An Egyptian woman waves a national flag during a referendum vote on constitutional amendments, in Alexandria, April 20, 2019. (Photo by TAREK ABDEL HAMID/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

In recent years, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime has been pushing a selective implementation of feminist ideals and women’s rights to conceal its ever-worsening human rights record. This “feminist-washing” propaganda claims to promote women’s rights to cover up the regime’s widespread human rights abuses.

President Sisi has been personally spearheading this narrative through various statements, in which he claims that the country has an improving human rights record in many aspects, most notably, women’s rights. He has portrayed himself as the savior of Egyptian women from the Muslim Brotherhood, responding to a fear among Egypt’s women that they would lose their rights during the Muslim Brotherhood’s short-lived rule. Some may say he was initially successful, since 54 percent of the votes he received in the 2014 elections were from women. 

Sisi is quick to take all the credit for every feminist progress in the country, sidelining decades-long work of feminist groups and individuals fighting for a more progressive feminist policy. By portraying himself as the “male savior,” he is enforcing the misconceived idea that women are weak victims who need protection.

Egyptian women’s “golden age”

The regime’s media apparatus and supporters have dubbed Sisi’s rule as the “golden age for Egyptian women” and have pointed out the policies and laws implemented that improve women’s rights in the country. A quick look at the status of women’s rights will confirm this view, as there has been a spike in women’s political participation, with the appointment of more women ministers, making up 25 percent of the cabinet in 2018. Women received 162 seats in parliament in 2020, of which 14 were directly appointed by Sisi, as the constitution gives him the power to appoint MPs. This number is a significant increase from the 89 women MPs in 2015, and 11 MPs in the 2012. 

On the legislative front, the regime passed new laws that can be seen as supporting women’s rights, such as a sexual harassment law in 2014 (later amended in 2021), the criminalizing denying women their inheritance in 2017, and toughening the punishment for female genital mutilation in 2021. A closer examination of those policies, however, show that these are symbolic gestures. For instance, women’s political participation is reserved for those who show loyalty to the regime, not for those who may oppose it. Out of the 89 women parliamentarians, only two voted against the 2019 constitutional amendment which granted Sisi increasing powers. Women ministers are in line with the regime’s policies: in 2019, then immigration minister Nabila Makram said that anyone who opposes Sisi should be slaughtered, and in 2021, the same minister said that “Egyptian students abroad are the most dangerous group of emigrants,” for promoting ideas that go against the regime. A cover-up saved former health minister Hala Zayed from corruption allegations. She was quietly relieved from her duties in a cabinet reshuffle. Meanwhile, Egypt’s environment minister Yasmine Fouad has either stood silent or even defended the razing of trees, where thousands of trees across the country were cut down in the name of development. 

Passing laws in Egypt is a top-down process. The parliament is filled with pro-Sisi politicians who do not reject or question bills proposed by the president or his government. Thus, legal changes only go as far as the political leadership allows it, which often hinders the effectiveness of those laws.

The sexual harassment law of 2014, and its 2021 amendments, is a prime example of this: it provided a superficial solution to Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic, where 99 percent of women have faced some form of harassment during their lifetime. Feminist groups, who were not consulted before the law was passed, criticized the law’s limited definitions of harassment and offered a more comprehensive series of amendments, in line with international standards. Those suggestions were ignored by the regime. The law also ignores the need for drastic reform within security agencies to improve how it is implemented, as security personnel often downplay sexual harassment, refuse to write a police report, force victims into dropping their claim, or are even the harassers themselves.

The regime also attempted to pass a new personal status law that would have undermined women’s rights and bodily autonomy, as it would have allowed male guardians to interfere in matters of marriage and children’s guardianship. The law was withdrawn after heavy campaigning by independent feminist groups. The state also ignored calls by feminist groups to introduce a law that criminalizes domestic violence and to amend provisions pertaining to rape in the current Egyptian penal code, which only criminalize non-consensual penile penetration by men.

Feminism for who? 

Feminist political activists who oppose the regime are not included in the state’s golden age narrative. According to We Record, an Egyptian NGO documenting human rights abuses, from June 2013 to June 2019, there were 312 political killings of women during anti-government demonstrations, while 2,629 were detained and 69 forcibly disappeared before reappearing later to be charged with bogus charges. In 2021 alone, 203 cases of political violence, such as forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and extrajudicial killings against female activists were documented. Feminist organizing is also very restricted with multiple feminist NGOs, including Nazra for Feminist Studies and the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), having dealt with asset freezes or travel bans. Meanwhile, the National Council of Women (NCW), Egypt’s national women rights organization, has done nothing to support women political activists and the NGOs targeted, and instead repeat the state’s official narrative

During detention, women are subjected to ill-treatment amounting to torture, including virginity tests, physical and verbal abuse, sexual violence, and forced genital examinations for transgender women. Transgender women are also forced to be in prisons for men, due to the mismatch between their IDs and their gender identity, as the state is yet to recognize them. The culture of impunity and violence is widespread among the security agencies, despite promises of reform by the regime. 

Under the current regime, women have been targeted by the state for singing, dancing, or practicing ownership over their bodies. Since 2020, at least nine women have been arrested and charged with violating “family values” in what is known as “the TikTok girls” cases. Prosecution statements for these cases argued that these women had undermined national and social security by dancing provocatively and arousing men on the internet. In addition, transgender women have no authority over their bodies and are often targeted for their identity by state and non-state actors. 

Despite the state’s official stance on fighting sexual harassment, women who come forward are not safe or protected. The culture of victim-blaming in rape and sexual assault cases is widespread among security agencies and the society in general. In 2018, Amal Fathy was arrested after she published a YouTube video recounting her daily experience with harassment. Fathy was sentenced to two years of prison for “spreading false information” and “attempting to overthrow the regime.” In 2022, her sentence was reduced to one year, despite pleas from human rights groups to get those charges dropped. In another case, a high-profile gang rape incident surfaced in 2020 involving a group of men who had drugged and raped a woman at a private party in the luxurious Fairmont Nile City Hotel in Cairo in 2014. The NCW, the national women rights organization, encouraged witnesses and the victim to report the incident to the authorities, promising to keep them safe. However, the victim and the witnesses were subjected to an online smear campaign and had their personal data leaked to the public. Moreover, the prosecution intimidated witnesses and arrested several for inciting debauchery and misusing social media. The NCW did not offer support for the arrested witnesses or for the women who were subjected to the online smear campaign, and soon after, the entire case was dismissed by the prosecution office. 

In recent months, two high-profile femicide cases highlighted the failure of state policies in addressing gender-based violence. In the case of Naira Ashraf’s killing, the state failed to protect her as she had reported being stalked and harassed by the man who later murdered her. The police ignored her reports, downplayed the harassment she was subjected to, and did not take measures to protect her. After her murder, some even supported the killer and blamed Naira for her own death.

The regime’s bad economic policies and reckless spending have also hurt women. In 2021, Egypt’s national debt reached $370 billion and more austerity measures were put in place to try and keep the economy afloat. Those measures hit the country’s working and middle class the most, as subsidies on essential goods such as bread, electricity, and fuel were slashed and the currency was devalued, leading to higher poverty rates. These developments and economic hardship have impacted women’s livelihoods, increased the number of underage marriages, and left women in the informal shadow economy without any safety net.

Exposing the façade

Internationally, the regime has been highlighting its feminist achievements whenever the human rights question is brought up. This tactic has been successful so far, as the international community has praised the regime’s feminist progress, hailing it as a role model in the region. This praise is also used by the regime at home to denounce any accusation on its human rights track record.

The international community has so far failed to hold the regime accountable for its violations against women, as it only provided limited criticism of the ongoing arrests and harassment of women activists. Moreover, funding and aid targeting women’s rights have been largely spent on governmental agencies rather than independent women’s rights organizations.

The regime’s minimal legal feminist changes have been largely the direct result of Egypt’s independent feminist movement and not Sisi’s will. More importantly, the regime’s feminist agenda is limited in nature, as it picks “soft” issues that would benefit the regime without angering angering the country’s socio-religious establishments. The more controversial issues that the regime has steered away from include marital rape, access to health for transgender women, gender-based violence, domestic violence, inheritance, and adultery.

The latest femicides are testing the limits of Egypt’s state sponsored feminist agenda. Independent feminist groups have called for the introduction of comprehensive gender-based violence legislation, something that the state has been reluctant to address, as this falls outside the its comfortable “soft issues” scope. However, as the state continues its crackdown on independent feminist organizations while failing to properly address the needs of Egyptian women, the type of feminist policy the regime has been undergoing can no longer be sustained in the future. Actual real feminist reform is needed, away from the current symbolic and superficial policies.

 

Nora Noralla is an Egyptian human rights researcher and consultant focusing mainly on issues of sexual and bodily freedoms as well as Islamic Sharia and human rights in the MENA region.