In July 2021, the New York Times published a report outlining systemic sexual abuse in hospitals, prisons and police custody. This report has continued to shed light on women’s issues in the country, which Egypt has claimed to be fixing for at least a decade. Sexual abuse is an issue for Egyptian citizens and humanitarian standards and women’s rights across the world.
In Egypt, it is reported that women most commonly face strip searches, so-called virginity tests, groping, and a myriad of humiliating language and other behaviours. Often, these abuses occur after a woman has been arrested for protesting or even when women report a crime. The New York Times reports, “Rights groups say these searches constitute cruel and inhumane treatment that is prohibited under international law.” In 2011, Human Rights Watch published an article in which they outlined chillingly similar experiences to those that Egyptian women are still experiencing in 2021. They detailed that “Egypt is under an obligation to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate, and prosecute cases of violence against women, and to take action to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.” While Egypt has this requirement, real reform has not been implemented. Instead, sexual abuse continues to be used as a scare tactic and a way to suppress women’s desire to protest. Moreover, it contributes to an environment where victims feel unable to speak out about their experiences.
Human rights organizations, newspapers, and international bodies such as the UN continuously report Egypt’s systemic sexual abuse problem. Yet, international calls for change have done little to incite a shift towards helping women experiencing sexual harassment and abuse. The New York Times succinctly explains a considerable part of the problem; “Women in Egypt often avoid reporting sexual assault out of fear that they will be blamed.” As a result, the blame often falls on women who are victims of sexual assault, and after suffering abuse, there is no protection for them going forward. In July 2021, following the New York Times report, the government denied and rejected these credible and heart-wrenching claims. Simultaneously, as the government is discrediting survivors, the parliament passed harsher penalties for sexual harassment. Reuters reports that while Egypt passed laws in 2014 to create tougher sentences, they passed even harsher repercussions in 2021 as the old ones “did not achieve the necessary deterrence,” as quoted by a parliamentary committee. As long as the country continues to undermine women’s stories, like the outspoken survivors from the New York Times article, the country will see no change in violence against women. Therefore, a more systemic transformation is necessary.
To create change in Egypt, activists must utilize social media and educate the younger generation. The Financial Times reports that “The 2011 uprisings looked set to provide a window for a younger generation of emboldened female activists to press their case. But in the decade since, progress has largely stagnated as the region has become more autocratic.” While this paints a sad image for public freedoms in Egypt, it may be the best course of action to change the conversation surrounding sexual abuse. Since external pushes for change have done little to stop violence against women in the country, it is necessary to continue to expose the wrongdoings within the government to empower citizens to speak out for change and pressure the government to listen. Therefore, giving younger generations the resources to be well educated on these issues could have a long-lasting impact for decades to come. For instance, UN Women has youth organizations that are being fostered in Egypt to promote gender equality. If done right, programs such as these could help bolster the ability for women to speak out against gender-based violence as there is power in numbers.
The second tool that could help, which is often employed by younger generations, is social media. The Financial Times reports on the 2020 #MeToo movement in Egypt in which a 22-year-old student set up the Assault Police Instagram account to spread awareness and post testimonials on sexual abusers. This account gained much more traction than was expected, allowing women to post their experiences on social media, creating a space to share more public allegations for specific harassers and forcing something to be done about it. The creator of this page, Nadeen Ashraf, said to the Financial Times “I see a lot of change within my generation,” says Ashraf. “But I am also aware that I’m in an [upper middle class] bubble. The big change will happen when we’re able to lobby and push for more legal reform.”
While it is just a start, this use of social media creates a more straightforward method for victims to talk to one another. Allowing for greater communication empowers women to speak out about violence they have endured. While social media alone is not enough, it is an essential step in the right direction, aiding critical commentary on the situation from within Egypt and inciting organizations outside of Egypt to do the same.
Violence against women is an ongoing and unending problem around the world. Looking specifically at Egpyt, the systemic issues of sexual abuse are only worsened by abuse committed by police officers and agents of the state. Sexual abuse is often used to degrade, humiliate, and hurt women who speak out, whether in the form of protesting or reporting a crime. This widespread problem has been addressed repeatedly, yet the Egyptian government continues to deny claims and only create minor fixes for a much larger societal problem. To change these flagrant abuses, the younger generations need to be better empowered to speak out against violence against women so authorities can no longer sweep it under the rug.
Allowing victims a space to be comfortable to speak about their experiences with abuse could create positive change. Therefore, using social media tools could help interconnect advocates for change, forcing the government to reexamine their policies that affect women. While the country’s parliament did pass harsher sentences for sexual abuse, a change in attitude towards sexual abuse and the stories of survivors has to follow, and only time will tell if that will happen.