Egyptian Women Have Long Struggled to Break Societal Taboos

“In a society like Egypt, where both men and women have lived under military dictatorship for decades and have been denied their human dignity, how can we expect men to understand the importance respecting the human rights of women?” asks Doaa Abdelaal, a council member with Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML).

Egyptian women--like women in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain--have taken a lead role in the protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Mainstream western media has overlooked how women have been at the forefront of breaking society taboos. The reality is that Egyptian women have been, for the past twenty years, working towards nationwide democratic change.

Perhaps the reason why images of women - who represented nearly 20 percent of the millions of activists who flocked to Tahrir Square and Alexandria - remain absent from the Western mediasphere is because Arab women are not only shaking the structure of despotism to the core, they are shattering many decades-long myths. At the forefront is the perception of the Arab woman as powerless, veiled and enslaved, forced into a cage of silence and invisibility by her jailor society.

Egyptian women were targets of the corrupt military and police state both before and during the eighteen-day rebellion, which resulted in the end of Mubarak’s thirty-year rule. In early March, 17 women were reportedly kidnapped and subjected to tests that would prove whether or not their virginity was still in tact.

Twenty-nine year old Rania (not her real name) is an unmarried social worker who was arrested on March 9th after returning to Tahrir Square around noon upon running errands like paying her university fees. “I was beaten, my hands tied behind my back and called a prostitute,” says Rania. “At night the real problems began. The army took us on a bus and took pictures of us and very brutally beat us.”

According to Rania, the army targeted her in particular because she spat in their faces, challenged them, and was the most vocal. After spending the night on the bus in Madinet Nasr, Rania and several other women were subjected to virginity tests to determine whether or not the army could charge them with prostitution. “The prison guard stripped us and was beating us with hoses. Then the female guard told us that girls will be examined and women won’t," says Rania. "I was examined for my virginity by a man wearing a white coat.”

Twenty-five year old Samira Ibrahim Mohamed from Upper Egypt, who was dragged away from Tahrir Square on the afternoon of March 9th after members of the army and men in plainclothes attacked and arbitrarily detained demonstrators, recounts a similar story. “Despite being electrocuted, fed kerosene-soaked food, insulted and tortured, the most humiliating moment was when me and ten other women were stripped and forcibly examined to determine whether we were virgins,” says Samira.

Traditionally, in the Arab world the sexual behaviour of women have played a pivotal role in maintaining or destroying a family’s honour. In order to maintain one’s social life, men would resort to killings in the name of honour if a female family member was accused of sexual misconduct.

Egypt’s laws pertaining to marriage, divorce, and domestic violence has long favoured the social position of men. “Our Egyptian courts have no laws relating to domestic violence against women,” says Dr. Magda Adly, Director of the El-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. “In one case, which I remember so well, a woman was married to a Judge who used to beat her daily to the point that sometimes she needed to be treated. Symbolically, the fact that he’s carrying the role of upholding justice publicly but he failed to uphold that same human relations inside the family says a lot about our justice system.”

For nearly two decades, women in Egypt have relentlessly dedicated their time and energy towards breaking many societal taboos such as female genital mutilation (FGM), domestic violence and rape. Egypt’s population of about eighty-five million constitutes a third of the Arab world and is growing by two percent each year. Two-thirds of the population is under thirty, and nearly forty percent live on less than two dollars per day, with a third illiterate. More than one-fifth of wage-earning workers in Egypt are women.

According to statistics, the number of women in the workforce has doubled from fifty thousand to one million between 1978 and 1980. In 1990 Egyptian women accounted for more than twelve percent of all industrial workers, mainly as textile, food processing and pharmaceutical labourers in free trade zone sweatshops.

Since 2004, Egypt’s labour force has amassed nearly three thousand strikes to challenge privatization and the corrupt policies entrenched in international lending agreements established by actors like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Women, who were always directly affected, led the way in demanding better economic conditions and opposing the regime. As part of the El-Nadim Center’s action plan in drafting a new domestic violence law that is representative of all the social classes in Egypt, advocates went to the country’s various regions and asked the women to draw upon their personal experiences to dictate what the final law should entail.

According to Dr. Adly, women were present in past parliaments but many only served as décor because they lacked interest in ratifying laws that would improve the situation of women in the long-term. “As a means of empowerment we asked the women to consider themselves a committee and pretend they’re in the parliament and write down the key issues that need to be addressed in the law. Right there they are being politically involved and in the end they put in their own words better than what more educated authors of legislation could have said,” adds Dr. Adly. “I’m not concerned about whether women are visible in the upcoming parliament but I am concerned about having articles in the new constitution that are for the betterment of Egyptian women because those articles will be with us for some time.”