Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School - Green Background

Condemning Violence Against Women: A Step Towards Political Stability in Egypt

Guest Comment by Kayla DeLeon, Research Associate, Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School

Amidst the instability in post-Mubarak Egypt, Tahrir Square, a central space for public protest in Cairo, has become an epicenter for violence against women. Egyptian women, coming to voice their political opinions in protest, take on a very real risk of sexual assault every time they enter the Square. Reaching epidemic status, assaults on female protestors have become the norm, forcing women to reconsider their participation in mass protests in fear that they too will become victims of sexual violence.[1] Oftentimes, fellow protestors commit the attacks, posing a puzzling question: Why would opposition movements turn their back on the female half of the Egyptian population when, if acting in a purely strategic manner, they would incorporate those women into their ranks?

It is possible that the answer lies in the deeply ingrained views of Egyptian society regarding violence against women. In Egypt, social norms surrounding rape affirm the fallacy that rape is the fault of the victim.[2] Entrenched societal beliefs lead victims to be blamed for provoking their attackers by dressing or acting too provocatively. Moreover, rape victims are discouraged from reporting their attacks, sometimes even by law enforcement and legal professionals.[3] This norm of silence and shame results in a portion of Egyptian society perceiving sexual assault as something that occurs only to women who deserve it.[4]

Since the Arab Spring, Egyptian women have taken to the streets alongside male protestors, attempting to voice their opinion in Tahrir Square. This involvement, however, is curbed by fears of sexual assault and a lack of governmental protection to subside that fear.

Ostracized from the inner circles of politics, women's voices speaking out against sexual harassment are rarely heard.[5] With this in mind, it seems that opposition movements have an opportunity to earn the support of a large number of women by endorsing women's rights issues. This is especially true since former President Mohamed Morsi's regressive political statements, including his claim that one UN declaration condemning violence against women would cause a "complete disintegration of society," have recently provoked outrage from women across the country.[6] Nevertheless, social norms appear to have segregated Egyptian women into a sphere outside of the political arena, where they are increasingly viewed as a constituency whose support is not needed. Instead, the women involved in politics serve merely publicity-centered roles, with parties parading them around during election seasons as a symbol of female support.[7]

With the ultimate goal of returning Egypt to stability, political parties should take the concerns of Egyptian women seriously. The actions of those who rape female protestors in Tahrir Square should not be condoned or ignored by the opposition movement and denouncing this kind of violence is the first step toward integrating women into the political sphere. By taking this stance, opposition movements have the chance to instigate a shift in societal norms, condemning customs of victim-blaming and embracing women as rights bearing individuals.

Past experience shows that female participation on a grander scale can help countries achieve peace in times of political unrest. In Liberia, for example, where violence against women was once commonplace, massive female involvement in peace talks in 2003 assisted the country in achieving governmental transition and, ultimately, a peace agreement leading to democratic elections.[8]

Gaining legitimate female support, instead of simply using token women to promote a false sense of participation for publicity purposes, could revolutionize the way that Egyptian opposition movements approach genuine political change and increase the chance of long-term political stability. Without the support and input of half of the population, however, it is unlikely that any succeeding government will be able to achieve the lasting political permanence that Egyptians yearn for.

[1] Zainab Abdulaziz, Egypt's women watch protests from sidelines amid fears of sexual violence, NBC, (July 9, 2013), available at (http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/07/09/19369154-egypts-women-watch-protests-from-sidelines-amid-fears-of-sexual-violence?lite).

[2]The Daily Beast, Raped in Tahrir: The Frightening Reality Women Face at Egypt Protests, (July 3, 2013), available at (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/07/03/raped-in-tahrir-the-frightening-reality-women-face-at-egypt-protests.html).

[3]Amnesty International, Egypt: Gender Based Violence Against Women Around Tahrir Square, (2013), (10), available at (http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/mde120092013en.pdf).

[4] The Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, Clouds in Egypt's Sky, (2008), (18), available at (http://egypt.unfpa.org/Images/Publication/2010_03/6eeeb05a-3040-42d2-9e1c-2bd2e1ac8cac.pdf).

[5]Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, Violence Against Women in Egypt, (3), available at (http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/vaw/ngocontribute/Egyptian%20Center%20for%20Women_s%20Rights.pdf).

[6] Nervana Mahmoud, Women at Forefront of Egypt's Revolutionary Wave, Al-Monitor, (July 22, 2013), available at (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/07/women-lead-egypt-revolution.html).

[7] Hania Sholkamy, Egypt elections: Women need a champion, CNN,(May 23, 2012), available at (http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/22/opinion/egypt-women-election-shokalmy).

[8] Kylin Navarro, Liberian women act to end civil war, 2003, Global Nonviolent Action Database, (2010), available at (http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/liberian-women-act-end-civil-war-2003).