Bitter anniversary for Egyptian women

By Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Program

The streets are empty. The prisons are full. The fourth anniversary of Egypt’s “25 January Revolution” is passing largely in silence, with many of the young activists who led it now firmly behind bars.

For many women in Egypt, this Sunday will bring back particularly bitter memories – of a brief moment when it seemed that a better future was finally within reach.

Women stood alongside men throughout the 2011 uprising. However, in the years since they have faced a rising tide of violence and discrimination.

And nowhere is safe.

Shocking testimonies uncovered by Amnesty International show women enduring violence at the hands of their partners, the public and the police.

Women are not safe at home. One woman told Amnesty International of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband:

“He used to tie me to the bed and beat me with a belt… Once, when I was pregnant, he beat me and pushed me down the stairs. I miscarried as a result.”

Egypt’s divorce laws stop women from leaving without giving up their financial rights or fighting long and costly court battles.

“As a woman, the process is inhuman,” one journalist who took her husband to court to get a divorce told us.

Women are not safe in the streets. If it was the “25 January Revolution” that put Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the lips of the world, it has now become infamous for mob sexual attacks on women protesters.

One woman survivor described such an attack in the Square on 25 January 2013:

“I felt hands touch me from all directions, and I was moved, almost carried, inside the circle as people continued saying: ‘don’t worry’. They were saying that while violating me…”

The few women who do approach the police or Public Prosecution for help have found dismissive or poorly trained officials, Amnesty International’s research has found.

“The police do not care,” one survivor of domestic violence told us, “they don’t think it is a problem if a husband beats his wife.”

And far from assisting women who have survived violence, security forces can be the cause of it.

A young woman who served two years in prison for adultery told Amnesty International that a police officer had slapped her and watched while her husband beat her in the police station.

“No decent woman would leave her husband and children, you fallen woman,” the officer told her.

She was six months’ pregnant at the time.

Women have also faced sexual and gender-based violence in prisons and police stations. Protesters detained by the security forces told Amnesty International that the arresting officers often groped and harassed them.

One woman student told us a riot police officer had threatened to rape her after arresting her on campus in December 2013.

“I’ll show you what it’s like to be treated like a woman,” he told her.

It is Egypt’s women activists, not the authorities, that are taking action to check the wave of abuse.

Women’s groups have stepped in to fill the vacuum left by official inaction, documenting abuses and providing life-changing support to survivors. Activists have launched public-awareness campaigns and pushed the government for better laws and policing.

But the authorities have also pushed back, blocking vital funding to human rights groups and denying NGOs permission to open women’s shelters.

The relentless crackdown has forced many groups to scale down their work.

Promises by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to make women’s rights a top priority, following savage attacks on women in Tahrir Square around his inauguration, now ring hollow.

So far the authorities have dodged the big reforms. Instead, they have delivered measures that are piecemeal and tokenistic.

As the authorities dither, women suffer. The majority of violence against women still goes unreported, un-investigated and unpunished. There has been continued, partisan bickering over who is responsible for the abuses.

It’s time to stop the blame game.

There must be no ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’. What’s needed is a national strategy to address violence against women. The authorities should fix the laws that fail women survivors of violence and put women’s rights at the heart of the political agenda.

President al-Sisi vowed in Davos that he would fix Egypt’s economy. For that to happen, his administration must first recognize that Egyptian women are part of the solution.

Women need a safe environment – one where they can participate safely in the economic, social and political space free from discrimination and violence.

But today any promise of real reform seem just as remote as ever.

As one former woman prisoner told us: “If you have a problem, complain to God.”

Originally published in the Huffington Post