As the world marks International Women’s Day, TIMEP speaks to women advocates across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region on the ways in which they are challenging the roots of gender inequality.
In this Q&A on the challenges and issues facing women in Egypt, and the way forward, TIMEP interviews Lobna Darwish of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
TIMEP: What would you describe as some of the most significant issues or challenges impeding women’s equality and access to equal rights in Egypt today?
LD: The first issue is a real commitment to women’s rights, because the government likes to pick and choose which rights, which I think is the main flaw in how the state addresses women’s rights. So you look at something like the level of political participation, meaning more women in the cabinet, for example, and it’s obvious that the government is making lots of progress. But you look at something like the percentage of participation of women in the workforce, and it’s continuously deteriorating. The government has led these kinds of advances that I do not think are cosmetic, but that do not affect the lives of most women in the country. We’re very happy to have more political representation in parliament for example, but it would have meant something totally different if it was in a political climate of democracy—it would have meant way more.
The second thing, I would say, is that the state looks with a lot of suspicion to women’s rights organizations—because of the way they see human rights as a whole, and the feminist movement. The state does not allow the feminist movement to grow in peace. When you see feminists organizing, they’re worried about reprisal from the state. And this is a massive problem: I’m not talking only about human rights figures, I’m talking about young women trying to organize on the university level, on different levels, or online. They’re worried that the state would see this as a political act, and therefore that they will be penalized for it. I don’t think that the state can really be the only one setting the agenda of women’s rights in this country; listening to what women in this country think and see as the future is essential, as is providing the space for women’s rights organizations and the feminist movement. And even when the government amends a law for example to remove a legal barrier against women, it never credits this to decades of struggle by women, feminist, and human rights defenders.
Another obstacle is the moralistic approach that we’ve been seeing growing in the last few years. In the past, we had seen these moral panics happening every now and then and we saw them in the form of crackdowns against the LGBT community. I’d say that 2020 marks the beginning of a very clear and systematic pattern of moral panics related to women, with the state targeting women based on a combination of factors—their morality as seen by the state, their preferences, their personal choices in life, the way they present themselves, all in relation to their class backgrounds. We have a pattern of women influencers on TikTok, almost 18 who went through the legal system, and the state was the one to push investigations against them. Since 2020, the public prosecutor, Hamada al-Sawy has been very clear about how he sees his role as not only to apply the law, but also to ensure that Egyptians are following good morals. He sees part of his mandate as the protection of family values, and he even went so far as to come up with a new mandate which he refers to as “social state security,” which is something that does not exist in any law. In doing so, he created a new arena of state intervention in personal life, and in a very institutional way.
The fourth thing that is clearly affecting most women in this country is the personal status law: the laws managing marriage, divorce, alimony, and child custody—for Muslims and for Christians, because we have two parallel laws. Sometimes they intersect, but mostly, they’re parallel. And the state has been very clear that this is a space where it does not want to conduct any reforms. We’re not asking for massive advancements or massive wins—we’re asking to reflect the reality of families and how people are living within the institution of marriage today in Egypt. Last year, the state finally presented its own bill for the personal status law, and it was actually worse than the current situation. The draft would have given men more rights, which was really alarming, because the law does not reflect how women live and does not protect their rights. The state does not want to intervene to protect women and children within the institution of marriage and the family and instead wants to protect family values and the family unit.
As mentioned before, we have had a continuous decline since 2016 of women’s participation in the workforce in parallel with the “economic reform program.” The government likes to brag that unemployment rates for women are dropping, but the reality is that women stopped looking for jobs, so the numbers are not reflected in the unemployment rate. Instead, we should be looking at workforce participation rates for women and the numbers of women working, taking population growth into account. In response, the government is encouraging women to take micro loans with conditions that are not very safe for them. What’s going to happen to these women when they fall back on payments and default on their loans? There are already lots of women in prison for defaulting on loans in the private sector. Separately, the private sector is a poor employer of women; and the public sector is shrinking, so what are women supposed to do? When the state plans its macroeconomic plans, you find that it’s investing mostly in construction, a sector that does not employ women almost at all.
And finally, on sexual violence and domestic violence. Every day, there is a new case that people are talking about. However, the state intervenes in only some, and it does not solve the structural issues that are causing these problems. The state also has this obsession with the law, but it does not take sufficient action using other tools. There are plenty of services to provide women with and to provide children with, within situations of domestic violence, to ensure that the violence stops and that they can get out of these situations. This should be prioritized.
TIMEP: We’ve increasingly seen heightened media and social media coverage involving incidents of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). What is it like for a victim or witness of SGBV in Egypt and what are some of the obstacles standing in the way of greater access to justice for women in these cases?
LD: The main problem is that it totally depends on the circumstances under which the situation of violence happened and the profile of the woman who is going to make the complaint—which class is she from, what lifestyle she has, what she looks like, and whoever is going to take her complaint from the police or the prosecution. Basically her profile is what defines her case, not the law. If they see her as a “good” victim or think that she “didn’t deserve it,” then she may receive help. The environment is not hospitable and the situation is not very comfortable; you have to talk to lots and lots of men, and explain over and over what happened to you. Usually, they don’t have any sensitivity training, so their questions and the way they deal with the victim is terrible.
If it was sexual harassment on the street, for example—you have to take the harasser to the police station somehow. Then you make a complaint and he makes a counter-complaint. So both of you spend the night in the police station. And that has been continuously one of the main reasons women drop their complaints, because they don’t want to spend a night at the station.
Once we get to marital rape or marital sexual violence—there is no way to go to the police station to file a complaint, because it is not criminalized under the law. The law doesn’t recognize marital rape because it allows it as a religious right for a man to have sexual access to his wife; therefore, a woman cannot make a complaint of marital rape. So that’s a major issue.
And then there are the technicalities. Rape in the penal code is defined only as penile-vaginal penetration. So any oral or anal rape is not accounted for and rape of men and boys is considered sexual assault. There are huge issues with the definition of rape within the law.
Additionally, a woman may go to the police station or the prosecution, or even the National Council for Women to make a complaint for the rape or sexual violence that she endured—with witnesses—and she may actually hurt herself. The witnesses find themselves accused by the prosecution. In the Fairmont and the Menna Abdel Aziz cases, we have two instances where victims of sexual violence or witnesses were accused by the public prosecutor after filing complaints for sexual violence. When giving their testimonies, they were accused of moral charges within the law, whether for using drugs, for homosexuality, or for issues involving their personal life. After these very public cases, there was a sense of terror within the feminist movement that you cannot be the kind of woman who makes choices about her life in a certain way, and then go accuse someone of rape—your rape is acceptable, apparently. Or, at least, you are partially responsible for it. Further, witnesses and victims are not protected from defendants during the investigation; their private information is not protected from being leaked to the media. The media often has a feast over their personal life with photos of victims, very personal information from the police and prosecution’s investigation, and full names of victims in newspapers frequently.
Because women increasingly feel like they cannot go to the police station, some have been anonymously posting their stories online, particularly those involving public figures or celebrities complicit in sexual violence. They’ve also done this for particular workplaces and industries.
There’s currently an ongoing trial involving Rasha Azab, a journalist, writer, and woman human rights defender who showed solidarity with six victims who spoke out against a director complicit in sexual violence in 2020. He did not get prosecuted, or even questioned. And he went to the prosecution and pressed charges against her for libel and defamation. She faces a risk of three years in prison and a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds. If she’s convicted in any way, this will send a clear message to women that even speaking up is very costly. This is a criminalization of feminist solidarity.
TIMEP: What role have civil society and the women’s rights movement played in bringing about greater respect for equal rights—be they economic, social, or political rights?
LD: The history of women’s rights in Egypt and the amelioration of the situation of women and girls in Egypt is a history of struggle by feminists, women, and women’s rights organizations. Historically, that has been the case for so long. And starting from even FGM, which the state now considers as one of its primary causes, we had for almost 40 years, civil society fighting over FGM and the rates of FGM in the country, and the state doing nothing. So the history of women’s rights in this country is the history of women speaking up.
When I was in my early 20s or late teens, street sexual harassment was an everyday experience in the country, but the word for it did not exist. We had to fight. And I will say, as a practitioner among many, many, many women, we had to fight to say that there is something called sexual harassment that’s taking place. Television, newspapers, and the state either ignored it for years or would refer to cases as one-off. It took so long—almost 10 years of women fighting, documenting sexual violence, working with victims of sexual violence, organizing on all levels, and using the internet as well—for the state to introduce the word “sexual harassment” into the legal code. The state likes to say that this is its victory; I would say that this is a victory of women of this country.
I’m giving these as examples, but this is the history of women’s rights in Egypt. Especially since 2011, which facilitated a huge push in discussions about women’s rights in this country, with younger women discovering feminism or discovering women’s rights and actually getting involved. And despite the current political situation, I think one of the few ideas that found a lot of ears to listen to since 2011 has been feminism and women’s rights. It’s one of the things that still has a lot of engagement around it and something that actually resonates with different generations. Positions and attitudes are changing. But this is happening from the bottom up.
TIMEP: What practical steps would you like to see Egyptian authorities taking to better guarantee women’s access to equal rights in the country?
LD: First of all, open the space. Listen to civil society working on women’s rights, and listen to women working in feminist movements. Allow the space for organizing because right now it’s happening online with a lot of fear. So provide a space for it. You cannot know the problems without hearing people speak up.
Stop persecuting women because of their personal choices in life, related to the way they present themselves, their sexual life, their attire, their self-expression—including these TikTok cases.
Take seriously and issue a real law that protects the identities of victims and witnesses in cases of sexual violence. We have a law that was passed in 2020 that has not provided protection. There’s a bill that was presented by some civil society organizations on the protection of witnesses, victims, experts, but it wasn’t advanced in parliament. Take seriously all efforts to unify legislation into a single law combating violence against women. We have three drafts, including even one from the National Council for Women, in the parliament.
Put women at the center when you’re planning the economy. Women cannot be an afterthought. Women are disproportionately affected by poverty, malnutrition, and lack of income or low income. Women should be employed—in the meaning that this employment not only brings a steady income, but also brings social protection.
Open a real discussion within the country on the personal status law, and allow people to present different bills and different arguments, because it’s something that touches every single woman in this country. The current situation is not sustainable, and the current law is turning the institution of marriage into a disaster.
Release women human rights defenders and women who are in prison for political cases.
This interview is part of TIMEP’s Forging a Gender Equal World: Women in MENA Q&A series, a collection of interviews with women from and in the MENA region on their work combating gender inequality.