The Undiscussed Backsliding of Women’s Rights in Egypt and Arab World

When I lived in Cairo last year, many Egyptians told me that the Arab Spring hadn’t improved anything. Things were worse than they were before the 2011 revolution. Food prices shot up. Young people still didn’t have jobs and didn’t care to vote. The military government crushed dissent, arresting journalists and activists alike. A Thomson Reuters poll named Cairo as the world’s most dangerous city for women in 2017, testifying to the double whammy of oppression Egyptian women endure.

Misogyny – the child of patriarchy and religious fundamentalism – grows stronger as Egypt enters one of the most repressive climates in recent history. In Egypt, the global outcry against sexual abuse is not even close to making a dent on the culture where women are second-tier citizens.

Eight years ago, when millions gathered peacefully in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand freedom and civil rights, the police – and some male protestors, too – groped, stripped, beat and dragged female protesters through the streets. Women in custody underwent “virginity tests.” It’s not surprising that the state would use such tactics to silence female activists; 99 percent of Egyptian women report being sexually harassed in streets. Nearly half have experienced domestic violence. And a whopping 90 percent have undergone some kind of female genital mutilation, a symbol of chastity.

The country’s first-ever sexual harassment law introduced in 2014 has no teeth. Women continue to stay silent, given the risks they face.

From feckless laws to fear over speaking out, the absence of support is poignant. Egyptian laws are partially based on sharia, Islamic codes that include rules used to discriminate against women. In 1981, Egypt ratified the UN convention calling for an end to discrimination against women, but the family law remains untouched on account of “sacrosanct” religious beliefs. For instance, it doesn’t prohibit domestic violence or spousal rape. Judges and the police consider such matters private. Men can have up to four wives at the same time in keeping with Islamic law and unilaterally divorce them without justification; women cannot. Many stay in abusive marriages or give up financial rights to leave. If they remarry, the custody of children reverts to the father.

Even if all the right laws were in place, shifting the ingrained misogynistic attitude still is an uphill battle. This is a universal problem. There is no shortage of societies that lag behind their laws. Genital cutting of Egyptian girls was criminalized in 2008. But the practice shows no sign of slowing down, and only one person has been convicted to date. Egypt made a record leap filling 15 percent of the parliament seats with women in 2015. A quarter (eight positions) of President Sisi’s cabinet is female. Still, women’s issues go unaddressed. Media coverage of the female ministers focus on their makeup and outfits, skipping any below-the-surface discussions on policy.

Another problem is the lack of education and awareness. One third of Egyptian women cannot read or write (for men, it’s under 20 percent). Forced marriage and trafficking are thriving in the outskirts of Cairo. Last year, in a survey conducted by the UN Women and Promundo, 60 percent of women responded that if a woman is raped, she should marry the rapist. Disempowered women become participants in perpetuating violence.

According to The New Yorker, the 2011 revolution was celebrated because women and men fought together on the frontline. Yet it failed to bring change to “the most conservative of institutions”: the Egyptian family. Evidence supports that an overhaul should begin at home. The same survey from UN Women and Promundo found that men (and women) held more equitable views on gender, if their mothers had more education and fathers were more involved in domestic chores.

When girls get an education, they marry later, have fewer children, earn more, and invest in family’s health and education. Investing in girls’ education is “the biggest bang for the buck,” claimed the former World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim.

Of course, opponents would wave the flag of cultural relativism and tell us to stay out of their business. No one is suggesting that Egypt should become like North America or Western Europe. Nor does any sensible person believe that misogyny is a problem only in Egypt. Yet, religion or culture cannot be an excuse to mistreat women or any other group of humans – not today. It was in this spirit of universality and transcendentalism of human dignity that representatives of different religious background and nationalities drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Repression is echoing throughout the Middle East. Arrests and tortures of women’s rights activists, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, all of them undo the gains women everywhere have fought for. But there is hope, too. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, just became the first Arab country to pass an equal inheritance law – even though the parliament initially rejected the legislation because it contradicted the Quran verse that says women should inherit half of what men do.

Many ordinary Egyptians believe that unseen amidst Cairo’s swirling traffic and magnificent ancient treasures, a second revolution is seething. Like much of the Middle East, Egyptian women are pushing for their Seneca Falls moment. Sadly, given its post-Arab Spring backsliding on reforms, Egypt is still lightyears from anything that resembles a MeToo movement.

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2019. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

(Photo credit: Fatma Elzahraa Yassin/UN Women via Creative Commons)