During the inauguration of Egypt’s new president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in 2014, I witnessed a teenager bloodily raped by men celebrating the new regime. Apparently, this was just among the many sexual assaults that occurred that day in a heavily guarded event with law enforcement agencies meant to guard the new Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Media reports further showed that many foreign female journalists were sexually harassed by men at Tahir Square (Amar, 2013; Cordes, 2014). Following these events, the country established a new legislation criminalizing sexual harassment. The law stipulates that: ‘Anyone who verbally, physically, by means of gesture or via electronic media is culpable of sexual harassment can be given a six-month jail sentence and a fine of between EGP 3,000 and EGP 5,000. For repeat offenders, these punishments can be doubled’ (Cordes, 2014). While the police in Egypt have been linked with sexual harassment, they are further ignoring the laws against sexual harassment because mistreatment of women is embedded in the Egyptian culture with negligible assistance for the society.
The issue of sexual violence against women is deeply entrenched in the Egyptian culture. Traditionally, Egypt has been socialized to legitimize a patriarchal status quo. Apparently, Arab countries in the world have primarily identified women as reproductive and sexual beings constrained by men, family, and the state for a long time (Zuhur, 2008). According to Amar (2013), Egyptian criminal law was designed using Napoleonic French Law blueprint, which dates back to 1882. Before that, the country was governed by Sharia Law as well as other laws established by the courts of the land (Amar, 2013). It was only in 1937 when the penal code was promulgated, but this has undergone various amendments (Reza, 2011). Currently, the modern penal code both in Egypt and other MENA countries remain highly patriarchal, underpinned by the strict monitoring of women’s sexuality, which according to Zuhur (2008), is used to assess the honor of men and families. Interestingly, the shift from Sharia Laws to the current civil laws have done very little to erase women objectification as sexual belongings for men. What is more, feminist, activists, human rights organizations, and lawyers have for decades criticized the legislation dealing with sexual assault (Articles 267, 268 and 269) and championed for their revision (Tadros 2014b). Particularly, they have challenged the ‘violation of honor’ language found in Article 268, which fails to articulate the various forms of sexual violence as well as the failure of the legislation to recognize non-vaginal and –penile types of forced penetration (Reza, 2011). Unfortunately, Egypt has a culture of silence and shame when it comes to matters sexuality. The social fabric is designed such that the people not only entertain sexual harassment but also shy away from sharing about the vice. Thus, the police, who are also Egyptians, have no choice but to conform to the societal values.
The society, civil society, and the media are not doing enough to assist the police in fighting sexual violence against women. It is imperative to state that establishing a sexual violence-free society is a joint responsibility rather than the sole effort of the state machinery. Unfortunately, in 2014, women were sexually harassed in a public space, who either cheered on the perpetrators or took a back seat (Afifi, 2017). Furthermore, civil societies and NGOs also carry the burden of countering the entrenched disrespect of and negative attitude towards women in the society. According to Afifi (2017), ‘even civil society organisations and activists were reluctant to support their feminist partners who were raising the issue’. Families have the duty to raise their children responsibly and produce a generation of men and women who are respectful; failure to do that breeds a society that disrespects women (Komsan, 2009). Furthermore, civil societies and NGOs also carry the burden of countering the entrenched disrespect of and negative attitude towards women in the society. For instance, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights has been at the forefront to curb this menace. The institution has identified that 83 percent and 98 percent of Egyptian and foreign women, respectively were sexually harassed in the country (Komsan, 2009). Even so, most complaints from both Egyptians and non-Egyptian victims have not been shared because the victims are not sure about their personal safety as well as the security of the streets; these are the responsibilities of the police, to uphold safety and security for Egyptians (Zuhur, 2008). Similarly, religious institutions have the responsibility to assist in sensitizing their faithful on the need to shift the negative gender perspective entrenched in the culture and create a favorable environment for women. Social institutions have a role to motivate the police to implement anti-sexual violence laws. Without the input of these institutions, it would be impossible for the police to remain steadfast about combating sex harassment against women and men alike.
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However, the police have embraced the culture of promoting sexual violence themselves, making it difficult to fight the menace. Apparently, the issue of sexual assault is a sociocultural and political ideology and practice of a present regime (Skalli, 2014). Considering that Egypt is run by a majority of men in the military, social relations have generated a persuasive means to overate masculinity. In fact, during the regime of Mubarak, many people were incarcerated and tortured (Amar, 2011). Tadros (2014), elaborates that the majority of sexual violence acts occurred in detentions areas such as police stations, prisons, and other secret detention centers. In 2005, the police are believed to have hired goons to publicly strip a female reporter of her clothes; they also participated in various incidents of women harassment during protests against Mubarak’s regime (Amar, 2013). Despite the intimidation tactics, women continued to assemble in Tahrir Square and other key areas. With the abdication of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces took power but was opposed by young people for its monopolization of state power and excessive use of political force to oppress the opposition. A group of protesting women demanding that women’s rights should be recognized in Egypt. They were attacked by men who claimed to put them on virginity test, threatening to charge them with prostitution (Amnesty International, 2012). Fortunately, the military admitted to the atrocities (Zaltsman, 2012). It is clear that law enforcers themselves taken part in either assisting, covering up, or perpetrating sexual harassment. This counter-active contribution from an institution that should enforce anti-sexual harassment laws creates an environment for lawlessness among the Egyptians.
In sum, the police appear to ignore the laws against sexual harassment, a vice that is embedded in the Egyptian culture. During the political unrest in the country, many women, both locals, and foreigners were reportedly assaulted sexually in various forms. Clearly, sexual violence is disguised under other forms of violence, which demand police action. The police find it difficult to act because Egyptians have normalized the vice, and to some extent, fail to report the incidences. In addition, the police and military personnel have directly been linked to sexual violence cases, demonstrating their laxity in combating the menace. From where I stand, as I’ve lived in Egypt for a long period of time, I can confidently affirm that the situation did ameliorate from back in the days, yet a lot needs to be done to curb entirely sexual harassment in Egypt. Furthermore, the society is playing a minimal role in assisting the police to curb the vice. Thus, I believe all stakeholders in Egypt, including the citizens, professionals, and the government can collaborate to promote a society that is free from sexual violence.
Afifi, H. (2017). In Egypt, lifting the veil on sexual violence. Retrieved from: https://gulfnews.com/culture/people/in-egypt-lifting-the-veil-on-sexual-violence-1.1994373
Amar, P. (2011). Turning the gender politics of the security state inside out? International Journal of Feminist Politics, 13(3): 299–328.
Amar, P. (2013). The Security Archipelago Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics and the End of Neoliberalism. Durham: Duke University of Press.
Amnesty International. (2012). Egypt: Acquittal of Egyptian military doctor fails women victims of ‘virginity tests’. Retrieved from: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/egypt-acquittal-eleven-men-not-enough
Cordes, S. (2014). Egypt’s new anti-harassment law to make a difference? Retrieved from: http://kvinfo.org/news-and-background/egypts-new-anti-harassment-law-make-difference
Komsan, N. A. (2009). Sexual Harassment in the Arab Region: Cultural Challenges and Legal Gaps Findings from the Conference on “Sexual Harassment as Social Violence, and it’s Effect on Women”. Retrieved from: http://egypt.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/8655f498-85a0-434e-9396-bfa3b390f63e.pdf