The sexual assault of nine women on the day of the inauguration of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on June 9 has directly translated into a heated government response.
Besides visiting one of the victims in hospital with a bouquet of red roses, the president-elect, who has often posed as a loving man who cares about women, has announced a ministerial committee to combat sexual harassment. “There will be strict procedures and strict implementation of the law. I am here to tell you, and every Egyptian woman, I am sorry. I am apologizing to all of you,” Sisi said during his visit.
The Ministry of Interior issued a statement on its Facebook page claiming it had detained seven perpetrators accused in the assaults, and praising one officer for “risking his life as he tried to keep the harassers away.”
While the stepping up of the government’s response to sexual violence has proved effective with some political condoning from the ruling regime, challenges remain in implementing measures, mostly due to conservative or unwilling institutions, many argue.
A few days before, a law criminalizing sexual harassment came into effect on June 5, with a minimum six-month jail sentence and a LE3,000 fine, as well as increased penalties for employers and repeat offenders.
“This should be celebrated, but we should also claim this victory as it is a result of years of struggle and pressure,” says Dalia Abdel Hamid, Gender and Women’s Rights Officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). “The amended wording is an improvement as it is not morally charged and more gender-sensitive.”
Before this legislation, there were only Penal Code stipulations limited to criminalizing rape in the strict sense of the word, ignoring the different forms of sexual violence that start with harassment.
With the lack of legislative response, sporadic attempts by the government under pressure from civil society led to some measures.
On May 19, 2013, the Ministry of Interior announced the establishment of the “department for monitoring crimes of violence against women” and a task force with 10 female police officers. The National Council for Women (NCW), the Ministry of Justice, and UN Women joined forces with them later in the year.
The move was deemed a step forward though it showed the shortcomings of gender sensitivity within the police force.
While acknowledging that the road to police reform is not short of difficulties, Abdel Fattah Mohmoud, co-founder of the Basma movement, notes that his organization aims to collaborate with the task force to train police officers to combat sexual violence.
“There is starting to be an acknowledgement on the gravity of the issue in the police forces. This is a huge step and would have been impossible just a few years ago,” he adds.
But the task force has not been short of criticism, as many claim there has been very limited cooperation with civil society organisations.
“The creation of an anti-sexual violence unit should take place in tandem with a nationwide training of all police officers,” says Abdel-Hamid, “Otherwise, it is just there for cosmetic purposes and to make the ministry seem like it is a champion of women’s rights.”
“Women should feel that any police station is a friendly space. This is not enough,” she added.
Mostafa Mahmoud, a lawyer at the Nazra Institute for Feminist Studies, points to a basic issue pertaining to the privacy of victims filing complains at a police station. According to him, filed police reports, which all parties have access to, contain the victim’s confidential information – including their national identification card number, phone number and address — leaving them highly vulnerable to retaliation by the perpetrator.
A police officer who requested anonymity, speaks of the “violent male-dominated” nature of the police, which means that the entire apparatus needs reform to tackle issues of sexual violence. He adds that the lack of female police officers also discourages female victims from coming forward.
“I have seen officers either harassing victims themselves or blaming the act of rape on their clothing,” he adds, “Others have also been unwilling to help or have pressured the victim to drop charges in order to not ruin the perpetrator’s future.”
Despite these shortcomings, victims and civil society have increasingly worked on implicating the state in upholding justice in cases of sexual violence. Going to court is a case in point.
Mahmoud notes that there has been a dramatic rise in women filing court cases, especially in the last year.
Well-known success stories include the case of filmmaker Noha al-Ostaz in 2008, who brought her harasser to court after he groped her in the streets of Heliopolis. He was sentenced to three years in prison for sexual assault.
Other more serious cases of sexual violence, which have resulted in killings, include the case of 16-year-old Eman Mustafa who was shot dead by her perpetrator in Assiut in September 2012 when she stood up for herself. The man was sentenced to 25 years in prison for murder.
But the judiciary hasn’t always brought justice to the victims. In the case of Shorouk al-Torabi, who was run over by a car in Tanta in August 2013, after standing up to the driver’s harassment, Tanta prosecution ordered the perpetrator’s release on bail.
A judicial source, who asked not be named, notes that the judiciary is increasingly more willing to respond to sexual harassment cases, especially after the dramatic spike in mob sexual assault cases in the last three years.
But like the police officer, the source describes a male-dominated judiciary as automatically rendering cases of sexual violence of a lesser priority.
While women have been permitted as judges since 2007, a 2010 court decision barred women from being judges in the State Council. While the new 2014 Constitution guarantees women’s right to hold top positions in the judiciary, there are no female judges in criminal courts.
The absence of women aside, an overall conservative mentality prevails, the judge concludes, saying that cases of sexual violence are highly politicized and only acted upon by the judiciary through direct pressure from the president.
Nevertheless, human rights advocates encourage more women to file cases.
“We have a long way to go but even filing court cases without a sentence is a victory,” says Mahmoud. “If more women file cases, perpetrators will think twice before attempting to harass any woman just out of unwillingness to go through detention, public shaming and bureaucratic hassle of being accused of being a perpetrator.”
But for him, civil society alone, or the police alone, or the judiciary alone won’t be able to combat sexual violence. Instead, he notes that governments must engage in a nationwide strategy, in collaboration with civil society organizations and the ministries of justice, interior, health and education.
For many critics, the state response to sexual violence today doesn’t efface a past of state-sponsored sexual violence against women. An incident brought to public attention was the 2005 “Black Wednesday” when plain-clothed policemen and paid attackers sexually assaulted journalists and protesters during the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
During the brief rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces following Mubarak’s ouster, the military conducted “virginity tests” on 18 incarcerated female protesters. Amnesty International called the practice a form of torture, while Sisi, a member of SCAF then, defended it.
Mobs of sexual assaults during political gatherings would continue through the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, with MPs at the time blaming the women for these incidents.
Many see today’s vehement government response against sexual violence as promising a different attitude toward women. But fears remain around the ability to implement such responses.