Egypt: how can we end violence against women?

What is being called “Egypt’s #MeToo movement” has made headlines around the world since 2020, with high-profile sexual predators being called out online. Meanwhile, the country’s regime has been pushed onto the back foot on the question of sexual violence and women’s oppression during recent years. This question is bound up with the fate of the Egyptian Revolution. Those who want to rid Egypt of violence against women must turn towards the working class and raise the call: time’s up for Sisi!

In July 2020, an anonymous Instagram account called ‘Assault Police’ was set up by a student at the American University of Cairo. It named someone in her class as the perpetrator of rape, blackmail and sexual harassment. Within hours, other female students came forward with their own stories about the same person, Ahmed Bassam Zaki. This opened the floodgates for hundreds more stories from across Egypt to be made public, and the pressure mounted for Zaki and others like him to be prosecuted for their violent crimes against women.

Assault Police now has almost 350,000 followers, and provides regular updates on high-profile sexual assault cases and advice to women about how to report their own cases. As a result of the account’s social media activity, two separate but related cases of groups of men from extremely wealthy families filming themselves gang-raping young women at luxury hotels have surfaced several years after the events took place.

The women’s struggle and the Egyptian Revolution

This online activism hasn’t emerged from nowhere, nor is it merely a reflection of Hollywood’s example. Rather, it is just one symptom of the profound effect of the Egyptian Revolution on society. Revolutionary movements between 2011 and 2013 brought all the burning issues of ordinary people to the surface. Millions of people, who had been suffocated for decades by the dictatorial regime, were finally able to express their wants and needs openly, and link them to the collective wants and needs of others who were exploited and oppressed. Women could at last see a way out of the most appalling oppression, and many felt for the first time that they didn’t have to suffer in silence any longer.

Now that the Revolution has been side-tracked on account of a crisis of leadership and the mass movement has retreated, the desire to fight oppression that it awakened in so many hasn’t simply gone away. The same mood has been visible in street demonstrations with demands about women’s safety in public spaces and workplaces, as well as against sexual harassment. Women have self-organised to protect female-only metro carriages from male intruders, and Wen-Do self-defence classes have spread throughout more middle-class urban areas.

Tahrir Square Image Mona Wikimedia CommonsThe revolutionary movements between 2011 and 2013 brought all the burning issues of ordinary people to the surface / Image: Mona, Wikimedia Commons

There have also been numerous videos shared on Facebook of street harassment incidents, highlighting the ordeals that almost all Egyptian women have to endure on a daily basis. Often these videos have generated a backlash from socially conservative elements of society. However, the fact that they have gone viral with any groundswell of support for the victims of harassment stands in sharp contrast to the repressive misogyny espoused by all corners of the establishment for decades.

In December 2019, a poor, young veiled woman appeared on a prominent satellite news show to discuss her survival of a gang rape and attempted murder in the Upper-Egyptian town of Farshut. She described disowning her father – a highly transgressive act in Egypt – because he wouldn’t support her case, and waging a struggle for action to be taken against her attackers in the local community. Her interview sent shockwaves throughout the mainstream media.

Here we see the extent to which women have been raised to their feet by the Revolution, during which downtrodden layers of Egyptian society took hold of their own destinies. There were certain calls for action on women’s issues before 2011, but it marked a sea-change. The mood in society fundamentally shifted. The most oppressed were emboldened to challenge backward social norms, and the potential for mass movements organised from below to overpower repressive organs of the state was demonstrated beyond all doubt.

Oppression and counter-revolution

At the same time, we can see the obstacles women in Egypt have in front of them, and the sheer scale of their oppression. 99% of Egyptian women interviewed by the UN in 2013 said they had experienced sexual harassment. The remaining 1% are likely too confined to their private compounds and chauffeur-driven cars to experience real life in Egypt.

It is normal for women to be blamed by their own family members for sexual assault – in rural areas a male family member killing a rape victim to spare the family from shame is not unusual. In a Thomson-Reuters survey from the same year, Egypt was listed as the worst place for women to live in the Middle East, even ahead of Saudi Arabia – its lowest scores were for violence and reproductive rights. Abortion is illegal in Egypt in all cases (including for rape victims) except when used to save a pregnant woman’s life. Meanwhile, more than twenty seven million Egyptian women are victims of genital mutilation.

President Sisi not welcome Image Alisdare Hickson Wikimedia CommonsIn the last five years, the Sisi regime has stepped up a campaign of sexual repression, both against women and the LGBT community, to stoke the fires of reaction / Image: Alisdare Hickson, Wikimedia Commons

The overwhelming majority of women are answerable to the male members of their family (and this is encouraged by law), and are subject to lesser inheritance rights and social security benefits. There are many cafes and other social spaces from which women are outright banned or otherwise discouraged from entering.

While voices speaking out against women’s oppression have become louder, the ruling class has consistently used the women’s question to foster counter-revolution. Army officers carried out public virginity tests against female activists when breaking up demonstrations following the fall of Mubarak. Gangs of thugs infiltrated the protests in Tahrir Square and other sites to carry out the systematic harassment of women. When the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, media stations repeatedly ran stories of “sexual deviance” among the protesters.

In the last five years, the Sisi regime has stepped up a campaign of sexual repression, both against women and the LGBT community, to stoke the fires of reaction. In 2015, two high-profile bellydancers were charged with debauchery and thrown in jail for their choice of clothing and gestures in music videos published on YouTube. The same happened with another dancer over her TikTok videos last year, and actress Rania Youssef was charged with obscenity after she wore a revealing dress to a film festival in Cairo in 2018. Between 2017 and 2018, there was a crackdown on LGBT people (again using ‘debauchery’ as legal justification) involving dozens of individual arrests and the breaking up of a concert of the Lebanese band Mashrou Leila, which is known for its LGBT activism. The waving of rainbow flags triggered a police raid of the concert, after which some people were subjected to anal probing. This was the single biggest homophobic attack carried out by the Egyptian state since a raid on a Cairo gay club in 2001.

Female and LGBT oppression are being used by the regime to try and shore up their support among conservative layers of society and to divide the ebbing revolutionary movement itself. As well as their access to the brute force of the state and control of the mass media, they have in their favour the centuries-long authority of religious institutions designed to entrench the cultural values of a bygone age and hold back social consciousness.

Only the return of the revolutionary movement will be fully able to cut across the dividing lines that the ruling class has drawn among the Egyptian masses using such means. In the meantime, skillful, class-conscious leadership is required to prepare the struggle against all forms of oppression which this mass movement will entail. Revolutionary leadership must link the fight against female and LGBT oppression to the basic social and political demands of the Revolution. It must also call the oppressive actions of the regime by their proper name – counter-revolution – and call on all workers’ organisations to oppose them.

The regime’s balancing act

It is important to view two measures passed through Egyptian parliament against sexual assault and harassment in this wider context. The first, brought in 2014, recognised sexual harassment in law for the first time – and made it punishable with a prison sentence of up to five years. The second was approved last year, partly in response to the online movement led by Assault Police and others. It guarantees the anonymity of victims reporting sexual assault and harassment.

These measures are certainly concessions to the fight against women’s oppression, which reflect the social pressure for action to be taken against the scourge of street harassment. So does the installation of special women-led police units from 2017 in certain neighbourhoods, particularly in Cairo, to tackle harassment.

The regime clearly feels that the tide in society is turning. It needs to be seen to be doing something about an issue that is a major source of anger for half the country’s population – many of whom have already proven themselves capable of taking to the streets to overthrow it.

In an act of outrageous hypocrisy, Al-Azhar – the main Islamic institution of the Egyptian state – came out with a statement last summer encouraging female victims of sexual abuse to speak up. They also echoed their previous remarks of 2018, when they categorised sexual harassment as haram and the fault of the perpetrator: “Women’s clothing – whatever it may be – is not an excuse for attacking her privacy, freedom and dignity.”

These words go against decades of television interviews and official declarations, in which imams of Al-Azhar and other organisations have gone to great lengths to justify sexual assault and harassment, blaming it on the victims based on their behaviour and clothing. They are one of the biggest ideological forces behind women’s oppression in Egypt historically. But popular opinion among younger generations of Egyptians has reached a tipping point that even these backward institutions can’t ignore.

Those at the top of the Egyptian state are acutely aware of the delicate balance of forces in society at present, which only exists through inertia. This explains their often contradictory strategy. On the one hand, they lean on the repressive state apparatus and play on the reactionary cultural traditions fostered by religion. On the other hand, they cannot help but at least pay lip service to progressive struggles such as the fight against sexual violence. By doing so, they aim to divert these struggles into channels they can manage, which don’t threaten ruling class interests.

The whole system needs changing

Although activists in the struggle against sexual violence have played a certain role in wringing some reluctant measures out of the regime, we need to be quite clear about what these concessions represent in practice.

The sexual harassment law change of 2014 has done nothing to stop street harassment. Nor is it widely used to apprehend perpetrators of sexual violence, by police officers who side against victims; or a judicial system founded on Sharia law. Harassment incidents generally result in no action being taken whatsoever, with perpetrators counting on the support of both policemen and eye-witnesses.

telecom workers strike Image Hossam el Hamalawy FlickrTo finish what was started ten years ago and fundamentally transform Egypt to lay the basis for a real cultural transformation, those fighting for female emancipation must appeal to the strongest force in society: the working men and women without whom society cannot function / Image: Hossam el-Hamalawy, Flickr

The law change to protect victims’ identities has received praise from feminist activists and prominent survivors of sexual assault. Many of these survivors are media personalities who had received abuse and threats on social media after their cases became public knowledge. But it remains to be seen how this anonymity would actually work for most Egyptian women, who come from working-class or poor backgrounds. How can you be anonymous from your own family, who may shame you and even subject you to further violence? How can a girl from Farshut remain anonymous in her hometown, through which she was forced to run, bloodied and stripped almost-bare, to reach her local police station?

And the idea that more police on the streets – whether female or male – is an effective barrier to harassment sounds like a cruel joke to most Egyptian women. When they are not coming to a harasser’s defence, police officers are often carrying out the harassment themselves. It is also common for male police officers to blackmail or extract bribes from women in the form of sexual favours. Lest we forget, many of those in the gangs that carried out organised sexual assaults on female protesters in the revolutionary movement were found to be carrying state security badges.

We must be clear that the police anti-harassment task force forms part of the same body of the same state that was used against the Egyptian masses during the revolution. The police are regularly used against the women’s movement and the movements of Egyptian workers and youth in the streets today, as it defends the interests of the ruling class against any genuinely democratic expression from below. The Egyptian masses, whether fighting against women’s oppression or waging other struggles, cannot rely on the armed defenders of the regime to protect them.

Nor can they rely on Sisi’s puppet parliament to do their bidding. In January 2021, the cabinet attempted to propose a new personal status law that leaves the final decision on a woman’s right to marry, to travel abroad, to give birth, to a divorce settlement and to custody over her children with her male guardian. This reflects the real attitudes towards female oppression held by these parliamentarians. The bill was delayed due to a public outcry, which led to President Sisi himself stepping in to suggest the government wants to “hear from everyone” before deciding on the law.

Meanwhile, several of the men implicated in hotel gang rapes have left the country and so will not be tried for their actions. The UK is currently harbouring at least one of them, and only one other remains in custody in Egypt.

Activists of the anti-harassment movement are taking responsibility for raising awareness of sexual violence with cases like this one. But the problem is not ‘awareness’. Nor can the general problem be solved by increasing legal aid to victims of violence, assault and harassment. There are fifty million women and girls, the majority from a poor background, going through the same thing to one degree or another in Egypt.

When somehow some of these women are reached, social media campaigns and legal advice are often of little practical help. And that is before taking into account an Egyptian legal system rigged against women. Women’s oppression permeates all spheres of life in Egypt, from the domestic household and family ties, to the school, the Mosque and the Church, television and social media, the workplace and the street.

On the basis of capitalism, there will always be an Egyptian ruling class for whom female oppression has many uses in maintaining their rule. The right of men to lord over women is central to preventing the unity of the sexes on a class basis, which would fundamentally threaten the existing order as it did during the Egyptian Revolution.

The ruling class refuses to spend money to make the social provisions that would relieve the burden of housework on women. They would prefer women to rot away in the home, isolated from the class struggle and condemned to servitude. They may say a few fine words about fighting sexual harassment, but they will never tackle this menace to women across Egypt at its root, because it is an essential part of their system.

Strength in class struggle

Anti-harassment activists, however courageous they may be, cannot fundamentally change society, on their own. To finish what was started ten years ago and fundamentally transform Egypt to lay the basis for a real cultural transformation, those fighting for female emancipation must appeal to the strongest force in society: the working men and women without whom society cannot function.

The working class is, for the most part, conspicuously absent from Egypt’s #MeToo movement. Yet working class women experience a double oppression: as workers and as women. It was the working class which gave the Egyptian Revolution its backbone, whose mass strikes finally brought the Mubarak and Morsi regimes tumbling down. And it was the combination of democratic and social demands that united the Egyptian masses in struggle – men and women, from middle-class layers of youth to the mass of the working class.

Democratic demands for women’s safety and for full equality before the law must be connected to social demands that apply to all workers. The Egyptian Revolution was full of countless examples of fearless, steadfast women playing the decisive role in battles against the state and against their bosses.

It was the women of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla who launched the 6 April insurrection, which inspired the revolution. It was they who demanded that their male comrades join them on strike. It was women who urged the mass demonstrations through the city streets in the early days of the revolution, bearing the brunt of the tear gas and rubber bullets that the state security forces fired upon them.

Our demands can be won only through the methods of collective struggle and self-defence developed by the masses during the Revolution, rather than the methods of the capitalist state. The leaders of the workers’ organisations have a responsibility to take up these methods in the struggle for women’s emancipation and against sexual violence in the labour movement. As it stands, the movement against sexual violence has reached a dead end. Without connecting with the working class, it has nowhere else to go.

This struggle is not only about what is possible today, but what is possible tomorrow. The contradictions that led to the Egyptian Revolution have only deepened in the years since it was derailed. A mass revolutionary movement on the same scale will return, and the question of female oppression will be a factor in the movement, just as it was before. The practical experience of the Egyptian masses, of women overcoming crippling oppression to stand alongside men in struggle (and often giving the lead to men), taught them more in eighteen days than a lifetime under the chauvinism of class society. They instinctively banished harassment from their movement, and in turn, harassment was used as a direct weapon by the organised counter-revolution.

The task now is to build a revolutionary leadership of the advanced workers and youth, which can make conscious the instinctive and semi-conscious understanding of the masses: that the struggle against the oppression of women is inseparable bound up with the class struggle. Only by providing an alternative to capitalism and decisively defeating the counter-revolution can we hope to consign all forms of this oppression to the past.

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