Rise in crime, harassment key security threats facing Egyptian women: NGO

Ahram Online, Tuesday 12 Nov 2013

New report by NGO Safer World argues that Egyptian women face an increase in gender-based violence as they seek to participate more in public and political space

Women protest
"Egyptian women will live with dignity" - women at recent protest against sexual assaults in Cairo (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

A study by NGO Safer World shows that, following the 2011 revolution, Egyptian women face a number of key security challenges, including a perceived rise in crime, a rise in sexual harassment and a lack of police reform.

The report recognised that Egypt had not experienced violent conflict on the same scale as Libya or Yemen, the other countries included in the study, but stated that Egyptian women were nonetheless affected by security threats.

Robberies and muggings, the report revealed, were the main concerns for Egyptian women, although no official crime statistics were available to verify the level of violent crime. 

A lack of trust in the police may also exacerbate fears of crime, according to the report. Violent confrontation with police during protests, leading to the deaths of hundreds of protesters, has reduced trust.

"Following decades of focus on regime survival at the expense of people’s security, the quality of official security provision in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, as well as levels of trust in the security forces, are at a low. The legacy of security forces’ past abuses, the use of torture against criminals, the poor, young people, political opponents, and a broad range of other ‘suspect’ populations over the past decades has contributed to a deep break in trust," the report stated.

Moreover, confrontations between pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood protestors, sectarian violence, and operations by armed groups in the Sinai Peninsula have all increased over the past year, contributing further to the rise in violence.

While such security concerns affect both men and women, some physical violence and verbal abuse targets women in particular.

Harassment, threats of violence, attacks on their character, and slander were the main concern of many women involved in the study. Many women believed that while such assaults were based on cultural, social or religious values they are often underlined by political motivations.

"Gender-based violence aimed at controlling women’s behaviour occurs both in public and private," revealed the report.

"While slander and threats were raised frequently in all locations, physical attacks, including sexual assault, were a much larger concern in urban areas…this also suggests that rumours and slander are more effective tools for regulating women’s behaviour in rural areas where attitudes tend to be more conservative and victims and perpetrators are more likely to know one another, whereas reinforcement of gender norms in urban areas appears to require a resort to more overt violence," the study added, comparing women's challenges in urban and rural Egypt.

While sexual harassment was notoriously common before 2011 revolution, with a 2008 survey finding that 83 percent of Egyptian women had been harassed, almost 50 percent of women interviewed in a recent survey claimed that harassment has increased and more than 99 percent reported experiencing harassment.

While most of the cases of harassment described by participants occurred on the street or on public transport, the report stated, Tahrir Square is one particular space which became notorious for mass harassment and rape.

In the study, the square was often used as a reference point for the level of sexual assault by those based elsewhere. For example, an Alexandria-based activist described the problem in the Mediterranean city as "less" than in Cairo when talking of harassment against women in political protests. Women interviewed in Yemen and Libya also used Tahrir as a reference point "insisting their experience of harassment differed fundamentally from that of Tahrir Square."

As women's role in political life has increased, they became more of a target of police repression and politically motivated violence, the report explained.

"As women have challenged existing gender norms through their participation in political activities hitherto seen as the domain of men, security forces appear to have responded by stepping up violence against them," the report noted, giving the example of the so-called blue bra girl who was photographed being beaten, stripped and dragged by soldiers during a protest.

The report also showed a generation gap in prioritising threats facing women. Older women tended to perceive crime as a greater threat to them than sexual harassment. That in turn was reflected in the differing views regarding the police institution. While younger women were more likely to argue that police reform was a necessity, older women were more concerned with "activating" police to end rising crime.

"Women feel insecure due to crime, weapons, and violent local power struggles and particularly politically active women experience concerted campaigns of threats and slander. At the same time, social understandings of their appropriate role are becoming more diverse and women are being targeted in part because they are more present, more demanding, and are seeking to access new fields of decision-making, including on security issues" the report stated. 

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