Cairo University assault illustrates Egypt’s violence against women

As I’ve discussed previously, Egypt has a pretty big violence against women problem, backed by both the society and the power of the state, which has worsened dramatically under military rule (both in 2011 and in 2013-present).

Here’s a noteworthy stat from Egypt News Daily:

According to a UN report issued last year an overwhelming majority of Egyptian women (99.3%) have experienced some sort of sexual harassment, and 96.5% of women had been sexually assaulted in some way.

In the latest high-profile incident — as opposed to the daily struggle for basic safety many of Egypt’s women face quietly — a female Cairo University Law student was sexually assaulted in plain sight by a dozen men on campus, who brazenly filmed their attack. She only escaped worse because some individual members of the campus security had the decency to intervene (something that can’t be said of much of Egypt’s local and national security forces).

The appropriate response would be: “Wait, we have a horrific problem where some of our male students feel secure in sexually assaulting our female students right out in the open on campus in front of security cameras and their own! What are we doing wrong? What can be done to change the culture and behavior of our male students?”

Instead, Cairo University’s president helpfully called her attire a “mistake” that was “out of the ordinary” for the dress code. He added that campus security should have removed her from campus or told her to change her clothes, before she was assaulted, rather than after. Sure he also said they would look into it, or whatever, and maybe think about some prosecutions because they shouldn’t have done it, but really he seemed to feel it was fundamentally attire-related.

Media treatment

Egyptian news media, closely aligned with the military government, extensively blamed the victim and gave her what might here be dubbed the full Rush Limbaugh treatment (with eerie parallels to his Sandra Fluke rant), calling her a “hooker” who should be in the “red light district” instead of at law school. At least one channel also obtained video footage — probably from one of the attackers — showing her walking around campus so the audience could see how she had been dressed. (Perfectly normal or even conservative campus attire, of course, by U.S. standards… not that it in any way matters.)

Egyptian pundits also wrote off the Cairo University assault using the tried-and-true method of rape apologism that dehumanizes everyone involved including fellow men, by suggesting that no man could possibly not try to rape a woman who crossed his field of vision. Below is newscaster Tamer Amin, mid-rant, on that line of attack:
Statements like that always raise more questions than they answer.

Questions like “Tamer Amin, since you clearly believe every man lacks all self-control and is a rapist at heart, is that belief from personal experience?”

Or, “Tamer Amin, how many women have you yourself raped and assaulted? Too many to remember?”

Secularism no solution

The military government has been particularly horrendous on the issue of violence against women, not just looking the other way on incidents, but actively endorsing bodily violations by police as a routine matter when detaining women. That policy has been endorsed at the highest possible level: by General Sisi, the likely next president of Egypt.

Contrary to popular belief, particularly in the West, the religious-oriented Muslim Brotherhood government was probably actually slightly better on the issue than the secular military. Brazen, out in the open, mob assaults in public — such as this one — were somewhat less frequent under the brief period of Brotherhood rule. And Morsi’s government even opened a Violence Against Women Department of the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior — an office that activists say has basically gone unused under military control since the July 2013 coup d’etat.

The same activists used to be criticizing the Brotherhood government for not doing enough and predicting their religious values would prevent them from enacting real change. That first part is probably legitimate as well, because it was a marginal improvement at best, but the problem wasn’t that there was an Islamic political party in power. The problem was and is that Egyptian society, regardless of any political alignments, is still hyper-conservative masquerading as modern. The military is the other side of the same coin at best. They passed a constitution with almost the exact same religious values provisions. Modernity is reserved for the chosen men, of a certain age.

Tell me again how that secular revolution against the mean political Islamists is working out for you again, Egyptian liberals?

Sadly, the worst irony of the whole thing is that the vicious and dangerous rhetoric we’re hearing is only a slight degree more overtly victim-blaming than what we in the United States hear all the time, from university officials to media pundits (and not just the shock jocks like Limbaugh but the regular local newscasters) to men on the streets.

The only major difference is that we’ve actually gotten the assault levels down to “still pretty bad” (~20% of women assaulted, with increasing police support) from “astronomically horrible and state-sanctioned” (96.5% assaulted, with zero police support) which is where Egypt is right now. The United States has much more work to do, both in words and deeds, but Egypt’s women face a state of emergency every moment of every day.

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and a local elected official.
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