December 11, 2013
A study published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation on November 12 lists Egypt as the worst country in the Arab world in which to be a woman. While some may expect the report to generate shock waves, many of us in Egypt are all too familiar with this reality, which includes high rates of female genital mutilation – an illegal but still widely-performed practice – general lack of access to adequate healthcare and education for many girls, especially in rural or impoverished areas, child marriage, and the predominance of sexual harassment and violence against women.
For activists and women’s rights organizations in Egypt, these are some of the most critical issues consuming their work.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation Study: An Accurate Reflection of Women’s Rights in Egypt?
While the absolute standard of living and human rights for women in Egypt are certainly not worse than in places such as Iraq or Yemen, in recent years the circumstances facing women in Egypt have notably and rapidly deteriorated. This will have terrifying implications for the country’s future, unless something is done to stop it now.
As critics of the study have remarked, any survey of women’s rights in a region long defined in relation to, and according to the terms of, the Global North, is inevitably fraught with complications.
In a recent article about the report, H.A. Hellyer claims that “all too often, Western observers, as well as Westernized elites in the Arab world, make claims and arguments that are based on assertions and assumptions that talk about Arab women, as opposed to letting them speak for themselves.”
This is not merely problematic as an analytical approach, but also potentially misleading for advocacy and intervention efforts guided by these assertions.
Unless these initiatives are led by and based on the needs of women in the region, as identified by the women themselves, well-meaning people determined to contribute to their empowerment may expend a lot of energy without attaining real results. At worst, they may engage in misguided efforts that could potentially direct energy, focus, and resources away from where they are actually needed.
The Rise of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Movement
As change continues to sweep through the region, an increasing number of organizations have recognized the need for multi-stakeholder collaboration in order to effect genuine progress.
The 2011 Egyptian revolution marked a turning point in the breakdown of traditional power structures, at least to the extent that people from all sectors of society felt emboldened to take to the streets and make their voices heard.
That energy and realization of collective power has transformed into a cultural paradigm that has taken root deep in the country’s consciousness.
In the last three years, people have publicly mobilized to advocate for their rights at demonstrations and sit-ins in now-iconic environs including Tahrir Square, Itahidayya Palace, and Rabaa Adawaya Square, as well as through million-man marches and countless protests outside various government buildings.
The surge in anti-sexual harassment movements, which began in late 2012 and early 2013, was a response to the increase in the worrying phenomenon of mass sexual assaults during protests in Tahrir Square.
Evidence suggests these assaults and rapes were part of a planned process instigated by counter-revolutionary forces to undermine and discredit the revolution. Nevertheless, the frequent occurrence of sexual harassment in Egyptian society cannot be discounted as a factor contributing to the vicious nature and regularity of these crimes.
Tahrir Bodyguard was founded in November 2012 to take action against the threat of sexual assault during protests.
Tahrir Bodyguard grew exponentially as a result of the burgeoning threat of sexual assault and the hard work of a small group of committed volunteers – including those who risked their own safety and wellbeing to intervene and remove women being harassed or assaulted during protests. These interventions were vital during periods of weekly, large-scale protests in Tahrir, which were invariably accompanied by horrific attacks against women and girls.
There are no words, other than “hero,” to adequately describe the brave women and men who risked their lives to intervene in these assaults.
In terms of both strategic planning and on-the-ground interventions, Tahrir Bodyguard has regularly worked with other like-minded groups, such as Operation Anti Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH), HarassMap, Shoft Ta7arosh (I Saw Harassment) and Nazra for Feminist Studies. All these organizations have done important work and in several cases, without exaggeration, have saved lives.
It is clear, though, that problems of gender inequality and violence against women, in all forms, run far deeper than even the ugliest incidents of mass sexual assault.
Widespread sexual harassment, lack of access to education and health care, and high rates of FGM, child marriage, and infant mortality are all the result of myriad social, cultural, economic, and political factors that must be addressed if there is to be meaningful change.
Deep-rooted discrimination has led to a lack of equal opportunities throughout Egyptian society, examples of which are manifold, with cumulative effects that are devastating for the country.
Creating equal opportunities for women is not merely a moral issue, but rather has an enormous practical impact on the growth and development of the country in both social and economic terms.
Prioritizing the education of boys over girls has, for example, contributed to many women experiencing unhealthy pregnancies, high rates of child mortality, as well as rapid growth in Egypt’s already unsustainable population. Educated women are more likely to have fewer, healthier children by spacing out their pregnancies and getting adequate rest and nutrition. They are also better able to make well-informed choices about their bodies, reducing the risk of sexual and other health problems; to decide to work if they wish, giving them the opportunity to contribute economically; and to help reduce the instances of sexual violence by instilling in their sons a fundamental respect for women and teaching their daughters about women’s rights.
Dignity Without Borders
Our new initiative, Dignity Without Borders (DWB), was established three months ago as a separate and fully independent group with the aim of extending the work done through Tahrir Bodyguard. Dignity Without Borders was co-founded by Egyptian and non-Egyptian women, including myself, as well as Egyptian men.
Our founding team reflects the group’s conviction that Egyptian women are active agents and leaders in the fight to secure their rights and that support and collaboration between gender equality defenders of all genders and nationalities is a crucial part of this process.
Dignity Without Borders is focused on tackling the root causes of harassment and assault: a lack of education and awareness about the extent of gender inequality in Egypt and its far-reaching effects; the lack of empathy felt toward women by many men, and belief that girls or women are not worthy of the same rights, opportunities, and privileges as boys or men; the pervasive virgin/whore binary, in which women are either regarded as modest, chaste vessels of family honor, or creatures with loose, easy morals to be objectified for men’s pleasure.
We absolutely reject the idea, whether overtly presented or implied through convention, tradition, commonly-held attitudes, or popular culture, that women exist only in relation to men, and that a woman’s value lies in her appearance, sexuality, or so-called “purity.”
We defend women’s right to be valued equally to men in all spheres. We push for their access to comprehensive, high quality education and healthcare. We insist on their capacity to make their own life choices with regard to their careers, prospective marriages, bodies, clothing, and social activities. We challenge any belief that women are not autonomous human beings who have value in and of themselves and whose choices should be respected.
We stand for full gender equality and against all forms of discrimination.
As reflected in the Dignity Without Borders mission statement, we have adopted a participatory approach and collaborate with organizations and individuals who share our aims, to ensure that women have all possible resources and opportunities at their disposal to be aware of, access, and raise further awareness about their own rights.
Full Participation through Collaboration
Despite Egypt’s unquestionably patriarchal society, Egyptian women – long accustomed to bearing the brunt of decision making within the family unit and striking a careful balance between relinquishing (or being seen to relinquish) their autonomy to men in many matters, while simultaneously assuming much of the responsibility for men’s choices – are natural leaders.
Dignity Without Borders recently interviewed one woman about the need to include a specific quota in the new constitution for women representatives in the Egyptian Parliament. She clearly stated that the quota system was key for guaranteeing women’s full participation in parliament and political processes in the country.
In commenting on the constitutional committee’s work on this provision, she demanded to know, “what does it mean that the quota for women in the Egyptian Parliament has now become a ‘reasonable percentage?’ What does it mean to say ‘reasonable?’ How can they waste our right to that extent? Are we supposed to move forward or regress? Why would the Committee of 50 [responsible for amending the constitution] accept this humiliation for women? Why? Didn’t we serve them? Didn’t we offer our services to Egypt? Aren’t we Shajar al-Durr? Aren’t we Safeya Zaghloul? … Why would we go back? Why?”
She went on: “I do not accept [the marginalization of women] and we will not give up our right within the constitution, our right in local councils, our right to hold leading positions. What does it mean [to differentiate between] a woman and a man? We want our complete rights. Is the Kuwaiti Parliament better than us? Why should this be? This is Egypt. We are the mother of the world. Why should we decline? We will not accept any decline of women’s rights and roles. The Committee of 50 has to take into consideration that we are strong women and we will claim our rights. And if we do not [succeed in this struggle] we will hand it over to our children. Believe me, we will never be silenced; we will never give up our rights… It is the woman who is truly able to fight for the family’s rights – not only the rights of the family but also the rights of the man because she is the one who has studied the man; she is the one who has raised the man. There is no evolution of a society without women. Whoever votes for something else is the one who does not understand!”**
The rapid growth of the anti-harassment movement is due in large part to outstanding Egyptian women like this individual who have initiated and led these efforts, alongside like-minded Egyptian men and non-Egyptian men and women.
As the founders and volunteers of Dignity Without Borders, we do not believe the deterioration of women’s rights in Egypt, highlighted by Thomson Reuters, is inevitable or irreversible. Guided by this conviction, we are continuing the movement to catalyze change, through an advocacy campaign that will stimulate dialogue and discussion by posing controversial questions and challenges about sexual harassment to different people and groups within Egyptian society.
Dignity Without Borders has already released the first in a series of videos asking people to define their understandings of harassment. A forthcoming video includes interviews with a group of young primary school children, already inculcated with discriminatory gender views and accustomed to using obscene or vulgar language to address women, to explain why they consider their behavior acceptable.
Our photo campaign “Women Can’t Be Silenced” aims to prompt discussion and debate about ways of ensuring women’s voices are heard and fully acknowledged.
Eventually, Dignity Without Borders hopes to engage in broader community outreach efforts, by working with local organizations on education initiatives. This will take time and, as a new movement, we still have much to learn. We recognize that we are at the beginning of a long process. Our goal in collaborating with other organizations to build a movement for comprehensive change cannot happen overnight.
The Future of the Women’s Empowerment Movement in Egypt
On November 13, the same day the results of the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s study were circulated around the globe, Dignity Without Borders participated in a peaceful demonstration outside the Shura Council (the upper house of parliament) calling for the rights and demands of women to be integrated into the new constitution.
Azza Kamel, President of ACT (Appropriate Communication Techniques for Development), one of the event organizers, explained her motivations for participating in the action:
“We are here today to demand a quota of women’s representation in the Parliament that is no less than 30% … We are here to tell [the members of the Commission for amending the constitution] that Egypt is considered today to be one of the biggest culprits worldwide in terms of violence against women. In whose interests are women being excluded from Parliament, the constitution or any position that provides us – women – with power?”
A representative of Fouada Watch outlined the situation in even starker terms. “Up to this point, there is still no reference in the constitution to women’s issues. Not even the article we demanded to be integrated into the amendments, on the State’s obligation to respect international conventions on human rights or violence against women, has been mentioned there.”
Hala Mostafa from Shoft Ta7arosh underlined the determination among all participating movements and members involved in this call for women’s rights to take whatever peaceful steps were necessary to ensure their voices would be heard and their opinions considered and respected:
“The constitution has to include women’s rights as equal to other rights … A woman is like a man [in value]. Women carried the revolution upon their shoulders; women are responsible for their families; a woman shares everything with a man. It is therefore a woman’s right that the constitution ensures her rights as equal to those of men … We expected that the Committee of 50, which includes the so-called “civil state’s symbols,” to work on a constitution suitable for Egypt and Egyptian women and men. In the past month and a half, we have communicated our demands clearly to them and a hearing was scheduled for us, which we attended but there was no response to any of our demands. We are here today to object, protest and tell them this is not right. Women’s demands should be integrated into the constitution. This protest is our first escalatory step and if women’s demands are not integrated into the constitution, we will work on a campaign calling for a boycott of the referendum or a negative vote. And if the constitution is still passed in spite of this, we will work on withdrawing it.”***
Dignity Without Borders does not see the battle for gender equality, full participation, and freedom from sexual violence as political issues, despite its frequent politicization.
We believe women’s full participation in the social and political life of Egypt – through activism, advocacy, education, awareness, and debate – is a chance to secure dignity for all Egyptian citizens. Now more than ever, seizing this opportunity is crucial.
*Lucy Marx is a co-founder of Dignity Without Borders. She has been based in the MENA region for four years and during this time has embarked on freelance writing projects and worked for Ashoka Arab World and Save the Children, as well as with the Tahrir Bodyguard movement. She holds a postgraduate diploma in Arabic language and has previously worked in France and for development organizations and publications that promote freedom of expression in the UK.
**See Dignity Without Borders’ full interview in Arabic with this extraordinary woman.
***Full interviews in Arabic with organizers of the November 13 demonstrations quoted above can be viewed here.
Photo: Dignity Without Borders Official Campaign Photo