"You can judge a country by how they treat their women."
-- Barack Obama
Egypt has a critical, strategic role in the Middle East in terms of its economy, politics and international influence. What happens in this ancient country following last Wednesday when Mohammed Morsi was forced by the military to step down is important far beyond Egypt's borders. Yet, I wonder how this change will be reflected in public life and how it will affect women's lives over there. Also I wish the best for Egyptian women since they have been struggling with the problem of sexual harassment and rape more intensely than ever since the uprising started.
About two weeks ago, a 22-year-old Dutch journalist was gang-raped in Tahrir Square and ended up needing surgery for brutal injuries. The incident reminded many of us of the beating and sexual assault of American journalist Lara Logan, who landed in the hospital as a victim of mob violence as well. The cruel humiliation took place in Tahrir Square as one of the first celebratory acts when Egyptians overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The message is the same: Women must stay away from public life, their input on government and politics is not desired. Raping foreign journalists, however, is the most efficient way to attract global attention and is a poor method to send a message. It seems that the sexual attacks during the Tahrir Square protests were out of control and the result of the government's failure to take measures to protect women. Or is it just a cynical technique to discourage women from participating in public life in Egypt and pull them away from being part of the country's development in these critical times?
Human Right Watch reported on July 3 that "Egyptian anti-sexual harassment groups confirmed that mobs sexually assaulted and in some cases raped at least 91 women in Tahrir Square, over four days of protests beginning on June 30, 2013."
However, sexual harassment in public has always been a common problem in Egypt, but women rarely report to the police when they have been sexually assaulted because they have no confidence that there will be a serious investigation.
Last year, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in May said that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women interviewed reported that they had been exposed to some form of sexual violence. Yet, an Egyptian journalist in the U.S., Reem Abaza, told me that in the past, rape victims didn't go to the hospital or the police because of social stigma but "it has been changing." "The new generation stands up and calls attention to the problem," she said.
These rapes are evidence of broad social and cultural problems. Egyptian Salafist preacher Ahmad Mahmoud Abdullah once blamed female protesters in Tahrir Square, saying "[They] have no shame and want to be raped." This kind of statement and the mentality behind the statement are very destructive for society. Rape cannot be underestimated. It is not sex but a weapon. It's about power and control.
Rape and sexual assault are the result of a serious lack of ethics and morality. Rape is also about a lack of respect and human decency. Human compassion is a God-given gift instilled in all of us. Those acts display not only a lack of this compassion but a lack of any moral code.
Last year, the Muslim Brotherhood didn't do much to improve safety for women in public. In the political arena, women's voices were also weak. Egyptian women held only eight seats out of 498 in parliament. Ousted leader Morsi couldn't see that religious figures would be accepted as leaders in a modern society only if female religious scholars are also included in the social decision-making process.
However, now there is a newer chapter in Egyptian's democracy experiment. And there is new hope for a possible positive change for women. Egyptian women have already realized that overthrowing dictators is easier than achieving gender equality, democracy and freedom in every dimension in life.
We don't know yet what is coming next in Egypt. But we all know that democracy is key to long-lasting peace in every country. We have also confirmed that true democracy can only be possible in a society where women are safe in public and when women's rights are in effect.
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This article previously was published in Today's Zaman.