Egypt’s gender inequality has a price the country can’t afford

Rachel Aspden, author of Generation Revolution, writes about the cost of gender-based violence in the country

PEP MONTSERRAT/ for The National
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In the spring of 2014, Egypt was officially in love. TV presenters and newspaper columnists swooned openly over their idol’s charisma. Cairo was papered with posters and billboards of a manly figure posing in rugged desert fatigues or in designer suits.

At political rallies, respectable housewives wept and teenage girls hung out of car windows screaming out one name.

Romance, however comprehensively it blinds its victims at first, inevitably fades. And two years after this tidal wave of devotion swept him to the presidency, Abdel Fattah El Sisi finds himself with many challenges to deal with. But the release of two statistics in early June pointed to a quieter crisis that could outweigh them all – and that hits his one-time devoted female supporters hardest.

The first stated that gender-based violence costs Egypt up to $693 million (Dh2.54bn) a year. The second that the country’s population has increased by 1 million in the past six months alone. These numbers might be unsurprising quoted in a critical report by an international NGO, but this time, they come from Egypt’s state statistics agency. The agency also noted that the population growth rate – currently 2.4 per cent, up from 1.7 per cent in 2010 – is “five times the rate in developed countries”.

Some hoped that the revolution of 2011 would bring substantive change for Egypt’s women. But officials across the political spectrum have continued to frame “women’s issues” in nebulous terms such as honour, shame and respect.

Problems such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, so-called honour crimes, female genital mutilation (FGM), illiteracy and lack of education about or access to family planning – and the regressive attitudes to gender that underlie them – have been ignored or inflamed by state policies.

Now, the release of these statistics suggests recognition may be dawning that allowing women to bear the brunt of the poverty, oppression and official neglect that plague the majority of Egyptians has a price tag the country can’t afford. Suddenly, the problem is quantifiable.

While researching a book on young people in Egypt between 2010 and 2015, I found some shocking figures were widely reported.

A 2013 UN survey found that 99.3 per cent of Egyptian women reported experiencing sexual harassment, while according to the government’s own research, 91 per cent of women between 15 and 49 have been subject to FGM.

Other data is harder to come by, and points to distortion by fear or stigma. A 2009 government study, for instance, found 60 per cent of married women reported experiencing domestic violence, while nearly 80 per cent of married men admitted to inflicting it on their wives.

But subtler barriers to equality remain – the fear of public shame, ostracism and, especially in poor and rural communities, physical abuse that is used to control girls’ and women’s behaviour. Marriage and childbearing are still seen as women’s only acceptable destiny, even by most educated city-dwellers.

Many subscribe to the traditional belief that family planning is unnecessary or even irreligious because “children bring their own sustenance”.

Every woman I interviewed, from the least privileged to the wealthiest and most educated, had a story about her struggle with these attitudes.

One had been nailed into a room in her village home by her parents for disobedience; another forced by a quirk of Islamic law to listen to her father-in-law, acting as her husband’s proxy, tell her “I divorce you” three times; a third told to present the stained sheets from her wedding-night bed to her in-laws as proof of her virginity.

All had to live with traditional double standards that, un-Islamically, put the burden of purity and chastity on women’s shoulders alone. Like them, I experienced first-hand the exhaustion, fear and anger that comes from experiencing sexual harassment many times a day, every day, and the way in which it inexorably begins to shape your choices and limit your world.

These issues were reinforced by the conservative sensibilities of the parties that took power after former president Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow. In the Islamist-dominated parliament elected in January 2012, only eight of the 498 elected MPs were women. Mohammed Morsi’s officials were reported to have told a population control conference that the subject was “no longer a priority”, while the Muslim Brotherhood criticised a UN declaration calling for an end to violence against women as a step towards “the complete disintegration of society” and “the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries”.

Part of the problem is that the image of women’s rights has been tarnished by its association with the Mubarak regime and cynical western interventionism.

During Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, his wife Suzanne became the official face of women’s issues. She helped to introduce legislation making divorce laws fairer to women and, in 2003, outlawing FGM, and supported successful state-sponsored programmes encouraging family planning. But without tackling the systemic injustices her husband’s regime inflicted on the people, her initiatives were seen by many as elitist, unIslamic and corrupt.

Mr El Sisi has yet to translate his flattery of women voters into action on their behalf. In 2012, while still an army general, he defended the military’s use of forced “virginity tests” on female pro-democracy protesters because “they are not like your daughter or mine”.

Those not deemed to “deserve” protection from the state still face a grim fate: the sexual harassment, assault and rape of women in detention – particularly political prisoners – is rife.

Egypt’s women are doing much to fill the gaps left by the state. Since the revolution, organisations such as OpAntiSH, Tahir Bodyguards, Shoft Taharrush and HarassMap have created initiatives to protect women from sexual harassment and violence.

I met dedicated young women working at the grass roots level to improve literacy rates among poor women, set up small businesses and micro­credit schemes, and increase awareness of family planning and women’s health.

But the odds are still stacked against them. By 2030, Egypt’s population is projected to reach 116 million, a 42 per cent increase on 2012. A country already unable to employ its young people, and struggling to feed and educate them, will be simply unable to cope.

The only way to slow population growth and avert catastrophe is to educate and empower women – including introducing tough new measures to protect them from domestic, public and state-sponsored violence. It shouldn’t take a fiscal emergency to motivate this, but as the glow of romance with Mr El Sisi evaporates, pragmatism may have to take its place.

Rachel Aspden is a journalist and author of Generation Revolution

On Twitter: @RachelAspden