When will Egyptian law catch up with its #MeToo movement?

When will Egyptian law catch up with its #MeToo movement?
Comment: Egypt needs a culture shift, but also a comprehensive law against sexual violence, rather than just minor adjustments to existing legislation, writes Horriya Marzouk.
5 min read
21 Jul, 2020
Dozens of Egyptian women and girls have started to speak out [Getty]
The recent case of an alleged serial sexual predator named Ahmed Bassam Zaki has opened a Pandora's Box of similar unreported crimes in Egypt.

Dozens of Egyptian women and girls have started to act bravely, defying social norms, especially after Zaki's arrest, by publishing online accounts of their encounters with alleged sex offenders. Most of these incidents date months or years back. 

Several hashtags have popped up on social media, including the "The first time someone harassed me I was aged…" hashtag which has been trending for days now. It encourages gender based violence survivors to share their painful experiences.

Unfortunately, most of those telling their stories do not possess material evidence against their attackers, as many of these incidents are only just coming to light. So, it's the victim's word against the alleged perpetrator's.

The pressing question now, is whether this is enough to convict any sex offenders?

The Egyptian Penal Code divides sexually-based offences into sexual indecency, sexual harassment, rape and attempted rape. Each of these crimes has a different legal penalty and definition.

Many people confuse sexual harassment with sexual indecency. Egyptian Criminal Law defines sexual indecency as inappropriately holding or touching sensitive parts of a woman's body. If found guilty, the perpetrator can be sentenced to up to 10 years of imprisonment.

Sexual harassment, on the other hand, refers to touching any other areas of a woman's body, or addressing her using sexual connotations. Legally, it is a misdemeanour that carries six months to three years in prison. 

For decades now, Egyptian legislators have done nothing but tinker with flawed laws that may do harm rather than good

According to a 2013 United Nations report, more than 99 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. An anti-sexual harassment law was passed as late as 2014, and as an amendment to the Penal Code, following an infamous incident that took place in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square during a pro-regime protest.

The Egyptian Criminal Code recognises rape as a felony, and rapists can be sentenced to a life in prison or death.

But for decades now, Egyptian legislators have done nothing but tinker with flawed laws that may do harm rather than good. According to human rights lawyers, Egyptian legislation has several loopholes that can result in sex offenders getting away with their crimes. The cunning and resourcefulness of the defendant's attorney plays an disproportionate role in whether justice is served.

In addition, the law's narrow definition of rape is problematic. Anal penetration or a rapist using his hand or a sharp object would not be legally considered rape under Egyptian law.

A perpetrator can plead not guilty for mental health reasons, something of a grey area in Egypt. And too often, a sex predator gets away with his crime due to the lack of "sufficient evidence" to establish "guilt".

Many offenders escape punishment, not because of a court acquittal, but because their behaviour went unreported due to several factors; primarily social stigma. Egypt's male-dominated society mostly blames women for such violations, rather than holding men accountable, which makes victims reluctant to report abuses. As a result, they suffer in silence and experience feelings of shame and helplessness.

Other commonly held beliefs, for example that a woman's body must not be touched before marriage or else she will be "flawed merchandise", also contribute to social stigma about reporting harassment. The issue of virginity as proof of a woman's chastity is also damaging, and as usual pins the blame on the woman for the sexual offences she has endured.

Read more: Egyptian writer Mohamed Hashem arrested over sexual assault allegations

Some Islamic scholars have even contributed offensive and unhelpful rhetoric, but placing the focus on a woman's outfit as the reason behind sex crimes, rather than a man's misconduct. This includes famed preacher Abdullah Roshdy, a common face on Egyptian TV, who has been suspended by the Ministry of Endowments and prevented from giving sermons at mosques, after making statements online in which he compared a woman dressed up "inappropriately", to a fancy car with US$1 million inside, left open for thieves to steal. 

Some Islamic institutions have started supporting women, albeit verbally only, by denouncing these atrocities after they grabbed the attention of the public as well as social media users. On the day Zaki was arrested (July 4), Dar El-Ifta (Egypt's Islamic authority tasked with issuing religious edicts) released a fatwa that discredits both rigid social norms and extremist Islamic scholars.

It said that sexual harassment is a sin that has nothing to do with a woman's attire - as some radicals like to say - and that men are required not to gaze at women in the first place.   

But this will not be enough to eradicate the deeply rooted idea in many men's minds about women being tools for sexual pleasure in a so-called conservative society.

Egypt's schools need sex education, which they definitely lack

Some explain sexual violence against women as the result of poverty; but rich people commit these crimes too. Others say the lack of education is the reason. Still, university professors, teachers and professionals alike harass their students and co-workers.

In reality, Egypt does not need to amend its laws every time a new sexual offence comes to light and makes the headlines.

Rather, it needs a comprehensive law against sexual violence, a deterring one that forces sex offenders to think twice before committing such atrocities.

Egypt's schools need sex education, which they definitely lack. Egyptians need more awareness about the devastating consequences of these crimes on the psychological well-being of their daughters, wives, sisters, friends and mothers.

They need to encourage an environment in which women can come forward, unafraid. If and, only if, these actions are taken by the state, civil society, schools and families, Egyptian women may feel safe again.

Horriya Marzouk is a pseudonym. The author resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create a security or freedom of movement issue.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.