I was once asked by a male relative, upon informing him of my intention to study women’s participation in politics: “why do women want to be men?” This question is conflicting for many reasons. Is the question implying that women would like to reverse roles with men? Picture a world of that nature: a man is walking down the street; several women gape, catcall, and approach the man, saying “where is a handsome man like you going in this neighborhood?” Other, less inhibited women may grab at the man, berate him for dressing immodestly, or suggest that he engage in undesired activities with them. Older men would tut and dismiss the man for going out in public while dressed in revealing clothing and question the man’s morals and upbringing.
Particularly in Egypt, public space is very clearly defined as belonging to men, with women not cohabitating but rather infiltrating the space as outsiders made to live in accordance with parameters set by men. How women dress, act, and engage in public life is strictly regulated by these social mores. Such a pervasive environment of patriarchy reinforces a sense of impunity that allows men to berate, harass, and even violently attack women for no other reason than their existence as the opposite sex, and most often with impunity. In Egypt, sexual harassment in particular is rampant. There is no way to pinpoint what exactly provokes it; there are no indications that a woman’s behavior, appearance, religion, ethnicity, race, or other cultural markers can be used to reliably predict harassment by men on the streets. Even so, almost across the board, women have been popularly blamed for the sexual harassment epidemic in Egypt
This phenomenon of victim-blaming is a consequence of the combination of heavily entrenched norms that cause women to be excluded from participation in public life. This may take the form of exclusion from access to protection under the law, exclusion from equal presence in systems of education, or even from the ability to safely and comfortably walk down a city street. In this sense, one single event—a revolution, for instance—will do little to unravel decades of patriarchy and subjugation of women. Women do not need a social revolution, but rather social evolution to change the conversation for good—to change the question from “Why do women want to be men?” to “Why aren’t we all treated equally?”
Since before 2011, civil society and “social-action” groups—some of which work at a national level, and others at the grassroots—have been working to change the discourse around sexual violence. These groups exist, in part, because state actors and leaders do little to erase the stark lines between men and women in Egypt—gender roles are perpetuated at all levels. For instance, in the recent campaign period for the presidential elections, in which former Field Marhsal Abdel Fattah El Sisi was elected as head of state, Sisi made many references to women as ““supporters” of their families or caregivers. He called Egyptian women his “daughters,” casting himself as the “father” of the state. This relationship carries the implication that a state leader should protect women—a replication of the power relationship that a father has with his daughter in the traditional Egyptian family structure.
Dr. Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, acknowledges that there is a problematic hierarchy when it comes to gender roles in Egyptian society. In her recent discussion with TIMEP on sexual violence in Egypt, she noted: “Sexual violence isn’t about sex, it’s about power. If we look at the example of Egypt, we are looking at what [remains an] authoritarian power structure.” In practice, changing the conversation on gender roles and sexual violence in all its forms will require a major upheaval of heavily entrenched social norms that cast this behavior as normative.
In part, recent changes have occurred that seem to suggest forward movement on this account: shortly after the introduction of a law amending the definition of sexual harassment in the penal code to explicitly define the parameters of sexual harassment—as well as defining harassers— outgoing president Adly Mansour decreed that offenders will face punishment of up to five years in prison alongside hefty fines. This was the first instance in Egyptian law where sexual harassment has been explicitly defined by a set of actions. However, the law does not protect against or define the parameters of sexual violence—merely what constitutes verbal and visual sexual harassment. Civil society organizations in Egypt, however, gave mixed reviews of the law. Several groups spoke of the law failing to meet the most basic needs of victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence and called for further reform to include provisions such as medical and legal assistance, protocol for security authorities in responding to violence against women, government funding, and oversight to create law enforcement agencies and prevention task forces.
Two days after Mansour’s decree, nine women were violently sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square during a celebration of the inauguration of their new president, Abdel Fattah El Sisi. The horrific events of June 8, 2014—which saw reports of women sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square by mobs of over 50 men at a time—signaled that, despite increased consequences for harassers, violence against women had not merely continued unabated, but reached levels of violence that had not been witnessed since the protests preceding and following former President Muhammad Morsi’s deposition in 2013. Under Morsi as well these continued and systematic attacks on women in public settings were not met with government action. Regardless of the political leadership in place, the continuation of these attacks well into Sisi’s ascension to power demonstrates that sexual violence against women is a trend that has manifested throughout all eras of governance and political and social turmoil.
The recent attacks in Tahrir were followed by what can mildly be referred to as a storm of women’s rights activists, civil society organizations, and international media calling upon the Egyptian government to take immediate action in investigating every attack that took place and bringing to justice all perpetrators. In an unprecedented move, the state arrested several men who were involved in the attacks and referred them to criminal courts to await trial. President Sisi, immediately after the attacks, “came to the rescue” by launching a national campaign to combat sexual harassment. The campaign calls for the joint participation of the prime minister, Al-Azhar, Egypt’s most prominent religious authority, the church, and the Ministry of the Interior, to uncover the “reasons for the spread of sexual harassment and to specify a national strategy to confront it,” including instructing Egypt’s police force to take all necessary measures to combat sexual violence.
It is likely that the state’s acknowledgement that sexual harassment is an irrefutable crime rather than an inconvenient reality for women will help to generate a gradual shift in society, but civil society actors, namely those who have been fighting for greater state action in combatting sexual violence in public spaces, are not convinced.
Sisi’s most recent announcement of the formation of a ministerial committee to tackle the issue of sexual harassment in Egypt raises further concerns as to the plan’s sincerity. Specifically, the prioritization of heavily security in public places over social reform and prevention is a grave concern—in the past, security forces have been equally the perpetrators of violent crimes and harassment of women just as civilians have been. The idea providing a man a uniform and a weapon to combat sexual violence, without a plan for security reform and proper training, is a notably problematic solution to an issue rooted in authoritarian patriarchy.
Additionally, various rights groups are concerned that the government’s motivation to tackle sexual harassment may not go farther than penning the legislation—noting that the national strategy requires a thoughtful reform process with significant consultation from local women’s rights groups. Another reason for skepticism stems from Sisi’s previous stances on women’s rights: in 2011, for instance, Sisi, then Major General of the Egyptian military, defended forced virginity tests of women who were arrested during protests in order to “protect” the army against rape allegations. Sisi’s problematic position that women who occupy public space are somehow void of the perceived values that rule society also perpetuates the idea that Sisi is molding public space, now to suit his idea of Egyptian social norms. In this sense, Sisi may be “meeting” the demands of civil society, but on his own terms. In this sense, the launch of his national strategy may be read as his own formulated plan of protection—an extension of his self-portrayal as the ultimate head of the Egyptian patriarchal family.
Although bringing sexual violence into the forefront of Egyptian media and public discourse is an important step in the right direction, the new laws and national strategy are giving Egyptian women and women’s rights advocates the option of living under the “protection” of the state, as opposed to empowering their own hard work to end and prevent sexual violence and push for language that equates men and women as equals. The question “why do women want to be men?” is reminiscent of a time when Egyptian women were not able to fight back against the existing power structure. However, women are now pushing themselves into public life more completely than in the past and confronting the male-dominated society head-on. It is high time for a national strategy that, rather than perpetuating the patriarchal values and authoritarian responses that disempowers women’s voices and efforts, begins to address the question, “why aren’t we all treated equally?”