A friend recently asked me: “If you would change one thing about your culture, what could it be?” I answered without hesitation: “How we treat women.” After I said that, another friend, somewhat surprised, replied by asking, “Would you change everything?” Confidently I said: “Yeah, everything”.
The majority of the Arab population believes that Arab culture is the most protective to women since it provides them with the necessary male protection. This male protection usually comes from a father, brother, or husband. According to this cultural understanding, male protection stems from God’s creation, and God created women as weaker than men and as a result, men rule. I remember my family raised me on how to protect my older sister. One day, my mother told my sister that she must listen to her brother; he knows better than you because of the experiences he faces everyday.
Egypt is considered the heart of the Arab world with its rich culture, strategic location, and importance across the region. But the question is; how is our culture really treating women?
A UN survey in 2013 indicated that 99% of women in Egypt had experienced sexual assault in public. Perhaps the most alarming aspect about these reports is that some cases of sexual harassment were reportedly committed by state agents, notably the security forces.
In addition to sexual harassment in public, domestic violence represents a huge problem, despite the lack of reporting on such incidents. In 2005, a survey ordered by the Egyptian government indicated that 47% of married, divorced, separated, or widowed women had experienced domestic violence.
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The real problem in Egypt is not only sexual harassment, but also society’s response to incidents that attract public attention. In the abovementioned survey it was noted that 39% of women in Egypt believe that men have the right to use violence against women for discipline in order to preserve the dignity of the family. In fact, just last week, a 26-year-old Muslim woman was killed by her own family because she ran away with a Christian neighbor, the independent newspaper al-Tahrir reported. So here we have it: the social acceptance behind sexual harassment and gender-based violence. This acceptance can be seen through the usual comments concerning sexual harassment incidents that took place in Egypt during the last few years. Comments questioning the female presence in demonstrations and questioning a woman’s freedom to wear what kind of clothes she wants. Comments clearly illustrate the public consent of preventing women from participating in demonstrations because of, as they say, their weaker nature.
Religion plays an important role in this regard mainly because religion acts as an influential force in reforming culture and attitudes within Egyptian society. One of the most important topics regularly covered in Friday prayers in Egypt is related to women and their relation to men. Women’s rights is a much debated issue in any Muslim Arab country, with different interpretations of Quran verses regarding women’s position in Islam. For instance, there’s this verse that concerns Prophet Mohammed and how he dealt with his wife during an argument:
Almighty Allah says: "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more strength than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard in the husband's absence what Allah would have them to guard. As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance); for Allah is most High and Great (above you all). If you fear a breach between them twain, appoint (two) arbiters, one from his family and the other from hers. If they wish for peace, Allah will cause their reconciliation; for Allah has full knowledge and is acquainted with all things." (Quran: An-Nisaa 34-35)
In the original language of the Quran, Arabic, the verse says that in case there is a disagreement between a man and his wife, the man should first counsel her, then, if need be, refuse to share bed with her, and finally, beat her. In Arabic the word for “beat” is Adrabohom, which has two meanings; the first is to boycott something or someone. In other words, stop talking to that person. The second meaning is to beat someone. Now, if we look at the interpretations in Egypt by different scholars, it is clear that they tend to take the approach of beating, thus ignoring the main principles of humanity and of respecting women. The confusion between different opinions has left the public with the freedom to abuse women, illustrating the failure of the religious institutions, notably Al Azhar (the biggest Islamic organization in Egypt), and the government to protect women’s rights through law enforcement and improved legislation.
Violence and discrimination against women is now widely considered one of the main problems facing Egyptian society. In January 2011 and June 2013 women played a key role in protest movements. Without women change was not an option. But without real equality between the sexes and without ensuring full and equal rights to different groups in society, any improvements will simply be corrupt numbers on a piece of paper.