Last Tuesday evening I attended a public talk hosted by Chatham House at the Global Summit on Sexual Violence which has been taking place this week in London. This particular talk was focused on the increase in violence against women in countries such as Egypt, Yemen and Syria since the Arab Spring. With a panel of four inspiring women and their chair the event was one of the highlights of the summit. The speakers included:
Ghaidaa al Absi, a Yemen activist and anti-harassment campaigner
Dr Fida Shafi, a senior fellow at Chatham House who has recently conducted research among female Syrian refugees.
Dr Nervana Mahmoud, Egyptian journalist and commentator
Dr Nicola Pratt, Reader of International Politics of the Middle East at the University of Warwick
An emotive and compelling discussion, some of the key points made during the event included:
- Violence against women and children has increased significantly with the events of the Arab Spring for a variety of reasons.
- The problem is chronic and endemic. It takes many forms, from harassment to sexual assault and rape. Pratt emphasised the need to differentiate between the various forms that such violence is taking in order to better understand the problem, but broadly the issue affects women from all backgrounds and is perpetrated by men of all backgrounds too. Thus, the solution to the problem needs to be multi-faceted.
- Egypt is currently the worst country in the Arab region for violence against women, with 8 out of every 10 women being harassed every day in the country. Mahmoud pointed out there is a real risk of Egypt thus developing the terrible reputation as ‘a country of rapists’.
- Women tend to be blamed for the acts of violence that are perpetrated against them, with accusations about dress and condemnation of their participation in political protest, while men are often excused for their actions.
- Violence against women thrives on silence. There is a huge issue of stigma and shame which is preventing the reporting of and, therefore, in turn the resolution of the problem. It is difficult to have accurate figures on violence against women since so many are too ashamed to talk about what has happened to them.
- Such shame is intrinsically linked to the pervading culture regarding the purity of women, and the sacredness of virginity.
- Violence against women can be used as a way to emasculate male opponents in times of war or political conflict. Because in such cultures men are supposed to be protectors of their women folk, violence against a man’s wife, sister, daughter etc is often used to inflict harm against the man. In this way, women are deemed, effectively, as little more than tools of war.
- The shame of men in regards to violence that has been inflicted on their women helps perpetuate the silence on the issue, since neither men nor women want to speak out about what has happened to them or their family.
- This state of denial and a tendency to blame the victim are the greatest barriers to tackling violence against women.
- As Shafi explained, fear of rape is so great that it can cause women to flee their home countries rather than run the risk of being subjected to such violence.
- In Egypt feminism has traditionally been centred on the First Lady and the cities, and is often seen as a Western idea. Therefore women in rural areas eschew feminist ideas.
- The new anti-harassment law in Egypt is a good law, but it will not address the problem if the perpetrators are not properly found and tried. There is also the issue of the police harassing women. Until women in Egypt feel protected by police and confident in the legal system, the law will be ineffective.
Such are the snippets of information from the talk which demonstrate just how complex the issue of violence against women is. Change is happening, as younger men and women start to struggle against regressive thinking. However, cultural norms, views on female rights, and the stigma attached to matters of a sexual nature are deeply rooted in the Arab region. It will take a lot to tackle such entrenched problems, but events such as the Global Summit are a great step in the right direction.