Egypt moves to encourage women to report sexual crimes

Amended law will allow identity of those who report assaults to be kept secret

Yemeni women residing in Egypt visit the Giza Pyramids necropolis on the southwestern outskirts of the Egyptian capital Cairo on July 1, 2020 as the country eases restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. A spree of openings in Egypt comes after the country officially ended a three-month nighttime curfew a few days earlier. Cafes and shops have re-opened but public beaches and parks remain closed as part of measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Egypt has recorded more than 65,000 COVID-19 cases including over 2,700 deaths. / AFP / Khaled DESOUKI
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Egypt’s government has drafted an amendment to the country’s criminal law to allow the protection of the identity of victims of sexual crimes, a move designed to encourage more women to report such offences to authorities.

News of the amendment comes as Egypt is gripped by a MeToo moment of its own, with scores of victims of sexual harassment or assault breaking their silence and sharing their experiences online.

The unusually candid accounts from victims followed last week’s arrest of a man in his early 20s who, according to activists and online testimonies, had sexually assaulted or blackmailed up to 50 women.

For far too long men and boys harassed women on the streets with impunity. It is not OK to ignore the problem and it's not OK to feel unsafe on the streets

Prosecutors have accused the man, a former student at the American University in Cairo, of attempting to sexually assault two women and an underage girl and blackmailing others.

The audacity of his alleged actions has dominated the national conversation and unleashed a wave of anger over the lack of proportionate prosecution of the perpetrators of sex crimes. It has also triggered soul searching by many about the inferiority of women’s status in Egypt’s patriarchal society and how they are commonly objectified in public spaces.

The National Council for Women, a state agency with a mandate to protect women’s rights and welfare, said it had received a staggering 400 complaints and inquiries about violence against women between July 1 and 5.

Egypt, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 100 million, is notorious for sexual harassment. Its capital Cairo, home to some 25 million people, was found to be the most dangerous megacity for women in a 2017 poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Ninety-nine per cent of women interviewed in Egypt by the United Nations in 2013 reported sexual harassment.

Significantly, the harassment comes from males of all ages, including boys as young as 9 or 10, and takes place in a multitude of places that include the streets, public transport, shopping malls, parks, beaches, cinemas and historical sites.

A government statement late on Wednesday said the amendment to the criminal law was designed to protect the reputation of victims of sexual assault, immorality or harassment. Protection of the victims’ identity, it said, is decided at the discretion of the investigating judge.

The next step would be for parliament to approve the amendment, a foregone conclusion since the chamber is packed with government supporters.

The amendment was warmly received by the National Council for Women, whose head, Maya Morsi, described it as an “important step that history will remember”.

A statement by the council quoted her as saying the change in the criminal law reflects “the interest of the state in combating and eradicating this crime for the protection of Egypt’s women and girls”.

The public, particularly women, also have welcomed the amendment, but there is some scepticism that the culture of sexual harassment and the perceived inferiority of women’s status is far too entrenched in Egypt’s conservative society and that a drastic, bottom-up change of attitude is needed.

One major obstacle activists often cite is the belief held by many families and  institutions that a victim going public or seeking the prosecution of the perpetrator brings shame or disrepute.

They also claim that society is generally biased in favour of its males when it comes to sexual harassment or assault, often blaming women for bringing such crimes upon themselves. However, Egypt’s two highest religious authorities – Al Azhar mosque and the Mufti – have for the first time publicly rejected the popular notion that a woman’s attire could be blamed for such crimes. In milestone pronouncements this month, they stressed that women cannot be held responsible at any rate for rape, sexual assault or harassment.

“It’s about time,” said a 22-year-old woman from Cairo who asked to be identified only by her first name, Farida. “For far too long men and boys harassed women on the streets with impunity. It is not OK to ignore the problem and it’s not OK to feel unsafe on the streets.”

But the feeling persists that the changes need to go beyond laws.

“As much as I am happy and ecstatic about this big step for women in Egypt, I want to see the officials that will be taking a victim’s report deal with her with kindness and compassion rather than passing judgment and making her feel worse,” a woman in her 30s wrote on Facebook on Thursday.

“The sexual harassment-rape culture needs to change and it will when more women speak up and more men support them.”