In 2011, the world watched as a revolution pushed to oust President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. The popular efforts succeeded, but what much of the world failed to realise was the role that women played during the revolution.
Through a constant stream of protests and marches, Egyptian women stood side by side with the men and fought for a government that would listen to their voices and, hopefully, protect them more than successive governments in Cairo had throughout much of the country’s history.
Egypt is the Middle East’s most populous country. Along with many other countries in this part of the world, Egyptian women have long faced serious hardships, struggled for justice and been given little to no active voice in politics and government. There was hope in 2011 that the tide was about to change.
However, it became clear that little would change, and what little change there might be would require even more determination, drive and perseverance. Even while those women were protesting tirelessly and, ultimately, helped to remove Mubarak, the victory came at a cost for far too many.
Reports of violence against women, including sexual assaults against female journalists at the hands of angry male mobs, were publicised, but they don’t appear to have had much of an impact.
Last month, a young woman studying at Mansoura University was stabbed to death in broad daylight, in front of many witnesses. Her injuries were extensive, including wounds to her neck, chest and stomach. Naira Ashraf was the victim of a young man who had asked her to marry him, but who refused to accept no for an answer. She was just 21 and had dreams of becoming a flight attendant and traveling the world. Instead, her life was cut short by a man who wouldn’t leave her alone.
The situation had become so grave that she and her family obtained a restraining order against him. Yet, it did nothing to protect her or keep her safe. Suddenly, instead of looking forward to celebrating Naira’s college degree and new career, her family had a funeral to plan.The issue of gender-based violence is significant in Egypt. Part of the problem, according to women’s rights experts, is that there are shortcomings in the law, and society just hasn’t taken it as a real concern. In other words, as a nation, Egyptians don’t seem to be too concerned about what happens to women; it’s a refrain heard too often around the world.
The data on violent crimes against women in Egypt is woeful. In some cases, it’s almost non-existent. Incidents of assault and rape are not documented properly, according to Lobna Darwish, a gender and human rights officer at Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). Even though there are plenty of reports in the news media on a regular basis, there has been little movement to change the pattern. According to Egyptian lawyer and chairwoman of the Centre for Egyptian Women and Legal Assistance, Azza Suliman, “We need a law that fights violence.”
While common sense would seem to suggest that most people understand that men who are violent against women should be prosecuted, that doesn’t happen on anywhere near enough occasions. Furthermore, last year nine women were prosecuted for what the state claimed were “violations of family values”. The women posted videos on social media sites as they were dancing and dressed in a manner that some family or friends considered provocative. They had a large social media following.
Apparently, in this social media age, women in Egypt are not permitted to present themselves to the world in the way that they themselves see fit. “This,” said Darwish, “gives a green light for these people [men who are violent against women].”
There are plenty of legitimate questions surrounding the law and the protection of women in the Middle East. Even though the world is moving forward at a breakneck pace on many levels, too many nations continue to lag behind when it comes to protecting women and promoting their rights.
The UN Development Programme ranked Egypt 108 out of 162 nations with regard to gender inequality based on health, economic opportunities and empowerment. In order for the law to catch up, society has to be more vocal about women’s rights. When the general public demands action, when it finally stands up with one unanimous voice and demands change, then change can — and often does — happen.
The case of Naira Ashraf is one of many. She did everything she could to protect herself from a violent man, but the law failed her. It fails too many women in Egypt, and it will continue to fail them unless and until the general public stands up and says, “Enough!”
When will that happen in Egypt? It’s well overdue: months, years, even decades overdue. Now is the time for the Egyptian people to take a stand, make some noise and demand that their political leaders establish a legal system that protects women as much as it protects men.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.