Vulnerable woman: Everyday normality in Egypt
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
A country advancing politically, economically and even socially, Egypt has been celebrated for moving away from its ties with the conservative Islam; supposedly progressing in gender equality and opportunity. Over 148 women were elected to Egyptian parliament in 2020, and 98 women became the first female judges to join Egypt’s State Council.As the government introduces laws to protect woman in the workplace, the World Bank boasts about its EGES certificate that promotes gender equality within leading corporate companies. It’s all looking up for Egypt it seems, as ministers believe that ‘full gender equality’ is now on the horizon for 2030.
But hope of advancement transitioned to facade when student Naira Ashraf was publicly stabbed to death for rejecting her murderer’s marriage proposal in early June. A twenty-one-year old’s supposed freedom, to deny a future she didn’t want, objected to through murder. As Naira stepped off her university shuttle bus outside Mansoura University in Northern Egypt on the 23rd of June, she was murdered by fellow student Mohamad Adel. This instance alone doesn’t evoke social advancement, instead underscoring the failure of Egyptian authorities to protect their women from everyday violence. As a receptive audience, do we pass this off as a ‘one time’ egotistical lash of anger? One of those mad stories you hear on the news from somewhere that feels out of touch from where you are, one that you forget about once dinner is served? One that doesn’t take away from the social advancements that Egypt has made?
Yet, Naira’s story didn’t even make it into the BBC’s world news publication. Disregarded as irrelevant for their content, only to be found through a specific google search on smaller sites; Naira Ashraf’s story simply falls into a relentless pattern of back-to-back killings by Egyptian men. Ones who feel inherently entitled to complete and utter power over woman and their decisions.
Whilst human rights activists put their heads in their hands and Egyptian people wavered momentarily in shock from circulated video footage, a handful of reporter's victim blamed Naira for wearing ‘loose clothing’. Four days later a girl was shot five times at Amman’s University in Jordon. A few days prior, the student threatened to kill her ‘like the Egyptian girl’ if she rejected his proposal, ending her life on the 27th of June. Two weeks later in the Arab Emirates, a woman is stabbed a dozen times after upsetting her husband. This list of shocking singular instances transcends itself into normality of brutal violence against women. The Edraak foundation alone documented 335 violent crimes against woman and girls in Egypt between January and April, double of the previous year. In total, seven million women suffer from violence annually, often from relatives and those closest to them. Ultimately, violence against woman is a private and culturally accepted matter that remain remains part of the everyday. It is therefore imperative to break down the structures of Egyptian society that can lead brutal killings such as Naira’s.
The building blocks of a society that experiences this volume of violence will place their women in an isolated position that offers them minimal respect, opportunity, and independence; in this sense, she is reduced to the position of a dependent and vulnerable child. In general terms, an Egyptian woman’s value is based on the male perception of her as weak, less able, less competent, and dependent on them for happiness and stability. This confines them to the conventional role in the home, with minimal legal power even in dictating their own and their children’s bank accounts. Even though there have been attempts to allow for a woman to access work and have a more prominent role in the public sphere; their struggle is ongoing. According to the Woman Economic Empowerment study, only 26% of women participate in the workforce, compared to 79% of men. Often pride causes families in these communities to feel that their reputation and dignity would be stained by their women involving themself in the labour market. It’s deemed a sign that the husband has failed to take care of her wife or daughter financially. This is supported by Islamic entrenched tradition from the Quran that reiterates a woman’s participation in the public sphere is a rebellion against her husband. Moreover, many women are reluctant to travel far from home for fears of sexual harassment on the way to work and within the workplace itself. These beliefs, alongside high illiteracy rates, are enhanced in rural areas where there isn’t much movement for new political and social ideas to embed themselves. Often, women must persuade their families to allow them to go out and work, meaning that before the government can even restrict your involvement in the public sphere, your own family is setting that rigid boundary. First the barrier of family allowance, then the fear for your own safety; an environment that doubts and disrespects simultaneously.
Economic independence for the average woman in Egypt is therefore met with correlating beliefs that Egyptian woman have of their own position in society. According to a gender equality study, 76.7% of woman believe that their most important role is to care for the home, with over 58% believing that men should have the final decision for the family. The percentages for men aligning with the same attitude is above 80% for both aspects of the survey. But this sort of information doesn’t necessarily shock a western audience. In a country that remains with strong religious ties with conservative Islam that limits the role woman have in the public sphere, a gender gap of opportunity and expectation is predictable.
But an environment that tolerates violence at an early age and allows for vicious daylight killings should shock. According a survey conducted by UN Women that surveyed 10,000 individuals, all genders but especially woman reported that they’ve been vulnerable to violence in school and home as children, 80% even said that they had been physically punished by their teachers. Further, 90% of men and 70.9% of women believe that women should tolerate violence for the family survival. A combination of violence integrated into education and an environment of tolerance turns tradition into normality. A culture of violence is created on top of a power complex that places woman as a victim. Naira expressed her own view and Adel’s presumption of power resulted in a violent act normalised by a society that is supposedly moving forward with encouraging equality between men and women. Unless the Egyptian government and society itself work to deconstruct the structures that cause women to be seen as counterparts, accessories and only as carers and necessary partners for support, instances like Naira’s murder will continue to take place and a culture of violence will remain.