Saturday, November 7, 2009

Lonely Planet will inform you in the online version of its guide to Egypt that
The incidence of crime, violent or otherwise, in Egypt is negligible compared with most Western countries. Most visitors and residents would agree that Egyptian towns and cities are safe to walk around in during the day or night. Unfortunately, the hassle factor often means that this isn’t quite the case for an unaccompanied foreign woman.
Indeed, it is common for many of us in the foreign student community here to marvel that we can walk around at 3 AM without fear either of theft or violent crime. We all too often paint Egypt as a place where sleazy but ultimately harmless men are but an inconvenience to foreign and Egyptian women alike. The stark and disgusting reality is that marginalized women don't experience this reality. Domestic workers and refugees are On top of this, gender-based violence victims have little access to services here.
Two friends of mine and I were discussing, yesterday, the stories of women they knew in Cairo. One, a veiled Muslim mother of six children whose husband had disappeared following poplution displacements in Eritrea had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by an Egyptian employer. Another, a 17-year-old girl without legal status had been raped several times, the last time brutally with a glass bottle that broke off inside of her body. She was left by the man to bleed out and her family, afraid of being deported because of their status, refused to take her to a hospital. My friend and his flatmate had to go and find and pay a doctor to come to the girl's home. Domestic workers from the Horn of Africa who have to take cabs home from their place of employment are sometimes not dropped off at their destination, but told by the driver's that they'll pay them for the services because "they know it's what they do".
While abuse of domestic workers and irregular migrants happens all over the world, I think the intersection of the general disregard for women in Egypt with the mistreatment of marginalized people is an especially insidious combination.
Not only are migrant women at risk, but Egyptian women as well. Marital rape, as in many other Middle Eastern countries, is not a crime in Egypt. Moreover, for more than 90 years (until 1999), there was a law on the books here that absolved rapists if they later married their victims. A similar law still existed as of last year in Lebanon.
And yet, this flagrant disregard for the dignity of women regardless of their background is minimized, even ignored and denied. The entire spectrum from verbal sexual harassment to rape is often dismissed. A male Egyptian friend couldn't understand why I didn't want to go for a walk downtown with a female friend of mine. I told him the kinds of disgusting things I'd heard with my own ears said to her in the past and he laughed it off and repeatedly told me that sort of thing didn't happen. In the wake of attacks on women by some 150 in downtown Cairo in 2006, the president's wife maintained, in an interview on Al-Arabiya, that "Egyptian men always respect Egyptian women".
Faced with these facts and figures and with the personal anecdotes that I hear all too often, I'm frustrated with my own helplessness to make a difference. While I'm in class reading theory or at some restaurant half the population can't afford, all of this is going on. I really wish I knew what I could do. I can say, though, I won't be complicit anymore in blithely describing Egypt as "safe" while wives and domestic workers are raped with relative impunity. In the end, this is an Egyptian problem that must be solved by Egyptians. Many of them are in the habit of minimizing the problems of their country to outsiders as a matter of pride, but recognize among themselves what's really going on. Perhaps change can come from this kind "internal dialogue". For a society so concerned with honor, one would think that this stain in Egypt's image would be of urgent importance.


For more on the vulnerability of Eritreans and Ethiopians in Cairo see: "The Insecurity of Eritreans and Ethiopians in Cairo" in the International Journal of Refugee Law. A preview is available here.

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1 comment:

Kate's Typewriter said...

this is a great article. it's such a strange line to walk-- on the one hand, loving the city and trying to embrace the culture here, and on the other hand, interacting with refugees on a daily basis that often experience more violence, abuse, and discrimination here than they did in the countries they fled from. i think what makes this aspect of egypt so devastating is that there is no place for these people to go to seek justice, because the law structure is designed to protect the perpetrator. let me know if you figure out how to solve the problem!