An Interview with Nazra for Feminist Studies: Violence, Politics and Women’s Bodies

Gender-based violence in public spaces has been a huge problem in Egypt for a long time. But since the 2011 revolution, it became worse, and there has been a lot of discussion why. You work with survivors, do you have an explanation?

What we can say is that there is a consistent message of impunity. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which took over from Mubarak was the first to send that message, when the military conducted virginity tests on women human rights defenders, in March 2011. And when the administrative court issued a ruling that this practice was illegal, a military court acquitted the physician who performed these tests. So here you have an early message that women's bodies can be tampered with and nobody will be held accountable. In November 2011, there were huge demonstrations in and around Tahrir Square, and women protesters were sexually assaulted by security forces. And this has continued regardless of who was in power. In December 2012, during the clashes in front of the Presidential Palace, a woman human rights defender by the name of Ola Shahba was arrested and sexually assaulted by Morsi supporters, and the security forces participated in the attack instead of stopping it. In November 2013, female protestors were arrested, sexually assaulted and then dumped in the desert; and we also documented one case of oral rape by a police officer which took place in December 2013 at Al-Azhar University. And nobody was ever held accountable.

There was also an upsurge of assaults on women in public spaces, and speculation if that was really random, or part of a political agenda.

Actually, there were many such events before the revolution, but most of it was suppressed in the media.  After January 25, 2011 it went up significantly, because you had this massive outpour of people into the street, and the presence of women in public spaces grew enormously. Some people say the Ministry of Interior was behind these attacks, to discredit and discourage protests of any kind. Others say it was the Muslim Brotherhood to scare women away from public spaces. The truth is, we simply do not know who these people are, and despite all our calls, there was never a serious investigation.

But it clearly has to do with this culture of impunity. Since the revolution we are giving this message to the perpetrators: you can rape women, you can sexually assault them, and you will get away with it. And again, the phenomenon has been consistent, no matter who was in power. The first incident of that kind in Tahrir Square, the infamous gang rape of the TV journalist Lara Logan, actually occurred on February 11, 2011, right after Mubarak’s resignation, when people were streaming into the square to celebrate. From what we have observed, the more the crowds assemble, the more it takes a celebratory nature, the more these crimes increase. In June 2012 we had three cases of gang rape, in November 2012 19, some with sharp objects and fingers, one woman had to undergo a hysterectomy. In January 2013, 24 cases. The period from June 28 to July 7, 2013, during the protests against President Mohamed Morsi, was the most outrageous: 186 cases, 46 of them on June 30, 80 on July 3. The same day Morsi was deposed and the interim government was appointed. People were celebrating in the square. By raping women. And it goes on until today. Lately two girls were killed, one near Assiut in Upper Egypt and the other in the city of Tanta in the Nile Delta, because they answered back when they were verbally harassed. In one case, the guy pulled a gun and shot her, in the other he rolled her over with his car. It has gone beyond them thinking that they can get away with it. They now think it is their right.

This is not easy to understand for an outsider. How can it be that such behavior is tolerated or even condoned in a society that puts so much emphasis on conservative morals and values?

There are of course the usual justifications that you have all over the world. That she was dressed inappropriately, inferences that the woman was certainly calling for it. And violence against women has become completely normalized. Men are raised in a society where a husband can beat his wife, humiliate her, rape her. So if you have no criminalization of domestic violence, no wonder it's going to happen in public spaces as well. They have this belief that women's bodies are not owned by the women, they are owned by the men, and they have the authority to do whatever they want to do.

And to give you an example about values: In November 2012, an initiative called Operation Anti Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH) was formed to intervene against mob sexual assaults. They try to get the survivor out as quickly as possible. And they realized that shouting “rape” often made things worse, that it would attract people to participate in the crime. It usually starts with 10 or 20 and then it quickly goes up to 100. If you want people to come and help, better shout “thief”. That gives you an idea about the values: theft is a crime, but raping a woman and sexually assaulting her, so what.

It is still difficult to understand these outpours of aggression and violence, and the breakdown of social control. Does it have to do with pent-up social frustration, poverty? Is it a class issue?

You do have a deterioration of the security situation, an escalation of street violence, state violence, more and more people who are walking around with guns because there is no security – all that certainly does not help. But we don't think it is a class issue at all. In fact, we reject such arguments, we think that in this way you are looking for justifications that are quite similar to those referring to supposedly inappropriate dress. You are saying that because these men are jobless, they don't have enough money to get married, they are sexually frustrated, hence they assault women. We humbly reckon that this is bogus. If it were about being unable to marry and sexual frustration, then why are the millions of women who can also not get married not chasing down men in the street and raping them? If it were about class, why is it that socially privileged men rape their wives, in the private sphere? That university professors assault their students? It is an issue of a patriarchal society that normalizes violence against women. It is not a class issue.

Concerning formal politics, when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in 2012, there was a lot of concern that this would mean a reversal for women’s rights, in particular when the new constitution was drafted. With all the controversy about Morsi’s removal in the summer of 2013, can we at least say it was good for women?

The positive thing that came out of the interim government was the 50-member committee who reviewed the Constitution. They introduced some articles that are brilliant for women, thanks to the efforts of feminists on the committee, such as Professor Hoda ElSadda. But nothing of this has been applied or implemented. For instance, there is an article which mandates that women should be appointed to all public offices. So the Head of the National Council of Women Mervat El-Tallawi came out demanding the State Council to have women appointed as judges, and they responded by saying that this is not a constitutional matter, that they reserve the right to decide whether women are appointed as judges or not. The new constitution also states clearly that the state is required to fight all forms of violence against women, but so far we have not seen anything that could count as an application of this article. The Constitution mandates that a commission should be formed to combat discrimination against women, but we have not heard anything about when this commission will be established, and what mandate it will have.

Then there is the new electoral law, which mandates that 80% of the seats in parliament will be filled by individual candidates who are directly elected, and only 20% through proportional representation. Such a system favors those who already have social power. Direct mandates are won by people from big families, by those with influence and connections, and that will always be men. While with proportional representation, you can work on the parties to make them put women on the list, and people will vote them in along with men, because they support a party line.  So we can expect a total disaster in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and it is a clear setback from the 2011/12 elections, when two thirds of the seats were filled through proportional representation. So obviously, the state is still moving in the direction of excluding women from political participation and the public sphere.

You have been working with women candidates in the last elections. What were your experiences?

The Women’s Political Participation Academy for the 2011/12 elections worked with 16 women through a training program called “mentoring on the ground. Nazra team members would travel to these women in their villages and regions and work with them on their campaigns, how to address the public, to deliver their messages and so on. At the time, only one out of these 16 women was actually elected, but the long-term objective of this program was not necessarily having women win seats in Parliament, but rather for them to start being active politically in the first place. And many of these 16 women are now active in political parties.

And how welcome is their activism in these parties?

Well, we are living in this patriarchal society, so the parties themselves are not really keen on having women in leading positions. It has reached the point where our team would visit the regional representative of a certain party, a prominent one, and that guy would tell the woman candidate who was going to run for his party to fix the Nazra team members some tea. So our Director Mozn Hassan had to tell him that if he wanted tea he should fix it for himself, since we were there to discuss how to improve her campaign, not to have her make tea. So that gives you an idea how they look at women in these parties, and the kind of duties they think women should be carrying out. And when it comes to violence against women in the public sphere, from SCAF to Morsi to the interim government, they are all the same.

That applies to all parties across the board? Are there not some that are a bit better than others?

To be honest, there is not much difference, it is all the same mindset. Over the past three years very little mentioning was made by any political party concerning women's rights in public space. Unless women and feminist organizations push for it, they would never even think of it.

And if you push, do some respond better than others?

I can give you the example of the June 30, 2013 demonstrations against Morsi. From previous experience, we knew that there would be gang rapes and mob sexual assaults. We pleaded with the political parties to do something about it, but they completely denied the issue, they did not want to intervene in any way. Only two parties responded, the Socialist Popular Alliance and the Free Egypt Party installed huge spotlights to illuminate the dark corners of the square. These were the only two parties who contributed anything, and that gives you an impression where the others see their priorities. And what priority women's issues have for them.