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When home is another cell: Women’s accounts of domestic detention

“Upon graduating from high school, my uncles were determined to marry me off. I was beaten, received death threats and had my honor questioned for refusing to get married before I graduated from college. One of them locked me up in his house.”

When neither beating, death threats, forced marriage nor deprivation of education prove effective in subduing a woman and controlling her fate and her life, when the men of the family come together to decide what they deem is in the interests of a young woman regardless of anything else, domestic detention often becomes the ultimate punishment.

For a story like this to occur, an entire society must be complicit in the violence enacted. Their involvement may be active, or may simply take the form of silence under the belief that “her folks have the right to discipline her,” a recurring phrase we read in several testimonies.

We, at the initiative “A Law to Protect Girls from Domestic Violence,” define home detention enforced by family members as a form of violence against women in private spaces.

This detention may take the form of forbidding women from traveling outside the governorate or out of the country, and it may also include banning them from leaving the house. For a woman to be confined to a home — her own or that of a family member — is the most extreme form of detention, as it involves complete social isolation and usually causes severe emotional distress. And this is seldom the end of it. Domestic detention is often enacted in parallel with other forms of violence, including the deprivation of food, water and medication, threats and violent beatings, as well as sexual violence.

Here are some snippets of the accounts of Egyptian women who have been detained at home. Their stories were collected through a questionnaire that we distributed prior to the launch of the “At Home” campaign, as part of “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” in November 2017. Several feminist initiatives from across the country took part in the campaign.

“At school, a girl would often disappear for a while, then reappear with bruises on her face — this often meant she was beaten by her folks at home for engaging romantically with a boy.”

It is basically a crime of forced disappearance — young girls disappear, then reappear with visible signs of beating and torture on their faces and possibly hidden marks on covered parts of their bodies, as well as invisible emotional scars. They are expected to carry on as normal and to engage in their studies, at the same time as carrying these psychological and physical injuries.

“I worked day and night to get a scholarship; I ended up detained at home.”

People usually go to great lengths to send their children to study abroad on scholarships. But one woman worked hard to get a scholarship to travel to Japan, the country of her dreams, and it paid off. But, alas, all was lost when she was barred from traveling and locked up at home.

In trying to imagine how she feels, I am certain that I am coming up short. Her efforts were wasted and the goals she must have spent a tremendous amount of time envisioning destroyed. She ended up detained at home, not only forbidden from traveling with no prospect of another opportunity, but also banned from the outside.

“My father forced me to provide him with access to my phone and so found out that I was in a relationship — I was locked up.”

Several testimonies cited the same rationale for family members spying, the violation of privacy and the detention that often ensues that a woman was in a relationship or suspected of being in one. 

The desire by men to control every aspect of a woman’s life, even her feelings, is telling of how threatened society is by the idea of a woman expressing herself.

“I was locked up because a colleague of mine proposed to me the traditional way, but my father didn’t like him and feared I might run away to marry him. I wasn’t allowed to see my female friends or talk to anyone at all.”

I found this testimony particularly bizarre. This girl was locked up because another person expressed his desire to marry her through commonly acceptable channels.

“I get locked up, beaten and tortured often and arbitrarily. They tried to kill me, back when I used to talk back.”

“Speaking up is likely to get me killed.”

“Over 14 years ago, a relative of mine plummeted to her death from an upper floor. The story they told, at the time, was that she got light-headed and fell. I recently found out that she was locked up against her will.”

Torture and death threats are not uncommon some women are murdered or driven to commit suicide, and the cause of death is kept under wraps.

“I was arrested by the police on account of my political activism. When I was released, I was locked up for days at home.”

When we survive police detention, our homes often do not serve as the safe spaces they should be upon our return, but as another cell.

“It happened to me twice. The first time was a punishment [for something I did], and the second was after I was mugged and my phone, purse and everything I had was taken.”

Surviving violence in public space can prompt even more violence at home as punishment for allowing ourselves to be the subjects of violence.

“Which time should I talk about?” This was the entirety of one woman’s response. She did not recount her story, but merely posed a simple question that alludes to an endless range of possibilities.

Things are at their worst in private spaces. Not only do law enforcement agents stand idly by, but a law to protect girls under 18 from their families does not exist in the first place. Young girls are to be handled at the sole discretion of the men of their families they are not under the jurisdiction of the law.

The law does not extend protection to women in private spaces. There are provisions that criminalize restricting freedom of movement, but they are riddled with loopholes that allow the offenders to get away with their crimes in situations similar to those mentioned here.

“I tried to file a police report once — the officer threatened to tell my family. He told me that I was dishonoring my parents. We live in a rural community; everybody knows everybody. I’m over 27 years old now and am disfigured from the beatings I still receive.”

“At the police station, they refused to let me file a report; they thought I was crazy.”

The shortcomings of the law are not the only problematic aspect law enforcement agents also fail to help women above 21 years of age, as these two responses demonstrate.

Most survivors responded in the negative to the question, “Are you aware that, by virtue of the Constitution, all Egyptians have the right to freedom of movement?” Still, their stories show that they are, in fact, aware that what they go through is an injustice that must end.

To the question, “Did you file a police report?” most survivors answered in the negative. Some of them did not elaborate, while others wrote about the futility of such action. One response in particular stopped me in my tracks, and if it weren’t for the support and encouragement of a friend who works at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, I may not have continued compiling stories. In explaining why she did not file a police report, this responder wrote, “My brother must have seen fault in me, which he wanted to conceal [to preserve my honor.]”

Processing the testimonies for publishing, then desperately seeking to get in touch with the women who wrote them anonymously, I was overcome by feelings of helplessness. I shelved the project several times — the testimonies were too painful to read and some of them were too real for me. I kept recalling the threat a member of my extended family made once, “If her brothers can’t control her, she’ll move in with me and I’ll take over her affairs myself.”

“My brother must have seen fault in me which he wanted to conceal [to preserve my honor.]”  I contemplated this sentence for hours. It is simple and seemingly ordinary, yet astounding. It occurs to me that the reason it caught my attention is that I may have thought or said something along the same lines myself in the past. This girl may not even be aware that she is the subject of violence. She may be aware but unwilling to face this fact because it is too distressing. Maybe she loves her brother so much that she denies his abuse. Or maybe she was raised to think of this as the norm, to scrutinize her own behavior and never doubt her brother.

The volume of the testimonies we received was unexpectedly high, considering the number of followers we have online. We realize that what we have managed to document is merely a fraction of what goes on in the confines of private spaces, which is not easy to access.

The accounts of these girls and women paint a picture not only of how they are treated in private spaces, but also of how their presence in the public sphere affects the private domain.

We wanted to work on violence in private spaces because it is a public matter. It is not fair to expect survivors of such violence, injustice and oppression — who have not been killed, that is — to go back out into the world, resume their studies and work, and be contributing members of society, which is itself characterized by many struggles.

Family violence is violence committed by a family member in the home, on the street, or elsewhere. It is mostly perpetrated by men but can also be enacted or supported by women. It is permitted by society and the law, as certain members of the family are granted unlimited power, particularly over women. It can be committed by a father, mother, brother, uncle or grandfather, as well as a partner including a husband, fiancé, boyfriend or ex-husband throughout the period of a relationship or after it ends. It can include physical abuse, spousal rape, emotional abuse and behavior that all destroy the confidence of a human being.

“I cannot possibly forgive” — a phrase from one of the testimonies resonates with the pain of thousands of women subjected to violence by their families.

To this woman I say, you are not required to forgive your offender. In another social and legal context, where just punishment can be attained, you may be able to forgive and forget.

Until such a time that this becomes a reality, what takes place behind closed doors in Egypt remains heard but never spoken of by neighbors, passersby, society or lawmakers, all of whom embody the three wise monkeys.

***

This op-ed is an output of “At Home” — An online campaign to highlight violence against girls and women in private spaces. The Law to Protect Girls from Domestic Violence initiative was one of several feminist initiatives involved in At Home as part of the “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign.”

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Shaimaa Tantawi