A few weeks ago I received a message from a friend in Cairo about a horrible attack on her sister Esraa Mohamed. Esraa was walking in her own neighborhood at 3 PM when she realized she was being followed by a well-dressed, respectable looking stranger. He said, “I am not harassing you but don’t forget to wipe off your pants. She suddenly began to feel a burning pain in her backside and rushed into a cafe to see what was wrong. It was then that she realized she couldn’t remove her pants and took a cab home. By that time the pain was so excruciating that she almost fainted; her buttocks and the back of her thighs had been burned by acid that had eaten into her flesh. The doctor who examined her said she had second and third degree burns, with cell necrosis in some areas. The diagnosis was: chemical burn by an unidentified corrosive. Esraa described the attack to a journalist friend who wrote a story about it. After she spoke out, she received messages from other girls who said the same thing had happened to them, but they had not told anyone or come forward because they were so ashamed and embarrassed. She also received several attacks saying she deserved it for not wearing the veil.
Since the overthrow of Mubarak, there has been much commentary about sexual harassment and violence against women in Egypt. Many believe the attacks on women in Tahrir Square were initiated by mobs hired by Egypt’s security forces as a means of intimidation, similar to the “virginity tests” forced upon some of the girls who were arrested during a protest in March 2011. They see violence against women as a means of scaring them away from political activity. While this is true, it is only part of the explanation for violence against women in Egypt long precedes the revolutions of the last three years. It has been growing for decades. A study done in 2008 showed that 83% of women get harassed in Egypt. But numbers alone cannot show how scary the harassment is, how it makes women feel, and how their families usually blame them instead of the men who harassed them.
The role of Islamist propaganda in promoting the acceptance of violence against women often gets overlooked by those who are afraid of appearing “Islamophobic” or racist. But addressing the roots of violence against women is one of the most important steps in eradicating it. During the 1950s and 60s, this level of sexual persecution was unheard-of in Egypt. At that time time hardly anyone in cities wore the veil and Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, had virtually disappeared, due to the Nasser regime’s systematic attempts to eradicate them. When Anwar Sadat became President in 1970, he eased up on the Islamists because he wanted their support against leftist groups. Thus the 1970s witnessed a religious revival. By the 1980s and 90s, the Brotherhood’s influence and the social services it provided were entrenched in many villages and neighborhoods, and the number of women wearing the veil rose significantly as a mark of the influence of political Islam. I remember a conversation about the hijab between my mother and a woman who belonged to the Brotherhood. She said, “Every time I think about how uncomfortable it is, I remember that by wearing it I am promoting our ideology.”
Islamists launched campaigns pushing the veil. One showed a picture of a three legged chair and said it was like a woman without a veil. Another showed a lollipop wrapped in paper next to to an unwrapped lollipop covered with flies, which it compared to a woman who does not veil. These campaigns objectified women by comparing them to chairs and candy, and dehumanizing women is the first step in justifying violence against them. Radio and TV channels that catered to Islamist agendas (most of which have been shut down in the past few months) endlessly justified wife beating, Female Genital Mutilation, marital rape, and other forms of violence against women as well as promoted the idea that women are inferior to men and in need of constant monitoring and disciplining. Those on the receiving end of these messages aren’t just orthodox Muslims or Muslim Brotherhood members, but a much wider demographic.
While sexual harassment is against the law in Egypt , in many cases, when women try to file a complaint, the police won’t even talk to them. This is because both the violators and the police share the same cultural values. As Esraa Mohammed’s sister told me recently, “When you are living in a society dominated by people who abuse religious scripture in order to deny women their person-hood, it is no surprise to see women who seek independence and freedom being slut-shamed and abused.”