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Egyptian Women Criticize Poll Calling Egypt Worst Arab Country For Women

CAIRO -- Egypt is the worst country in the Arab world to be a woman -- or so says a widely published report released Tuesday by Thomson Reuters. But some Egyptian women slam the findings as misleading and flawed. Yes, there's an epidemic of violence against women and female genital mutilation, they say. But is it really fair to claim that women in Egypt are worse off than those in Saudi Arabia, where women often can't leave their house without permission from men? Or Syria, where rape is used as a weapon of war?

For Mariam Kirollos, co-founder of Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, the simplified ranking of countries fails to contextualize the issues at hand. "You can't compare rape in a public square to women being banned from driving a car," she said in an interview with The Huffington Post.

The prominent Egyptian feminist activist's organization often patrolled Tahrir Square during mass protests, documenting the number of assaults and working side-by-side volunteers to tackle high rates of sexualized violence. Kirollos said she takes issue with the poll's methodology, as do other critics across the region. "Who were these experts?" she asked, adding that some of the numbers and findings in the report have been met with raised eyebrows.

"When we're questioning the methodology of how the poll was carried out, we're not defending the poor status of women's rights in the region," Kirollos stressed.

Out of 22 countries, Egypt ranked the worst, followed by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and Sudan. Where's the best place to be a woman? Comoros -- a tiny island in the Indian Ocean -- was ranked the highest. According to the poll, women are better off in Somalia and Yemen than in Lebanon.

Soraya Bahgat, a founder of the group Tahrir Bodyguard, also took issue with the poll's approach to ranking the countries. "Problem is we've stooped so low on women's issues in #Egypt & education in general [the] ranking doesn't shock many," she tweeted.

Another Egyptian woman, Soraya Morayef, took to Twitter on Tuesday to voice her concern. "Would love to hear this #Reuters report explain how ‪#egypt women are worse off than #saudiwomen," she tweeted.

Later, speaking with The Huffington Post, she said: "When you read stories of pregnant women in Syria being targeted by snipers, their wombs repeatedly shot at, or the preacher who raped his 5-year-old daughter to death in Saudi Arabia and got out of jail, these stories lead you to feel that things are clearly worse off in other countries than in Egypt."

Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, pointed to a number of factors -- from the reinforcement of patriarchal norms to sexual assault wielded as a political weapon, to a steep increase in the number of abductions of women -- as to why Egypt had been ranked the worst country in the Arab world for women.

"In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive or do gymnastics, in fact they cannot do anything without a male guardian, however they have access to healthcare, education, finance and contraception," Villa said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "Egypt scored badly in every category, from violence against women, to reproductive rights to the treatment of women in the family and their inclusion in politics and the economy. ... [T]he increase in violence, instability, corruption, and in the number of bribes, combined with a vacuum of security and total impunity for the perpetrators of violence, has lead to the situation that is clearly reflected in the poll."

"It seems that women were better off in Egypt under Mubarak than they are today, almost three years after his fall," Villa continued. "This is not my personal opinion - this is what the experts are telling us."

But Morayef said she is no stranger to the horrors that many women in Egypt face on a daily basis. In June 2011, she wrote a satirical post on her blog Diary of a DeskGirl in Cairo, which began like this: "I wake up every morning looking forward to getting sexually harassed in Cairo. Because a day gone by without being whistled at like cattle or groped like a melon at a vegetable store is a day unlived in this city. Right?" The post, illustrated with a sensual photo of a smiling Marilyn Monroe standing over a vent, her white dress billowing above her thighs, continues on to describe the overwhelming irony in harassment. "Not even the veil can protect me against my Muslim brothers."

Morayef said her post still stands strong today. More than two years later, she said she still gets comments from men looking to have sex with her -- men who failed to note the strong sarcasm in her words. "The comments are regular reminders of the misogyny prevalent in our patriarchal society that commodifies and objectifies women," she said.

While the poll has stirred up controversy, Kirollos hopes that it will at least get people here, especially men, really thinking. "Being a woman in Egypt is a problem," she simply said. "It's shit."

This post has been updated to include comment from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.