Rigorous codes, heinous crimes
by Serene Assir
As rape and sexual harassment become staples of public debate, Serene Assir tunes in to street attitudes towards two disconcerting phenomena
A few weeks after Dar Al-Ifta's issuing of a fatwa (edict) ruling that Islam sanctions abortions for female rape victims, the public debate that was unleashed over the case of Hend Mohamed, an 11-year-old who gave birth in 2006 has only grown murkier. To begin with, the public was united in sympathy with Mohamed; that is before DNA tests proved the man she had accused of raping her was innocent.
Meanwhile, the fatwa, issued on the back of escalating efforts by MPs seeking to implement into law the right to abort in rape cases, has injected new life into the debate. The fatwa, according to Sheikh Emad Effat of Dar Al-Ifta, "is by no means intended to solve the problem of rape, but rather to help female victims." In other words, the decision to allow abortion up until the 120th day of a rape victim's pregnancy emerges as a response both to a growing sensibility towards the rights of victims and to a mounting conviction in the proliferation of what has been termed in countless opinion columns and radio and television shows over recent years in Egypt as fawda akhlaqiya, or moral chaos. "We need to make sure that the victim does not live in shame," Effat added in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. "As for rape itself, much more needs to be done before we can see an improvement in the country's current record."
According to the Cairo-based Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR), at least 20,000 women are raped in Egypt every year. In line with global findings, the vast majority of rape victims know their attackers, who are usually relatives. "Very often, particularly in poor urban or urbanising areas, where poverty is rife, families of eight or 10 will share a single room," coordinator for ECWR's programme on sexual harassment, Engy Ghozlan, told the Weekly. "Such living conditions, combined with the increasing economic difficulties that are preventing marriage, are attributed by some as being factors towards the incidence of rape. In addition, street attacks are continuing to happen, creating fear amongst some women from going about their daily lives alone."
Ever since the subject of sexual harassment was thrown into the glare of publicity by incidents of police involvement in harassment during a demonstration held on 25 May 2005 and of public indifference towards harassment during Eid Al-Adha festivities in 2006, coverage by the independent media and intensified efforts by a small number of highly active NGOs have led to the establishment of a more open debate. "That has led to a stronger public consciousness of the phenomenon," said Ghozlan. "But that doesn't mean harassment is by any means decreasing." Indeed, according to long-time Cairo resident Nadia, "harassment is constant and is done in a variety of ways. Essentially, whatever it is, whether it is a stare, a sexual comment, groping or even exhibitionism, I am left with the feeling that there is nothing I can do about a man's behaviour towards me. This is not a good feeling to begin or end your day with."
It is, of course, no secret that beneath the strict moral code that has traditionally been associated with public conduct in Egypt, there exist all types of obsessive human behaviour rooted in repressed sexuality. Perhaps genuine efforts at addressing harassment ought to deal more with reality, thereby easing the current growing mistrust and misunderstanding between genders. A case in point: while Ahmed vehemently believes that "girls like to be followed," Nadia expresses genuine fear of and anger at such male behaviour.
ECWR's Ghozlan is of the opinion that society is changing rapidly. "There are so many different trends people don't know what to believe anymore," she said. "While in some neighbourhoods, a certain dress code will be a signal to men that a woman is out of bounds, in another she will attract attention. There is no longer a safe method of identification." [It is no longer guaranteed that wearing a 'head-to-toe-bag' will ward off rapists or perverts of one sort or another...ed. A.I.]
1) Rigorous codes, heinous crimes