Egyptian women demand cultural revolution against domestic violence

Sarah El-Rashidi, Thursday 28 Nov 2013

Domestic violence is a widespread but taboo phenomenon in Egypt – tackling it requires a cultural shift and increased openness

Egyptian women on a street in Cairo
Egyptian women on a street in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

Although domestic violence is a widespread phenomenon in Egypt, it also a taboo subject that remains generally misunderstood.

Women in Egypt are highly susceptible to such abuse; experts suggest that most have fallen victim to domestic violence at some point in their lives.

In a 2005 survey by the Egypt Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS), 47 percent of ever-married women reported being victims of physical violence.

Although the survey identified an intimate partner as the perpetrator in most cases, nearly half (45 percent) had been subjected to physical violence by a male other than their husband, and a third (36 percent) branded a female the culprit. Fathers were reported twice as often as brothers (53 percent compared to 23 percent) and the female perpetrator was typically the mother.

While experts in domestic violence concede that it is pervasive, they criticise the deficiency in up-to-date, accurate data, which they attribute to a lack of reporting, cultural endorsement, and misinterpretation of the term.

“Our society has an incorrect understanding. When a man hits or cheats on his wife it is socially accepted, but not vice versa. The same is true of divorce,” complains Rabaa Mohamed, administrative clerk at an NGO which supports victims, who was herself a victim of domestic violence.

Domestic violence defined

Domestic violence does not only come in the form of physical abuse.

"Domestic violence… incorporates physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, psychological and financial abuse,” explains Dr Heba Habib, a psychiatrist and board member at the Psychological Health and Awareness Society in Egypt (PHASE), an NGO providing psychological treatment to victims.

Psychological abuse, also referred to as emotional or mental abuse, is one of the most rampant and unreported forms of abuse in Egypt, suggest experts, given its intangible nature. It constitutes subjecting an individual to behaviour that could instigate psychological trauma, anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Degradation of the other is typical of this type of abuse; for example, the perpetrator might continually demean their spouse, children or family members, denying them the right to be different, to have a unique opinion, and encouraging self doubt.

One female victim who requested anonymity, a common request among victims of violence given social stigmas, recounted how she had married the love of her life, but immediately after marriage had began experiencing emotional abuse.

“He continually swore at me and went as far as making me kill my second baby,” she says, describing how she had been subjected to an unwanted abortion.

For some victims, emotional and physical abuse goes hand-in-hand. 

“I married my cousin; he used to hit me every week. One time I was in bed for a week after which I filed a police case against him and requested a divorce," says Basma, a 29-year-old divorcee who had requested a divorce after only eight days of marriage, but was forced to endure prolonged violence due to societal constraints.  

Her then-husband metered out beatings for no apparent reason, if for instance the rug was not straight or if he found dust on the balcony. Humiliation outside the home was also common; on one occasion he publically ripped off her veil.

Typical of many women in this predicament, owing to the disapproval of Basma's family, it took four years for her to attain a divorce.

Habib also believes that cultural and structural violence within Egyptian society has an impact on domestic violence.

She points to female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice which UNICEF suggests around 72 percent of Egyptian women have been subjected to, as one example of both cultural and domestic violence.

Interfering relationships with in-laws in particular were also identified as a major source of abuse.   

“A lot of my patients suffer big traumas from their in-laws. The impinging role of the mother-in-law in Egypt is a common grievance,” she says.

Men are not immune from these various kinds of abuses. Habib describes one male patient who was subjected to psychological abuse by his wife, who constantly chastised him over his inability to provide the material lifestyle she craved. As a result, the man attempted suicide.  

Legal framework

Egyptian law does not safeguard women, although there are protective laws they are not practiced, the culture not the law is the key issue stress experts. There is an implicit need for a paradigm shift in the cultural mentality.

“Many Egyptian women expect to be beaten, they perceive it as the norm, a macho characteristic,” explains Mohamed.

It is not surprising therefore that the few existing women’s shelters remain empty, as it is culturally not acceptable for a woman to leave her family, says Habib.

Trapped and without legal recourse or other ways out, victims often become desperate and some attempt suicide.

“I first put my leg out of the window and jumped from the fourth floor. I had nothing to live for, no family or even friends,” says one young girl, who also wanted to remain anonymous.

She had been one of six children in a poor family, with no choice but to study while also working as a maid. In her position as a domestic worker she was sexually abused by the son of the family she worked for, who took advantage of his position of authority.

As in many cases of domestic violence, the victim's family refused to stand by her. The lack of accountability and law enforcement makes such stories more unnerving, say legal experts. Migad El-Boraey, an attorney at the court of cassation and a human rights advocate, stresses that too often the victim refuses to report the crime due to the social taboos, eliminating the role of the authorities as law enforcers. 

As well as culture, other factors are often identified by victims of violence. The country’s economic decline was linked with domestic violence by one victim who believed the negative impact of the revolution on the economy had been a contributing factor heightening her ex-husband’s brutality.

“After the revolution, my ex-husband’s silver shop in Hurghada had no business. This I believe made him more violent towards me,” says Basma.

The severity of domestic violence and its impact should not be underestimated, stress mental health practitioners. Repetitive abuse will have a long term impact, creating a huge trauma and deep internal scars which often lead to post traumatic stress disorder.

Post traumatic stress disorder in most cases starts soon after the trauma but sometimes the tension and stress are suppressed and totally forgotten for ten to twenty years explained Dr Alaa Mursi, a psychotherapist consultant of relationships. The main cause for this depression is either: ill treatment, the inability to cope despite acknowledgement, or an incident of abuse as a child that has been suppressed and forgotten. Witnesses of abuse can also suffer this disorder as was the case of one girl who had witnessed her father regularly beating her mother.

Domestic violence also has a negative impact outside the house often leading to victims becoming the abusers. Ironically, for instance children whose mother is victim of domestic violence will often become abusive at school. A study on 3,000 children in Alexandria and Cairo indicated school children who bully tend to be suffering from the most domestic violence.

Hope for the future

Experts in domestic violence as well as victims stress the need for increased awareness from and collaboration with the community. A paradigm shift in Egyptian culture remains the most critical factor. Many victims also task the new government with facilitating this vital cultural shift. 

“We need to choose right people for governance,” insists Mohamed, who says that both the Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood regimes had failed to make any improvements in this sphere.

For Habib, hope could lie in the younger generations, which are keen on change and, she argues, have embraced more progressive attitudes through greater exposure to the internet. 


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