Hana*, 27, faced relentless pressure from her family to be what they considered normal for a young Egyptian woman.
“They just want me to be a normal girl in Egyptian society and be traditional — get married, have a family, have kids, don’t work too much,” she explains.
“I just don’t want my life to be about creating a family.
“I have so many goals that are different. I want a job that I like, to improve myself emotionally and become a better person. I don’t want to have children and it was a shock for my mum.”
Eventually Hana was fed up with the restrictions put in place by her family, which included a curfew and sometimes locking her out of the house when late home from work or meeting friends.
“I was going through severe, severe depression … I just wanted to kill myself at the end and die out of misery. So I left,” she says.
She found herself a room in a shared apartment in downtown Cairo with other young girls who were living away from their families — a rarity in Egypt for unmarried women that is unacceptable to the majority of people.
According a 2017 UN Women report, just more than 8 per cent of men and about a third of women believe that unmarried women should have the same right as unmarried men to live alone.
But Hana’s situation continued to deteriorate.
“After a week they came to my work and started to beat me outside the office. My dad was screaming ‘It’s my daughter, It’s my daughter,’ and then random people in the streets started to beat me with him,” she says.
Hana was able to break free and go to a nearby police station. A police officer told her parents that she had a legal right to live alone and they weren’t permitted to beat her in the streets. An argument ensued but she left the station alone without pressing charges.
“In our society women have to live with their family until they’re married or dead. They don’t leave unless they’re going to the president’s home or they’re dead,” she says.
Gender-based violence and harassment are alarmingly common in Egypt. A 2013 UN Women report revealed that 99.3 per cent of women surveyed had been sexually harassed on the street.
In May this year, UN Women released a first of its kind report in collaboration with the NGO Promundo where 10,000 men and women across the Middle East and North Africa were surveyed on their opinions on gender roles.
While it was well known how common sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence in Egypt are, the report, titled International Men and Gender Equality Survey, probed the opinions of men for the first time.
Co-editor of the report and author of Sex and the Citadel, Shereen El Feki, told the ABC the data is critical in understanding men’s control over women.
“We asked questions like ‘should a woman be allowed to live on her own unmarried as a man can? Should women have the same right to access the internet as men?'” El Feki explained.
“When we asked about a woman’s right to work and economic independence, women were in favour of being in political leadership. But when it comes down to sexuality it’s where women are as conservative, if not more so than men.”
For example, when people were asked if “a man who rapes a women and marries her should not be prosecuted”, 33 per cent of women agreed, as opposed to 28 per cent of men.
Similarly, when respondents were given the statement “If a woman is raped, she should marry her rapist,” nearly as many women (60 per cent) agreed as men (64 per cent).
‘If I told my mum I was harassed she would blame me’
Charlie* was sexually abused by a family member and a family friend after her father passed away during her teenage years.
Coupled with a stifling atmosphere at home, Charlie decided to move to a Red Sea resort to work, hours away from Cairo and without family.
“[My mother] locked me at home for one year, no going out, no friends no work … my mother wouldn’t let me do anything apart from study,” she says.
“And in Egypt the mother is always right. No matter what you say, no matter what you do, she is always right.
“You can’t do anything without getting approval from the family.
“If you’re going outside and anyone is giving you a look of disapproval, if you get harassed in the street, if you are going through anything, if your hair is falling, it’s your fault in Egypt as a female. If I told my mum I was harassed she would blame me.”
Charlie said she felt much better after she got a job and became financially independent of her family.
“It was the best thing I had,” she explains. “You start thinking differently, you get some financial freedom, and you have your own money.”
Her younger 18-year-old brother called her a whore, she says, because of her desire for independence and for moving out of the family home.
Now Charlie only occasionally talks to her family.
A problem from the top down
Such abuse is not just confined to families. Sexual harassment in the street is also incredibly common — on one day alone in 2015, during the Eid al-Adha religious holiday, the anti-sexual violence group I Saw Harassment documented more than 200 incidents of either verbal or physical sexual assault against women.
But it also happens on a daily basis with women being verbally and physically assaulted in public places.
Alarming attitudes towards sexual violence also reach the top echelons of power in Egypt.
In March 2011, following protests that deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a group of 17 women were detained, beaten and forced to submit to vaginal examinations by the military.
Egypt’s current President, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, a senior general at the time, defended the practice.
“The procedure was done to protect the girls from rape as well as to protect the soldiers from rape accusations,” he said.
For Hana, her first experience of depression came soon after police outside the country’s parliament beat her up during a sit-in she was participating in, after being handed over to the authorities by Government-aligned thugs.
“I felt like I’m so weak and wondered why I was treated like that. We’re just protesting peacefully … I started a long, long fight with depression,” Hana says.
“I had nightmares for three months and I was not sleeping at all.
“When I went to the psychiatrist he said that it was post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The pressure of conformity
Shereen El Feki says the issue in not only Egypt but also the Arab region is not the law itself to protect women but the way that the law is applied — or not applied.
“But I think the bigger problem in Egypt and the Arab region is the huge pressure of conformity. What’s really the issue is parents,” El Feki argues.
“How is it going to look, how is it going to affect the family’s reputation? How are you going to appear in front of friend and neighbours?
“So there is this real pressure to uphold this certain image and these girls … it is about their families maintaining their reputations. It’s a big problem.
“People care about how it appears not actually what is happening.
“No law is going to solve this.”
* Names have been changed.
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