Behind closed doors: Plight of Egyptian women against domestic violence

Mariam Mecky , Tuesday 6 Dec 2016

No to domestic violence
File photo of a girl holding a sign during a protest on International Women's Day in Egypt saying "No to domestic violence." (Photo: Reuters)

“One night my father beat me up, dragged me [across the floor] with people watching and no one did anything,” said Samia.

“My father has always been an abuser. When he was around, he would to beat me, insult me, constantly humiliate me and even [sexually abuse] me since I was a kid,” said Samia, who is in her twenties.

“But this night was like no other, I feel like a part of me was lost after this incident.”

After her parents' divorce a couple of years ago, Samia chose to live with her mother, as she was not a minor, but then her father kicked the two of them out of the family house.

“He abused my mother as well for many years till she was finally able to ask for a divorce, but he left her hanging for a couple of years while he married another woman.”

“During the first night in our new apartment after we were expelled, he came along with a lot of people to force me to go home with him, he beat me with his hands and his legs, slapped me and dragged me from my hair in front of everyone,” recalled Samia.

“When I first heard him arrive, I locked myself in a room while trying to contact the police, but in the very brief phone call, the police official kept asking pointless questions till my father broke into my room.”

“A lot of people were watching passively, even our new neighbours spread rumours about me afterwards, saying it was probably because of inappropriate behaviour or Urfi marriage,” she said, referring to civil unions that are not registered with the state and are considered improper by many Egyptians.

Samia spent the night at her father’s place where he continued to beat her until her mother was able to call the police and get her the next day.

“I was badly injured and had bone fractures; I was not able to leave the house for six months. I could not go to my university,” she recounts.

“But it was not just about the physical pain. I have been psychologically devastated; I have had low self-confidence ever since, unable to socialise and with low trust in people.”

“I felt afraid, terrorised and humiliated,” she said, adding that “he has since threatened to do this again, saying he is my father and can therefore do whatever he wants, he can lock me up and beat me once again.”

“What upsets me is that a lot of people told me, ‘so what?’.”

Samia is not alone. At least 18 percent of adult Egyptian women have reportedly experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of family members or close acquaintances in 2015, according to official estimates by Egypt's Economic Cost of Gender Based Violence Survey (ECGBVS), published in June 2016.

Around 46 percent of married women aged 18 to 64 years in Egypt have experienced some form of spousal violence, whether physical, emotional or sexual, according to the same survey, which was conducted by Egypt's official statistic body the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), the National Council of Women (NCW) and the United Nations Fund for Population Agency (UNFPA).

One out of four married women has been subjected to physical violence at one point in their lives by their current or former husband, according to 2014 statistics from the Demographic and Health Survey.

Normalised violence

Gender-based domestic violence has long been normalised for many in Egypt, though recently the issue has come under the spotlight amid calls on social media for a law criminalising such violence.

Lamya Lotfey, who works at the New Woman Foundation, said “I came across a case in Sharqiya governorate where a husband suspected his wife was cheating on him just because he heard her say on the phone that she would not go out that day, so he locked in their home and beat her to death.”

“Suspicion is treated as a cause for violence even if it might lead to murder. Honour killings are common [in Egypt], they are not rare as some claim,” said Lotfey, who has worked closely with survivors of gender-based domestic violence.

Lotfey says the problem is that society treats it as normal, blaming the woman, and if a woman decides to take legal action, a social stigma is attached to her. If she has children, they will also be stigmatised.

“People would say to her children, your mother imprisoned your father,” she said, adding that “if she has a daughter, any potential groom or his family would say she will put her husband in jail as her mother did.”

Lotfey asserts that the most prevalent and often unrecognised form of domestic violence is psychological violence, such as imprisoning women or girls at home, refusing to grant a woman a divorce or threatening to prevent a mother from seeing her kids if she leaves.

“Another reason why the problem persists is the economic dependence of women. Where would she go? What are the alternatives for women?”

Further explaining the cycle of violence, Lotfey said that women sometimes end up beating their children, which shows there is no awareness of the psychological impacts of violence.

In 2015, children from 300,000 families suffered from nightmares and fear, and children from 113,000 families were absent from school due to violence perpetuated by husbands, according to the ECGBVS estimates.

Magda Adly, director of the Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, highlights that “Egyptian film and television dramas include a lot of scenes of violence against women, including verbal insults sometimes even killing.”

The way women are portrayed in television reinforces violence, Adly elaborates, saying that “the negative images [of women] in the media are the most prevalent and most watched.”

Nada Nashaat, advocacy coordinator at the Centre for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance (CEWLA), said that “even though domestic violence is more in the spotlight nowadays, its definition remains vague [in society].”

“Domestic violence is not only the act of beating. Verbal abuse and marital rape are also forms of domestic violence,” Nashaat said.

Domestic violence against women is defined by the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty.”

'Detainees inside Egyptian homes'

Over a year ago, a campaign calling for a law to protect girls from domestic violence was launched in Cairo.

According to the description on its Facebook page, the campaign addresses domestic violence against girls because girls are not able to speak up since they are often subjected to this violence at the hands of their close family members.

Shortly after its launch, the campaign hosted an event for women to share their stories with violence, “whether it was a result of a personal choice on their part, such as taking off the veil, or they were subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), or due to patriarchal concepts such as child marriage or honour crimes.”

Shaimaa Tantawy, one of the founders of the “Law to protect girls from domestic violence,” told Ahram Online that the campaign “started when a colleague of mine wrote a post more than a year ago on Facebook about gender-based domestic violence, referring to the survivors as detainees inside Egyptian homes.”

“Her post received massive feedback and horrible accounts of violence, and then we got the idea of launching a comprehensive campaign,” Tantawy said.

“We started the campaign with lawyers, therapists and volunteers to provide support for the survivors of domestic violence, as well as draft a law to combat domestic abuse and create a lobby group for [this goal].”

Our campaign aims to counter this abuse, Tantawy said.

“When I saw some women the other day bravely recounting their abuse stories on television, I felt there is hope to overcome this.”


A number of civil society organisations including the National Council for Women and the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) provide legal aid for women in divorce proceedings.

There is not much awareness in the country about avenues for psychological support, so women do not often seek it as often as they seek legal support.

To them, there are only two options; either stay and be abused or leave and be stigmatised, so many women remain in abusive family relationships, whether with spouses, fathers or close relatives without seeking any help.

Egypt's Ministry of Social Solidarity has nine shelters for women, while CEWLA is the only NGO that has a shelter for female survivors of violence.

The Nadeem Centre is one of the pioneering civil society organisations providing services for victims and working on prevention.

“Civil society began its work [in Egypt] on the issue of violence against women in the private sphere in 1994 at the Cairo Conference, and this was within the framework of preparing for the Beijing conference of 1995,” Adly said.

“At this conference, Nadeem and the New Woman Foundation participated in the first field research addressing the issue of violence against women.”

“The Nadeem Centre provides psychological, social and rehabilitative support [in cases of divorce or separation] to victims of domestic violence and rape... and has provided legal counselling since 2002.”

“Now, Nadeem is not the only organisation that provides services for women survivors of domestic violence, as more rights and feminist centres are providing services,” Adly said.

Domestic violence not a crime

Article 11 of the Egyptian constitution stipulates that “the state shall be committed to protecting women against all forms of violence and shall guarantee that women are empowered to reconcile their family responsibilities with their work commitments.”

However, domestic violence against women specifically is not criminalised under Egyptian law, though assaults leading to severe injury can be treated as a felony.

Articles 60 and 17 of the penal code, however, are commonly used to allow abusers to get away with their crimes, as both Nashaat and Lotfey explain.

Article 60 stipulates that “the provisions of the penal code shall not apply to any deed committed in good faith, pursuant to a right determined by virtue of Sharia Law.”

So if a man hits his daughter or his wife within “good faith” of disciplining her, he can be exonerated in accordance with this text.

Article 7 states that in felony counts, if the conditions of the crime for which public prosecution is initiated permit a show of clemency on the part of the judge, the penalty may be reduced.

Lotfey highlights that the Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest criminal court, ruled in 1965 that a husband has the right to “discipline” his wife in a way that does not cause permanent physical damage.

Lotfey also says that interpretations of some religious texts allegedly allowing husbands to physically discipline women are problematic.

Although Egyptian law does not strictly follow Sharia, the constitution states that the "principles" of Sharia Law are the main source of legislation.

Nashaat highlights that CEWLA is working on a personal status code draft law to amend the aforementioned legislation.

“CEWLA is working on religious discourse by also looking at the interpretations of other Muslim-majority countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Malaysia,” Nashat said.

In 2005, the Nadeem Centre drafted a bill to criminalise domestic violence against women.

“We went to Egypt's governorates to discuss [the bill] with civil society organisations and abused women who seek help from NGOs, as well as lawyers, judges, media members and parliamentarians, and later on included activists in the steering committee working on the final draft,” Adly recounts.

“In 2008, [Nadeem] presented the draft law to parliament and we did not receive any response. In [the new parliament of] 2010, it was resubmitted to the parliament speaker, who agreed to refer to it to parliament’s committee on proposals and complaints.”

However, after the eruption of the 25 January Revolution in 2011, the bill was stuck in limbo, and this is where the issue still stands, Adly said.

Countering domestic violence against Egyptian women

In May 2015, Egypt launched a nationwide project to combat violence against women to be implemented from 2015 to 2020.

Arab Countries such as Morocco and Jordan have already criminalised domestic violence and more countries in the region are moving now to do likewise.

According to the Egyptian cabinet's website, the National Council for Women (NCW) will coordinate with state bodies and NGOs to enhance efforts aimed at reducing community and family violence against women and to rehabilitate victims.

NCW member Dina Hussein said that the council has finished drafting a comprehensive violence against women law incorporating a broad definition of domestic violence against women and girls that includes marital rape.

“It [the draft law] is now in the phase of community dialogue,” said Hussein, who is also a member of the legislative committee of the NCW.

The problem is cultural, so the law would be used as a tool to counter it, she said, adding that the NCW is planning to conduct a nationwide study on its prevalence.

Domestic violence, which also affects children and Egyptian society as a whole, costs women and their households EGP 149 billion yearly.

Egypt ranks 132 out of 144 countries in gender equality, making it among the 20 bottom countries globally, according to the Global Gender Gap report 2016 published by the World Economic Forum.

“It took me a lot of time to stand up to my father and I finally did, but I want to share my story because it is not in his right to beat me as [people] said,” Samia concluded.

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