The topic of marital rape crime recently made headlines in Egypt after actress Nada Adel spoke up on social media in June to speak about it, accusing her ex-husband musician Tamim Younes of marital rape. Several women have since spoken about the issue and shared their stories with the SpeakUp Initiative Facebook page.
According to the 2014 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey, three out of every ten married women have suffered domestic violence, and four percent said their husbands forced them to conduct sexual acts. These numbers are likely underrepresented due to fear of reprisal from spouses. However, marital rape is not considered a crime under the constitution.
Rape is a criminal offense in international covenants that stipulates punishment for perpetrators regardless of their relationship to victims. However, local laws in the MENA region circumvent the use of the term “rape” (as in Egypt), or in its criminal definition (as in Lebanon and Tunisia) in ways that allows some rapists to escape accountability or facilitates loopholes to mitigate criminal penalties.
According to a 2018 study conducted by the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness, 10 percent of married women in Egypt are victims of marital rape. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, gynecological issues, and inadequate physical health symptoms are common among victims. Marital rape is not criminalized in Egypt, and Dar Al Iftaa and Al-Azhar—the country’s highest religious authorities—have both declined to issue fatwas on the subject.
Historic and societal view
Domestic violence against women has been tolerated and accepted for years in Egypt, and the government has made no efforts to combat it. Egyptian women’s rights organizations, international stakeholders, and activists have been calling for a comprehensive regulation on violence against women and a national plan to pass and enforce legislation for years, but the authorities have mostly ignored them. Egypt has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), while expressing some reservations. However, Egyptian law still falls short of international standards for marital rape, which is socially justified as falling within a husband’s “right to sex,” granted by a wife through a marriage contract.
The lack of legal protection against marital rape affects societies throughout the Arab region, which has consistently invalidated violence against women in general and marital rape specifically. Much of the attitude surrounding marital rape has roots in tradition and rationales that do not recognize the term or its applicability to married couples.
Being raped by one’s husband does not fit the image of the stranger in the dark alley, as pointed out by Dr. Amna El Naseer, Professor of Faith and Philosophy at Al-Azhar University.
Such cultural barriers manifest in many ways. On top of the pain that all rape victims face, spouse-victims of marital rape face sexual abuse by their partner—the person with whom they live, and, in many cases, the parent of their children. When it comes to deciding whether to disclose marital rape, social stigma, the impact on children, and family humiliation can all add to the pressures.
Rape in Egyptian law
Egyptian law defines rape as sexual intercourse with a female without her consent. The Penal Code specifies that, “Whoever has sexual intercourse with a female without her consent shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment.” However, this provision criminalizing rape does not extend to marital rape. In the past, when civil, human rights, and feminist groups have attempted to fill this gap in drafted laws submitted by to Egyptian parliaments, articles devoted to marital rape have been removed after submission. The obstacle to passing such laws and criminal penalties has been the male legislators themselves.
In the view of these legislators and leaders, marriage contracts transfer ownership of women’s bodies from the family to the husband, and they represent women’s eternal agreement to the practice of sex regardless of their desires or consent. The only exception is if a husband gives his wife a sexually transmitted infection when having “forcible intercourse.”
However, Egyptian law does not consider other sexual acts to be “intercourse” (for example, touching a woman’s genitals, intercourse with an object other than the penis, non-vaginal intercourse).
Instead, these different acts, without consent, are regarded as “indecent assault,” which is criminalized, even for husbands (Article 269). In the case that a husband carries out “indecent assault” against his wife, he can be charged, because the marriage contract only allows the husband to have “natural sexual intercourse.”
In 2018, the lawmaker Nadia Henry, in cooperation with several feminist institutions and individuals, presented a new draft law in Parliament on violence against women. The draft included explicit provisions criminalizing all types of rape, along with the deletion of phrases such as “indecent assault,” re-classifying such acts under rape. The law received notable support but has yet to see the light of day for voting. Parliament’s session ended before the law was put up for discussion, because it was not considered a priority for the parliament’s agenda, and the provisions of the current Penal Code are still in force. Feminist groups and institutions are still fighting fiercely for legislation for these sexual crimes.
More work to be done
Marital rape creates a long range of hardships that make it difficult for victims to be open with their suffering, due to the nature of crime and problems related to societal norms around spousal relations. The legal differentiation between spouses and other rape victims also creates challenges. Even though marital rape receives little public or policymakers’ attention, it is one of the most severe types of domestic violence.
The reality is that Egypt’s restrictive political atmosphere today challenges the fundamental nature of civil society, the right to organize, and the ability of the relevant actors to mobilize to take such steps. More crucially, it prevents women’s organizations and groups from realizing their goals in a country where gender equality is still in progress. The women’s rights movement seems to be facing a new era of oppression against freedom of association.
From a policy perspective, there should be a clear and detailed law against marital rape to protect women, victims of violence, including marital rape victims. However, communities must also work to change perceptions of violence and provide services to assist their victims. Rape advocates for battered women are vital to call attention to marital rape in society and help survivors of this form of violence.
Habiba Abdelaal is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on sexual and gender-based violence in Egypt.