'We are not safe anywhere': Egyptian women fear systemic normalisation of gender-based violence and femicide
Shock, fury, heartbreak, and outrage; these are the sentiments women in Egypt have felt over the past two months since the day 21-year-old university student Nayera Ashraf was stabbed to death outside her university in Mansoura as she was on her way to her final exams.
“Women in Egypt are outraged and furious, and I think most people are in incomplete shock, but Egyptian women no longer feel safe,” Egyptian feminist and former TV and radio broadcaster, Reem Ayed, tells The New Arab.
“When you think about it, Nayera Ashraf was murdered outside of campus, and it’s terrifying because your university is like your second home – when you’re a university student, you end up spending more time on campus than you do at your own home. The two places that you’re supposed to feel the safest are your own house and your school.
"The fact she was murdered right outside her school is terrifying because it means that safe place is no longer safe for women. Egyptian women never felt safe on the streets, to begin with, so now it’s even worse.”
"There were 415 violent crimes committed against girls and women in Egypt in 2020, 113 cases of women murdered as a result of domestic abuse, and a total of 165 cases of femicide"
Nayera’s murderer Mohammed Adel, who has been sentenced to death by hanging, was a man who had been stalking her for some time after she refused his marriage proposal.
According to Egyptian news outlet Cairo 24, Adel’s neighbours said he had never caused any trouble and they only heard him when he was beating his mother and sister, exhibiting the social acceptance of a man who was known to have been committing acts of violence against his female family members.
The murder of Nayera Ashraf had a knock-on effect. Just a couple of days later, the Arab world was shaken once more when nursing student Iman Irshaid in Amman, Jordan, was shot five times outside her campus at the University of Applied Sciences. Her murderer, 37-year-old Uday Abdullah Hassan, reportedly sent her this text message the day before:
“Tomorrow I am coming to speak to you and if you don’t accept I am going to kill you just like the Egyptian killed that girl today.”
He died by suicide after refusing to surrender himself to the Jordanian authorities.
Within days of Nayera’s murder, Egyptians woke up to the news that missing TV presenter Shaima Gamal’s body had been found on a farm in Giza – she had been murdered by her husband, a judge, her face burned with acid in an effort to disguise her identity.
His judge immunity has been lifted and he is to be trialled in a criminal court. And if this isn’t enough, in June a woman in the district of Halwan in Cairo was stabbed by her husband 20 times followed by having her right ear cut off. When asked why he did it, her husband said, “because she does not listen to what I say.”
The murders of Nayera Ashraf and Iman Irshaid are reminiscent of those of Farah Akbar in Kuwait and Noor Mukadam in Pakistan just last year, whose murderers took their lives after having their proposals rejected.
"A woman in the district of Halwan in Cairo was stabbed by her husband 20 times followed by having her right ear cut off. When asked why he did it, her husband said, 'because she does not listen to what I say'"
Similar to the case of Farah, Nayera and her family had made repeated formal complaints to the Egyptian authorities. In both Akbar and Ashrafs’ cases, the authorities failed to keep them safe, leading to their deaths.
Yet sadly neither the authorities in Kuwait nor in Egypt have been held accountable for their part in failing to take action.
These acts of femicide are not new to Egypt. In October 2020, three men sexually assaulted 24-year-old Mariam Salah and then proceeded to attempt to steal her handbag, dragging her to her death with their microbus.
Two of the men were sentenced to death and the third was acquitted. And last year, three men broke into a 34-year-old woman’s flat in El Salam district in Cairo for receiving a male visitor, torturing her visitor and then terrorising her to the point she reportedly jumped off the balcony of her 6th-floor apartment and died.
However, her body was found lying on the floor outside another building, making the claim that she threw herself off unclear. The men were charged with unlawful imprisonment and thuggery, not with murder.
What this all proves is that targeted gender-based murders and violence have become systemic in Egypt, something that Amira Salah-Ahmed, Chief Media Officer and Executive Producer at Womena, agrees with.
In a public statement following Nayera’s murder, Amira said, “Nayera Ashraf’s murder cannot be seen as an isolated incident, but needs to be accurately portrayed as part of a dangerous narrative that normalises gender-based violence.
"The dangerous cultural narrative not only discriminates against women on a daily basis but goes further to normalise gender-based violence by depicting it lightly or comically as entertainment in all forms of media. Patriarchal and misogynistic mindsets are further cemented by these fatal narratives that are brought directly into our homes. This is worsened by the lack of legal frameworks to protect women who actively seek protection from authorities.”
"When we look at a country like Egypt or Jordan... you’re socialised into waiting to get married until you have sex. Because of patriarchy in South West Asia and North Africa, men have much more leeway when it comes to this; they are able to express their sex drive in ways that women can’t"
Gathering statistics on cases of femicide and the numbers of girls and women subjected to gender-based violence is a mammoth task in Egypt.
The Edraak Foundation for Development and Equality is one of a few reliable organisations that has undertaken this incredibly difficult task.
In their report issued last year, they estimated that 7.8 million girls and women in Egypt have experienced some form of gender-based violence.
There were 415 violent crimes committed against girls and women in Egypt in 2020, 113 cases of women murdered as a result of domestic abuse, and a total of 165 cases of femicide in that same year.
In the days following Nayera Ashraf and Iman Irshaids’ murders, some on social media referred to their murderers as incels. However, Arab writers and academics have disagreed with the use of this term which has been created by the West to describe men who find themselves involuntarily celibate and as a result target women with misogynistic abuse and violence.
Egyptian American feminist, journalist, and author of The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, Mona El Tahawy, tells The New Arab that there is an important distinction that needs to be made between incels in the West, and men like Nayera Ashraf and Iman Irshaids’ murderers.
“When it comes to sex and the ability to express one’s self sexually and openly, we’re talking about very different cultural contexts, because today for most people in the so-called West, you can have sex with whoever you want whenever you want and it’s a different scenario in Egypt, in Jordan, and in what we now call South West Asia and North Africa,” explains Mona.
“There’s much more taboo connected with it, there’s much more shame, there’s much more silence, so it is a different playing field. When we look at a country like Egypt or Jordan and other countries in the region, you’re socialised into waiting to get married until you have sex. Because of patriarchy in South West Asia and North Africa, men have much more leeway when it comes to this; they are able to express their sex drive in ways that women can’t, so it's a different kind of involuntarily celibate men," Mona continues.
“These men in Egypt and Jordan believe that women must succumb to their advances, these women owe them their attention and their love, and if they don’t, then these men believe – because patriarchy protects and enables men’s violence against us – that they have the right to punish women. And there is nothing in our societies that holds those men accountable.”
The outpouring of rage and anger from people in Egypt following Nayera’s murder meant that her murderer’s trial and conviction was one of the fastest ever seen in Egypt’s Criminal Court, as murder cases tend to take months or even years to reach a verdict.
However, this is not the norm, and the Egyptian legal system is greatly lacking when it comes to laws that punish femicide and acts of gender-based violence. In fact, terms such as “misogynistic hate crime” and “femicide” are not recognised.
Article 60 in the Penal Code allows a perpetrator of domestic violence to be pardoned if he “acted in good faith,” and Article 17 allows a judge to lower a sentence for rape or an honour killing as an act of “mercy,” although recently there has been talk of Article 17 being abolished.
Furthermore, when you are living in a country where the state itself commits acts of gender-based violence against women, such as the sexual violence and forced virginity tests perpetrated by the military during the Arab Spring in 2011 and anti-military protests in 2014, it is no wonder that men like Nayera Ashraf’s murderer kill so brazenly and with such impunity.
“It is essential that we identify these violent men, while not forgetting that femicide is an act fuelled by misogyny and the absence of laws that view women as equal citizens. We cannot stop at blaming these men, or calling them incels, without working to dismantle the larger patriarchal system we live in,” says Huda Jawad, Co-Director of Musawah, the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family.
For over a decade Musawah has been campaigning for reform to personal status laws and family laws in both Egypt and other Muslim-majority countries.
“It is important to note here that we do not yet see femicide as a crime in our region. We do not differentiate between the act of killing and the act of killing a woman because of the sole fact that she is a woman, so the penal code is lacking when it comes to femicide.
"We hope we will be able to get justice for these women. We also hope that we start building a collective discourse on femicide that translates into systemic and legal efforts. At Musawah, we believe equality and justice are necessary and possible and we know that the time for this change is now."
Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, being published by Hashtag Press in the UK in October 2020
Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA