While violence against women in the public sphere has gained more attention in Egypt in the past few years, domestic violence, or what is termed “violence in the private sphere,” is largely a silent issue.
In Egypt, 45 percent of women are subjected to domestic violence, according to statistics provide by the Al-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.
Al-Nadeem was founded in 1993 to rehabilitate victims of violence and police brutality and women subjected to violence, whether in the public or private spheres. Psychiatrist Magda Adly — the center’s director — explains that there are many justifications given for the use of violence against women in the home. They include, for example, meals not being ready on time, food being too salty, the woman responding in a way that her husband finds inappropriate in front of his family, or simply that the children are being too noisy and the husband is unable to sleep.
“They can find any excuse. The man is unable to express anger towards his manager or the traffic policeman, for example. So he targets the most vulnerable — the woman, according to the social hierarchy.” These women are threatened that they will be divorced, deprived of their children or humiliated in front of their neighbors. Adly also explains that domestic violence takes place regardless of the degree of education.
Mona Fathy, a psychologist at the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) adds to the list of triggers for violence: Refusing sex, refusing sex in a certain way, or refusing it out of fear of contracting an infection from a husband who has sex with other women.
But the spark for violence can also be very minor, she says, such as the case of a woman who was beaten with a hammer over a “gas-cylinder cap.”
CEWLA was founded in 1995 in Bulaq al-Dakrur to support marginalized groups, especially women. One of the center’s programs aims to combat violence against women in the private sphere by providing social, psychological and legal aid. When Fathy started to work with abused women, she says it was as if a dormant bomb had just exploded in her face.
“I never imagined things to be that bad, that society is so filthy in its treatment of women,” she explains. All the women she meets have been subjected to abuse, whether physical by beating, or psychological by humiliation and insults.
Adly indicates that the ability of women and girls to confront their situation depends on the support given to them, which may provide hope about emerging out of their ordeals and the belief that they will be able to regain a sense of themselves and their lives again. Support from family, rights organizations or friends enable women to better confront fears and threats. Most women and girls facing domestic violence suffer physical and psychological symptoms such as depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many need the intervention of a psychiatrist.
The problem, according to Mona Fathy, is that they usually stop seeking assistance at the center after a period of time because they perceive it as a luxury, or something “for those on TV.” Sometimes they are forbidden by their families from continuing to receive treatment or the circumstances of their work prevent them from keeping up their treatment. Other times, they accept reconciliation with the husband, claiming that there is no other solution: “What am I to do? Am I going to stay without marriage?”
The wives’ families usually offer little support, sometimes out of poverty. A family who cannot afford to keep a divorced daughter will usually force her to go back to her husband for financial reasons.
Sometimes women fear telling their ordeals to fathers or brothers as this may lead to more violence and problems. If the father of an abused woman is perceived to be weak, this could lead the husband to become more abusive, as he makes use of her “not being backed by a man.”
A woman’s ability to report the violence, or what constitutes “exposing family secrets,” also depends on a number of factors. These include the degree of blackmail or threat that the woman faces, the degree of support offered by her family, her financial position and her ability to support herself and her children, as well as broader concerns, such as society’s perception of divorced women. For all these reasons, Adly explains, not all women are able to seek divorce or resort to the police. What we hear more frequently are women who say, “I left the house in anger, but my family made me return.”
Khula (no-fault divorce) made things a little easier for women who face violence at the hands of their husbands, although they do have to give up the rights they would have in the case of divorce. Proving wrongdoing in divorce cases remains a very difficult matter as it is left up to the judge’s evaluative authority. But the two solutions, whether divorce or khula, are relevant only in cases of marital violence. Women who face violence at the hands of their brothers, fathers and relatives can only go to the police, with little hope of a positive outcome.
To report the violence to which she has been subjected, a woman must first get a report from a public hospital. The police then transfer her to the forensic authority to verify the kind of bruises and the tools used in the assault. Afterward, the prosecution will receive a notice and the case goes to court.
But this chain of procedure can be disrupted at any point, starting from the hospital’s refusal to hand over the medical report. When a victim gets to hospital, the hospital’s administration is supposed to report to the police any suspicion of criminal activity. However, in reality, hospitals report incidents of severe injury only to the police. If a victim suffers from bruises and cuts requiring treatment for less than 21 days, hospitals do not adhere to this procedure.
Women who attempt to report domestic violence often face aggression from police officers that consider a woman insolent to complain about her husband. Victims are commonly told, for example, “How dare you report your husband? When he kills you, you can come and report him.” The chain of procedures could also be disrupted at a later stage if the prosecution or a judge seeks reconciliation.
Mariam Wahba, a lawyer at CEWLA working on personal status issues, says that in the penal code, domestic violence is not criminalized in a clear or explicit manner. Beating to modify behavior, known as ta’deeb, is permissible by religion and not punishable by law. If the victim were to go to the police station without a medical report to file a report against her husband, she would be refused one. Even if she does have a medical report, she would usually receive a dissuading response such as, “May God guide you. Don’t make problems. He’s your husband,” and so on.
According to precedents set by the Court of Cassation, the husband has the right to “discipline” his wife as long as the beating is not severe. The judge might sympathize with the husband and issue a suspended sentence or hand down a three-month sentence. In most cases, there are no witnesses to testify on behalf of the abused woman. If the victim were to attain a verdict, it is rarely executed due to administrative and bureaucratic issues and the authority’s slowness in executing rulings, Wahba explains.
All of this relates only to violence perpetrated by husbands, because there is nothing in the law that punishes abuse by an immediate family member. In most of these cases, women refuse to resort to the law, except when it comes to incest.
“We cannot offer legal assistance unless the victim requests it,” Wahba adds. “This depends on her psychological state, how afraid she is of being stigmatized socially, worrying about harassment at the police station, her ability to face the trouble of going to court and her awareness of her rights.”
The percentage of women among those frequenting the center who decide to pursue matters in court is not high.
Sometimes lawyers seek alternatives to legal routes to win back victims’ rights since the “judicial system is limping,” as Abdel Fattah Yehia, a lawyer at CEWLA, puts it.
He gives the example of a woman with a college degree married to a driver. Over differences between their two families, her husband beat her while pregnant, causing her to lose her child. The wife reported the incident to the police and went to the center, which tried to settle the matter by reaching an agreement between the two parties. She reconciled with her husband, who signed a cash receipt for LE100,000 in a gesture promising the woman her rights. The center stayed in touch with the woman, who reported that after a month, her husband assaulted her in the street. The husband refused to give her the qaima (a list of furniture bought upon marriage that proves the women’s right to the furniture in case of divorce). The center used the receipt the husband had signed for leverage, and he was compelled to accept to divorce his wife.
Units to combat violence against women were established in 2014 by the Ministry of Interior, and authorized to deal with harassment, sexual assault or domestic violence. These units exist, however, only in security directorates. Ordinary citizens cannot access security directorates and victims of violence usually go to the nearest police department, which are without specialized units.
There is a clear conflict between the laws pertaining to women on the one hand and the articles of the Constitution on the other, Yehia explains. Although Article 11 of the Constitution stipulates that the “state is committed to protect women from all forms of violence,” there are no executive laws pertaining to this “constitutional” right.
These cases are taken from testimonies of women subjected to violence that we obtained from two human rights organizations working on cases of violence against women: Al-Nadeem and CEWLA.
N was 29 years old. She had a college degree, came from Cairo and was diagnosed with cancer. Her brother began beating her regularly. She complained to the police and ran away from home. Later, they reconciled following negotiations and she returned home. But a while after her return, he locked her up in a room and refused her food, medical treatment and sunlight. It was 2011, and he exploited the disruption in communication and the absence of security. By the end of the year, she was dead and the crime could not be pinned on her brother.
Soheir al-Batea was an 11-year-old child from Tanta. Her father decided to circumcise her and she bled to death. Her father reported the doctor who carried out the procedure to the police. Because circumcision is against the law, rights organizations intervened and a lawsuit was filed against her father. He tried to get out of the situation by retracting the report against the doctor. However, the Forensic Medical Authority had already established that the incident took place. Initially, the doctor received a not-guilty verdict and the father was acquitted, but after an appeal in January 2015, the doctor received a three-year sentence and the father a three-month suspended sentence for the murder of his daughter.
O was 24 years old. She didn’t have time to seek help — her case came to Al-Nadeem’s attention too late. While sweeping the floor of her home before the Eid al-Adha holidays, her husband started a fight over their baby’s health as her temperature was rising. He asked her to stop cleaning. The fight was over when he attacked her, beating her with the bed’s wooden planks. Because her injuries were serious, he refused to take her to hospital. Instead, he locked her up for a week in a room in their home claiming that she had caught swine flu. When her mother insisted on seeing her, she found her almost lifeless. Immediately the mother took her to hospital, where she later died. The hospital’s administration reported the incident to the police and the husband was arrested. He received a seven-year sentence but escaped.
L, who is 27 years old, went to CEWLA to complain about her husband. She was a mother of three children — the oldest was eight and the youngest was two. Her husband was a drug addict who forced her to listen to his stories about his previous sexual experiences. He used to say, “I wish I was with your sister instead. You have no idea how many women would love to be in your place”. He also beat her up with a variety of sharp objects. When she escaped to her father’s house, he only allowed her to stay if she left her children behind, as he did not approve of the marriage in the first place. At her father’s house, her brother also beat her and locked her up at home. A relative of hers told her, “You would be better off accepting this treatment from your husband rather than the whole family.” After one year of separation, she was forced to go back to her husband because her childrens’ health was deteriorating. The husband started beating her again and the center helped her to find shelter, but they found out later that she, along with her children, had left.
When K, 39 years old, went to CEWLA, she weighed 40 kilograms and was in terrible health. She had married a man with children from a previous marriage and he wanted her to serve them. He beat her, once to the extent that it caused her pregnancy to terminate. He then refused to take her to hospital or to seek medical treatment. He found work for her in a factory and would claim her entire salary. He used to insult her by saying, “You’re too old for marriage.” He sexually assaulted her and anally raped her, ignoring her screams that were also heard by his children. During one of these assaults, she ran towards the window to escape from him and he threatened to throw her out of it. She filed a report with the police and accused her husband of beating her. CEWLA also offered support and the husband stopped assaulting her. K got pregnant and gave birth to a child. She returned to the center again recently because her husband started assaulting her again.
College student, S, went to Al-Nadeem after being repeatedly sexually abused by her father. With difficulty, the center was able to find a safe space for her. Specialists in the center met with the father, who almost confessed, saying: “She’s my daughter and I was playing with her. I did not realize that she has grown up.” S did not seek legal action, but the center threatened the father, making use of the “sensitivity” of his work. S is now working and continues to study.
A, 23 years old, used to live in an Arab country with her abusive father. According to her testimony, “He used to undress me completely and burn my legs with a hot knife. One time, he hung me out of the window and beat me up in front of my friends.” A went to several rights organizations until one finally transferred her to the organization in Cairo. She commented, “May God forgive him — he is the reason I’ve been at the mercy of good and bad people alike.” She arrived in Egypt without identity papers and was placed in a shelter for victims of violence. She later left the shelter to marry a relative.