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Breaking the silence on domestic violence 

Global efforts are uniting once again to draw attention to gender-based violence as a crime against women worldwide, writes Alexandra Kinias

Alexandra Kinias, Thursday 5 Dec 2019
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The traffic on the streets of Alexandria was thinning out at 2am on that hot August night. The Mediterranean Sea breeze had slightly cooled the scorching temperatures. Alexandrians who had earlier fled to the streets to escape the heat were returning to their homes. But Fairouz couldn’t go back home.

With her six-month-old daughter in her arms, Fairouz had been wandering aimlessly in the streets, her vision blurred with tears. Her throat was dry. She had no money in her pockets to buy a bottle of water. In fact, the thin summer nightgown she wore that barely covered her body had no pockets. She carried no purse either, just her daughter.

Her feet hurt. She had been roaming the streets for a couple of hours since her husband had kicked her out of the house. Terrified he might grab her daughter from her arms if she resisted, she walked away barefoot. It didn’t cross her mind to go to the police and ask for help. Domestic violence in Egypt is rarely reported.

As the crowds dispersed, a taxi driver slowed down and called to her. When she didn’t respond, he stopped his car and followed her on foot. He touched her shoulder to slow her down and startled her. The kind man drove her to her brother’s house on the other side of town and refused to collect a fare.

Her bruised and swollen face that she saw in the rearview mirror of the taxi shocked her. She felt humiliated and violated. Her husband had brutally beaten her before he had shoved her out of the door in the middle of the night following a confrontation over an affair he had had with another woman.

“I was enraged,” Fairouz said. “I feared my heart would burst from anger. It was the most profound experience I have ever encountered. I not only felt disgraced, cheated and demeaned, but the feelings of helplessness were devastating.”

Unlike many women who stay in abusive relationships, Fairouz (her name has been changed) refused to reconcile herself with her husband and insisted on ending the marriage. Millions of women in Egypt stay in abusive marriages because they have no financial resources or places to live. These women are victims of both their abusive partners and the legal system that strips them of their rights when they choose to terminate a dysfunctional marriage. The same legal system rewards the abuser.

Fairouz’s husband agreed to divorce her on the condition that she waived her financial rights. It was an unfair condition, but the alternative would have been filing for a divorce. Even with a police report of domestic violence, which she had not filed, the divorce would have been fought and challenged in court, draining her emotionally and financially.

Fairouz’s husband would have also been acquitted of any charges had she filed a domestic violence report. Domestic violence is not criminalised in Egypt. Unless the violence results in the death of the victim, the perpetrators are not punished despite the alarming number of women suffering from this crime.

In a report published by the international rights group Amnesty International on domestic violence in Egypt, 47.4 per cent of the married, divorced, separated or widowed women surveyed reported some form of domestic violence. In a survey conducted by the National Council for Women (NCW) in November 2012 that targeted a sample of 13,500 married and unmarried women aged 15 to 50 across all of Egypt’s 27 governorates, a third of participants said they had experienced domestic violence at least once in their lifetimes.

The results of the survey were published in 2013 in “To Beat or Not to Beat: Determinants of Domestic Violence in Egypt,” a paper produced by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US.

A GLOBAL ISSUE

It’s a false assumption that violence against women is an exclusive trait among men from certain cultures or regions in the world.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is an epidemic that is practised worldwide, which explains why the world unites every year in the hope of changing that reality. The annual UNiTE Campaign, being 16 Days of Activism Against GBV, started on 25 November, which marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, or Human Rights Day.

Launched in 2008 by then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, the UNiTE Campaign to End Violence Against Women is a multi-year effort. As stated by UN Women, the UN women’s organisation, the campaign calls “for global actions to increase awareness, galvanise advocacy efforts, and share knowledge and innovations” with the purpose of preventing and eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls around the world in accordance with the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  

According to “The World’s Women 2015”, a UN report, up to 70 per cent of women worldwide have experienced violence from an intimate partner in their lifetimes. In the same report, it is estimated that of all the women who were victims of homicide globally in 2012, almost half were killed by intimate partners or family members.

Women suffer in every corner of the globe and in first-world countries as well as third. An article published by the BBC in March 2019 stated that in Northern Ireland, for example, there had been more than 31,000 incidents of domestic violence reported between October 2017 and September 2018. The police in Northern Ireland respond to a report of domestic violence every 17 minutes.    

In Germany, as reported by the German news agency Deutsche Welle, almost 140,000 cases of violence within relationships were reported in 2017. In 147 of those cases, the woman was killed. Data released from Japan’s National Police Agency in 2018 showed that there had been 77,480 calls to local police related to domestic violence and gender-based matters.

Statistics reported by the National Hotline for Domestic Violence in the United States indicate that more than one in three women (35.6 per cent) have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetimes. One in four women (24.3 per cent) aged 18 and older have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Nearly, 15 per cent of women (14.8 per cent) have been injured in their lifetime. And the list goes on.

In these countries, however, governments are more vigilant towards such crimes, and the perpetrators are often arrested and punished.

ACTIVISM

According to UN Women, less than 40 per cent of women who experience domestic violence seek help of any sort. Of these, less than 10 per cent seek support from the police.  

Many factors play a role in this, among them being women not wanting to break up their families, as they may believe that living with an abusive partner is better for the children than breaking up the family.

Additionally, most women don’t want their abusers to end up in jail, so their children won’t live with the stigma. Furthermore, many victims are made to believe that they are the ones at fault. Activism plays an important role in changing these social norms so women don’t need to suffer in silence.

No woman is immune to this abhorrent practice regardless of her age, religion, race, education, or social or economic status. According to the US Department of Justice, violence against women is the most chronically unreported crime in the US. Victim-blaming and degrading are methods used to keep women from reporting such violence, and in silence violence thrives. When women don’t report their abusers, they perpetuate their power over them. Activism helps women to break the silence, stand up for their rights, and speak out. Activism shows women the way out and guides them to where they can find help.

Awarded privileges at birth by virtue of their gender, men sometimes find no need to change. Women in societies where violence can be pervasive are bred to obey, please and make the relationship work, taking more care of the men’s needs, avoiding confrontations, and becoming a subordinate and not an equal partner in the relationship. As a result, no matter what the circumstances are, women may believe it is their fault if they are abused, sometimes even coming to the defence of their abusers.

Acknowledging their fault in triggering men’s aggression, women may modify their attitudes and behaviour as a “good” wife or partner should. They may avoid confrontations, for it’s their role, dictated by their society or community, to be understanding and considerate, to stay calm, to accept the abuse and not to answer back and not to complain. When women are punished for defying the status quo, they may blame themselves and promise to be more careful next time. With each incident their voices are lowered until eventually they are silenced.

Experiencing violence is traumatic and demeaning. Physical and mental abuse is humiliating. It shakes women’s confidence, and their self-worth dwindles. It perpetuates in silence because it is shameful to discuss it. The perpetrators achieve control over their victim by breaking her emotionally and mentally. The victims become isolated, and as a result the cycle continues because silence is the perfect ground for abuse to thrive.

Many victims may endure years of physical, psychological, verbal and sexual abuse without seeking help because of financial dependency and the fear of homelessness. Instead of breaking away from the relationship, women may stay and try to make it work. But against their better judgement, the vicious cycle of domestic violence continues, and over time it escalates.

As the violence continues, women reach a state of submissiveness in accepting this abusive treatment. They justify the abuse and question their role in triggering it. This justification becomes their coping mechanism, and it gives them a delusional hope.

PATRIARCHAL SOCIETIES

While GBV is criminalised in many countries around the world, in male-dominated societies, as in many counties in the Middle East, domestic violence is sometimes seen as acceptable male behaviour and even blamed on women for bringing it upon themselves.

In the Amnesty International survey on domestic violence in Egypt, 39 per cent of Egyptian women agreed that a husband was “justified” in beating his wife. According to the same report, “any trivial incident may trigger a man’s violent behaviour, including refusing sex, answering him back, burning the food, going out without telling him, neglecting the kids,” or as in the case of one woman, Zeinab, who lost her life to her husband’s violence, being unable to stop their four-month-old baby from crying.

According to the website Alarabiya.net, when investigators confronted the 31-year-old farmer with his crime in this case, he responded that “it was not their business what had happened inside his house.”

Zeinab’s husband said he loved his wife, but it was his right as a husband to discipline her. He didn’t mean to kill her, he said, but said he would beat her if she delayed in preparing food or left the house without his permission. When he battered her after she opened the window without his permission, Zeinab packed her clothes and left for her family’s house, but she returned after efforts from the family had succeeded to reconcile them. On the night of the crime, the husband woke up to the crying of their four-month-old baby. He shouted at his wife to quiet the child, and when she asked him to lower his voice he grabbed a stick and crushed his wife’s skull.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified violence against women, particularly intimate partner violence and sexual violence, as a major public health problem and a violation of women’s rights. According to a study conducted by the government-affiliated National Council for Women (NCW) in Egypt, over a million women per year in Egypt experience domestic violence by either their guardians or intimate partners. Seventy per cent of women reported they were abused by their spouses, 20 per cent of girls were abused by their fathers, and 10 per cent reported they had experienced violence by their brothers.

In Egypt, like in many patriarchal societies, domestic violence is deeply rooted in the culture. Viewed as a private matter, until recently it was not considered an issue that required government intervention. Hence, it was not criminalised and no measures were taken to either prevent or eliminate it.

In another example, in 2010, the concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) in Uganda stated that “such [domestic] violence would appear to be socially legitimised and accompanied by a culture of silence and impunity, owing to women’s reluctance to report such cases out of fear of reprisals, stigmatisation, and inadequate response by the police.” The committee urged governments to “give priority attention to combating violence against women and girls and to adopt comprehensive measures to address such violence.”

As a result of these efforts and pressures from national and international women’s organisations, Egypt has now recognised violence against women as a violation of women’s and girls’ rights. In the last few years, the country has taken strides to fight it. These efforts reached a major milestone when in January 2014 the new constitution included for the first time a provision to combat violence against women.

Article 11 of the Egyptian constitution now specifies that “the State is committed to protect women against all forms of violence.”

In June 2015, the NCW, in cooperation with several governmental and non-governmental agencies, established the 2015-2020 National Strategy for Combating Violence Against Women (NSVAW) to safeguard the dignity of women and protect them from acts of violence by raising public awareness regarding domestic abuse and the way that girls and women should be treated. 

In 2017, the NCW proposed a law to criminalise acts of violence against women, as defined by the UN, and penalise perpetrators with up to one year in jail. However, the law has not yet passed, and many challenges remain in the way of criminalising domestic violence in Egypt.

Whereas lawmakers and women’s organisations in Egypt are encouraging women to report their abusers, few do. No daughter would charge her father or brother, for example. Not only that, but survivors are often discouraged from reporting violations for fear of social stigma and most cases go unreported.

CHALLENGES REMAIN

In countries where such violence is an unambiguous crime, governments provide shelters for women where teams of social workers and lawyers work to bring justice to them.

Moreover, women are encouraged to speak out and report their abusers. Because it is a shameful crime and many women suffer in silence, rescue squads come in many forms.

Among the efforts taken to help domestic violence victims in the US, for instance, workers in beauty and nail salons are being trained to spot abused women and guide them to where they can seek protection and support. A law that governs the cosmetology industry in Illinois has been amended in September 2018 in a way that makes that training a pre-requisite for beauty salon workers to renew their licences.

In the same year the Illinois law went into effect, beauticians in Morocco also helped domestic violence victims, though in a different way. A make-up artist ironically celebrated the National Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women by showing her female viewers make-up techniques that would conceal their bruised faces on the national Moroccan TV station 2M. The morning show soon went viral on social media, provoking public uproar and “indirectly condoning” acts of violence against women.

The outcry made headway in that the video was soon removed, and the channel issued an apology on its Facebook page. But the incident shows how rampant, and how sometimes even socially tolerated, domestic violence can be in many Middle Eastern countries like Morocco, despite the legal and feminist efforts to combat it. Unfortunately, bruised faces are a fact of life for some Moroccan women, as the make-up artist bluntly explained.

“We are here to provide solutions to women who for a period of two to three weeks are putting their social life aside while their wounds heal,” she explained in an interview with the Moroccan news website yabiladi.com.

A survey conducted by the Moroccan High Commission for Planning on women aged 18 to 65 and domestic violence in 2009 found that nearly two-thirds, or 62.8 per cent, had experienced physical, psychological, sexual, or economic violence. Of the sample interviewed, 55 per cent reported “conjugal” violence, and 13.5 per cent reported “familial” violence. Only three per cent of those who had experienced conjugal violence had reported it to the authorities.

Thankfully, the activism now seems to be paying off. After long years of efforts on the part of human-rights activists, a new law to criminalise domestic violence went into effect in Morocco in September 2018. The law imposes tougher penalties on the perpetrators of various types of violence committed both in private and public, including rape, sexual harassment, and domestic abuse. Those found guilty of violating the law face prison terms ranging from one month to five years and fines from $200 to $1,000.

Critics describe the new law as merely the first step in the right direction, since, as is the case in Egypt, women are still often discouraged from bringing cases to court by relatives and sometimes local officials. It can be difficult to find witnesses in domestic-violence cases, and the courts may dismiss the testimony of witnesses who heard, but did not see, such acts.

The road to eliminating domestic violence is thus still long and bumpy, with challenges and obstacles around every corner. Efforts to combat it need support not only from governments and women’s organisations, but also from every individual who believes that leading a violence-free life is the basic right of all women and girls.

The writer is a feminist activist and founding editor of the Women of Egypt online magazine.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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