A Law Safeguarding Women Against Violence: The First Step

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While women in Egypt are habitual victims of sexual harassment in its various forms, the law does little to protect them or guarantee their rights. A survey conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECR) in 2008 indicates that 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women have been subjected to harassment. “The law in Egypt doesn’t officially criminalize sexual harassment or provide protection for victims,” says Heba Morayef, Cairo Director of Human Rights Watch, a notion reiterated by key members the National Council of Women (NCW).  Mozn Hassan, Executive Director of Nazra Centre for Feminist Studies, further criticizes the new governments for failing to prioritize violence against women. Accordingly, both Nazra and NCW have accordingly drafted their own unofficial draft laws for violence against women.

Meanwhile, the Freedom and Justice Party’s (FJP) media spokesperson Mohamed Mikawi told Ahram Online that the problem lies not in the law itself, but with the lack of police and their inability to enforce existing laws. The party’s senior lawyer Dr. Sabah al-Sakary insists that the new constitution, which follows Sharia Islamic law, fully protects women.

NGOs and anti sexual harassment initiatives suggest that the problem with Egypt’s current laws is that they are not specific and fail to cover many of the violent crimes committed against women. Additionally, there is no independent body for women to report crimes, public awareness is minimal given the poor levels of education and police fail to provide security or law enforcement. This is compounded by victims’ resistance to report crimes, as well as witnesses refusing to get involved.

A New Protective Law 

Egypt has witnessed an increase in reported violent crimes against women since the revolution, with the highest number of gang sexual assaults reported in January 2013.

Op AntiSH member Mariam Kirollos confirmed 19 cases of sexual assault took place, 6 of which required medical attention on  January 25, 2013. Kirollos added that while harassment is a common phenomenon in Egypt, this is the first time to hear about public rape. UN Women Project Officer Sally Zohney and women’s rights activist added that the barbarity of specific cases in which weapons were used during rape is a novel phenomena for Egypt.

In February, this brutal violence targeting women, coupled with the new constitution’s disregard for women’s rights, prompted the NCW’s legal committee to draft a new law aimed at protecting women against all forms of violence. Prime Minister Hisham Qandil welcomed the notion according to Dr Fatemah Khafagy, Ombudsperson of Gender Equality in Egypt who is on the drafting committee.

“It was clear that we needed a law not only against sexual harassment but also against all types of violence towards women,” Dr. Khafagy said, adding that the final draft was delivered to the Prime Minister and now whether or not the law is adopted rests with him. 

The document was drafted in collaboration with the NCW and legal experts from Portugal and Spain (both countries are known to have the best laws protecting women against violence), NGOs and various Egyptians ministries namely: the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Social Affairs and Ministry of Justice. The draft took into consideration international definitions of violence against women.

The NCW’s draft law prohibits harmful customs and traditions against women and harsh treatment resulting from physical and moral violence. It also aims to ensure women’s rights to inheritance and socio-economic welfare for female heads of households, divorced women, widows and the needy. 

“The new law covers all types of violence against women in the public and work domain from verbal harassment to assault,” Dr. Khafagy explained, adding that a penalty system as well as services for victims of violence have been incorporated. The draft law also protects vulnerable girls or women, who are victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) and underage marriage. Marriages below the legal age of 18 are perceived as a violent criminal act.

Legal Implementation

However drafters of the new law remain grounded concerning its level of influence given the new constitution’s negligence of women’s issues, the Shura Council’s disproportionate representation of women and most recently the Muslims Brotherhood’s (MB) statement denouncing the draft document of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Dr. Khafagy suggests that the MB does not perceive women as equal to men, exhibited by the lack of women in key decision making positions in the Shura council and cabinet. She further suggests that of the few women in the organization that are in positions of authority, they simply function as male mouth pieces with no opinion of their own.  

“The new constitution, the Shura Council’s misogynist position and the MB’s reactionary statement to the new law do not provide hope for positive change in relation to women’s rights,” says Dr. Khafagy, highlighting that at the official level progress looks unlikely. In response Dr. al-Sakary, the FJP’s lawyer states that in the new constitution men and women are equal in adherence with the teachings of the Qu’ran.

Other Impinging Factors

As the NCW awaits a response from the government regarding the implementation of the new law; Dr. Khafagy stresses that, although the law is paramount, it is not a solution on its own.

“It is important to remember that the law is not everything. Education is key; as well as training police, good reporting, strong attorneys and implementation of the law at the civil level,” Dr. Khafagy explains.

Education remains a key concern when addressing violence against women in Egypt, where approximately 40% of the population is illiterate (the rate being notably higher amongst females) Additionally, Egyptian men interviewed commonly perceive verbal abuse as their right and harmless fun.

“If a girl walks past, without a headscarf and wearing trousers then she is asking for me to make a comment. She likes it,” Ayman Abdel Ehab, a 38 year old tools importer admits. Domestic violence is also considered the norm for many Egyptian women according to World Health Organization’s (WHO) gender unit.

In order to ensure the implementation of the new law is successful, awareness at the grassroots level for both men and women is paramount.

Dr. Khafagy remains cautiously optimistic. “Egyptian women are more active and engaged than ever to gain their rights through the success of the revolution; accordingly we shall prevail.”

Sarah El-Rashidi graduated from Cambridge University with a Masters in International Relations, which encompassed a thesis focused on the Muslim Brotherhood’s pursuit of legitimacy under Mubarak. She is a human rights activist and founder of an NGO. 

Photo: Troy Carter 

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