Published in Muftah Magazine Jun 10 2014. Click here for link .
Nations do not devolve suddenly. The process is insidious, interconnected, and complex but often leaves welts on a country’s soul. In the past three years, Egypt has had a monumental security vacuum, of this there can be no doubt. But, there are no excuses for any man, anywhere, to forcibly touch one hair on any woman in Egypt or elsewhere, security vacuum or not.
There are very few inhabiting the social media world who by now have not seen video of the horrific rape that occurred in Tahrir Square on Sunday June 8. The incident was one of five sexual assaults that took place in the middle of Tahrir Square during Abdel Fattah el Sissi’s presidential inauguration celebrations. These are not the first such incidents to occur in the country nor, likely, will they be the last.
The systematic brutality and moral nonchalance of the attacks have undoubtedly baffled many. My instinctive reaction upon seeing the rape video was particularly Hobbesian: namely, to slow down the video, identify the faces on tape and punish the perpetrators severely in a manner that would make even the blood of the vicious curdle.
But, instinctive reactions are more often than not an unconstructive solution. To make headway, we must instead ask the all-important question: why? In particular, we must understand whether these are simply individual crimes or the products of societal malaise.
Somewhere between the miniskirts and colorful hair styles of the 1970’s worn by many of our mothers, Egypt became a nation where unisex swimming pools became the norm and the veil was transformed from religious garb into contorted juxtapositions of socially normative and sexually protective walls.
The very notion that a woman’s dress is subject to societal judgment is where the problem begins. It is troubling to say the least that a conservative society, in both its Muslim and Christian variants, demands a certain amount of decorum from its female members. The mere fact this all-too popular notion goes unchallenged is the fault of both men andwomen who acquiesce and further Egypt’s unspoken dress code.
According to Nesreen Salem, 35, who is currently pursuing a PhD in fairy tales with a feminist focus, a misogynistic perspective stunningly propelled by women helps determine what is and is not proper in societies like Egypt. ‘Women are the tools of patriarchy; they are rewarded for conforming to these strictures and rules,’ argues Salem. As is often the case, women can, and often do, play the role of victimizer by limiting the freedom of dress enjoyed by other members of their gender. The implied message is as unmistakable as it is both sexist and irrational: what you wear will directly impact how much unwanted verbal and physical attention you receive from obtrusive men.
This manner of thinking is obviously both unrealistic and untrue. The fact that women in niqab are sexually harassed underscores the fact that a woman’s dress does little to influence a harasser intent on preying upon her.
In an ideal world, what a woman wears should be her purview and hers alone. Clearly, however, there is nothing ideal about Egypt’s culture of patriarchy. The circle of control over women is so punishing, in fact, that an accomplished academic like Salem can feel ‘half a human or subhuman’ in the country. Is it any surprise then that such a society would simply excuse the rapists behavior?; as TV anchor Maha Bahansy ludicrously suggested [in the clip below], the men ‘were just being happy ‘ celebrating Sissi’s inauguration.
While social factors have clearly led to the denudation of women’s dignity in Egypt, the question begs itself: are there political elements that have caused this devolution? The answer, as with all nuanced discussions, is both yes and no.
Particularly during the transitional rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), some analysts and journalists argued that rapes, particularly in Tahrir Square, were a pointed political message from the regime, telling women to stay away from the political arena.
‘Injustice plus misogyny has created the explosive situation we are in,’ argues Dr. Amira Aly, 34, a psychiatrist specializing in mental health. If an Egyptian male is oppressed by an unjust system and has no recourse, then frustration builds and is emptied upon the woman in his life. Dr. Aly argues that, in the last days of Hosni Mubarak’s reign, it became clear ‘that you could do anything you wanted except attack the system’. ‘You can rape a woman and nothing will happen to you but you cannot speak badly of [the system],’ she says.
Dr. Aly also, however, returns to the role of Egyptian society in these attacks. As she points out, women have been divided into two categories: the ‘good’ and the ‘loose.’ Salem points out that, on both the cultural and religious level, Egyptian society perceives women on the street as fair game. As she argues, ‘families are invested in applying cultural norms and traditions’ to ensure women remain second-class citizens.
Salem also sees politics in the rise of sexual assaults in Tahrir Square: ‘Rape is a political weapon. The fact that it happened in Tahrir in such an organized manner proves it.’ But social norms also play an important role in her view. To sublimate the rights of women, men use religion; after all, when ‘its God, how can you argue?,’ she says. Salem points out that boys and girls are socialized to see rape as the woman’s fault: ‘we don’t tell our sons not to rape;’ instead, ‘we tell our daughters don’t get raped…we will never win a political revolution till we win a social one.’
With such systematic, deeply rooted, double standards why should any of us be surprised that these rapes have become so commonplace? With the onset of the January 25 revolution in 2011, hopes were high that women would garner much deserved rights, long ignored by a sexist society. It would be an understatement to say this has yet to transpire.
While vigilante justice is a natural reaction to the plight of the vulnerable, it will solve nothing in this case. To address the terrifying increases in sexual assaults in Egypt, the first step is to hold up the mirror to ourselves and ask what we have each done to contribute to this moral blight plaguing the country? A nation that does not respect its women can never hope to be elevated to the ranks of civilized nations.
From this writer’s vantage point the choice is ours. Either we ignore these systematic fault lines and languish where we stand or we rise up, honorably, and say we are at fault and begin to build a discourse of respect between Egypt’s men and women. For the sake of our nation, let us hope we choose the latter option.