampant gender-based violence in Egypt is to work from a discourse recognizing these crimes as sexist at their very core; crimes committed against women simply due to the fact that they are women. In the last few years, women’s rights advocates have persisted in pushing the issue of violence against women to the forefront of societal dialogue. Although their perseverance in the face of societal hostility has resulted in several key victories in state legislation, women still continue to pay severe consequences for simply existing in the public sphere. We find ourselves once again facing a brutal mob sexual-assault without any guarantee of accountability or an end to these atrocities.
Accordingly, we call for:
- Revision of the state’s strategies to combat violence against women, with the input of civil society and other concerned actors.
- Enactment of a transparent mechanism to monitor and evaluate the National Strategy to Combat Violence against Women
- Accountability for perpetrators and the announcement of the case proceedings in a transparent manner that ensures the privacy of the survivor.
- Nazra for Feminist Studies
- Appropriate Communication Techniques (ACT) for Development
- Cairo Center for Development and Law
- Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
- Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA)
- Daughter of the Land Association
- Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement
- Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights
- Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies
- El Nadeem Center for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture
- Ganoubia Horra for Development in Aswan
- Group for Legal Assistance for Human Rights
- Heliopolis Center got Political Development and Human Rights Research
- Imprint Movement
- New Woman Foundation
- Promising Voices Foundation for Human Rights and Participatory Development
- Salima Association for Women’s Development
- Tadwein Center for Gender Studies
- The Egyptian Observatory for Training and Consultation
- Bread and Liberty Party (in the process of formation)
- El-Dostour Party
- Masr Alhureyya Party
- Popular Current Party (in the process of fromation)
- Women’s Issues Committee at the Egyptian Social Democratic Party
- Bint Al-Masarwra
- Daughter of the Nile Movement in Beheira
- Femi Hub Initiative
- Girls’ Offline Radio Initiative in Ismailia
- You Can Initiative
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