In Egypt, domestic abuse is not a crime. When a woman is beaten by her husband, the authorities are seldom called. Hospital trauma centers see the extreme cases of internal bleeding and broken bones. Otherwise, it's only when marital violence shifts into child abuse that many women seek out help.
According to a 2007 study by El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, 79 percent of Egyptian women (across all social classes and education levels) said they had personally experienced violence in the home. The shapes of this abuse included home imprisonment, humiliation, and beatings, as well as financial deprivation.
The motivation behind the 2007 study was to provide statistical ammunition toward a law criminalizing domestic violence. El Nadeem was successful in gaining a primary consent for an anti-domestic violence law – when parliament was wiped away along with the Mubarak regime.
Today, there is no parliament in Egypt, so human rights groups have been forced to restart their campaign while at the same time aiding victims of violence. At El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in downtown Cairo, lawyers, psychologists, and counselors attend to cases of torture and police brutality. They also maintain a department dedicated to addressing violence against women.
El Nadeem counselor Amani Khalil manages a client load of about ten women per month who come to her for multiple visits. She adds that when the topic of domestic violence is mentioned on television and their telephone number is broadcast, the center receives 500 to 600 calls. “In the last 15 years, there is more talk about family violence,” says Khalil. “People have begun to be open-minded about rejecting it. I think this has had a deep effect. But the problem is our cultural nature – that a woman should not talk about her secrets. Family problems should be hidden and not spoken about outside the home.”
“Domestic violence is not a private concern, nor a matter of public order. Pure and simple, it's a crime…”
– Jenny Montasir, documentary filmmaker
While domestic violence exists in Egypt at a level where most know about it but few bring it up, it's good news that 84 percent of women surveyed in 2007 were supportive of laws to criminalize it. But El Nadeem psychologist Farah Shash is concerned that if the new parliament has an Islamist majority, they will reject the law all together.
“We understand the conservative group's point of view,” says Shash. “The first thing they're going to say is we want to destroy the family, which is not the case.” The draft law is sensitive to this point, and has been constructed in three steps: A man facing a charge of domestic violence will first be sent to rehabilitative therapy, will have to do community service on the second offense, and court and potential jail time by the third. “People listen when you say you're not going to put the man in prison immediately,” Shash notes. “And this would actually make women feel better when they go to report the abuse.”
El Nadeem is currently running an online campaign to collect signatures in support of the draft law to make sure it gets viewed as a top priority once a new parliament is in place.
Two weeks ago, I released a short video, “Speak Out: Domestic Violence in Egypt,” with experts from El Nadeem Center and the Cairo-based New Woman Foundation. It's a modest effort to address a huge problem and the only answer I had for the cuts and marks, the stories, and the tears I witnessed this past year from those who have been enduring violence in their homes. My hope is that people will share the video and start conversations that shed light on this issue.
Domestic violence is not a private concern, nor a matter of public order. Pure and simple, it's a crime, and it will take a lot of attention and pressure from human rights organizations and the public to ensure that Egypt recognizes it as such.