Egyptian Laws Punishing Rape Insufficiently Help Victims of Violence

a rally for women's rights in Egypt
Women in Egypt rally for their rights. Photo: AFP

Sexual violence, a significant legal and social problem in Egypt, has been a growing phenomenon over the past decade. It has been trivially tackled by the Egyptian criminal justice system.

Cairo, a city with a population of over 19 million people, was ranked the most dangerous city for women in October, surpassing 19 other locations worldwide, according to a poll conducted by Reuters.

The Egyptian capital became the worst place in terms of harmful practices, including female genital mutilation and forced marriage. It was also named the third worst city where women are at risk of sexual violence and harassment.

“Rape crimes have been greatly common among relatives and family members, and the worst part about it is the denial of family members of rape, resulting in rare reports of rape despite the actual high percentage of its occurrence. The law should protect not only the victims but also witnesses of the crime,” George Isaac, an Egyptian politician and a rights lawyer at the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, told The Globe Post.

Mr. Isaac also pointed out that there has been no credible data about the number of rape crimes in the past years because the state is neither transparent nor credible when it releases this information.

“Another contributing factor to the lack of statistics is the victim’s reluctance or reporting rape out of fear of shame,” he clarified.

Despite the lack of official information, Heidi Basch-Harod, Women’s Voices Now executive director and a junior researcher at Moshe Dayan Center for the Middle East and African Studies, told The Globe Post that estimates range from 20,000 to 200,000 cases per year.

“Certainly it is always impossible to get an absolute number due to the stigma and dynamics of power surrounding this crime,” she said.

Mr. Isaac said rape is a violation of human rights and is more common in Upper Egypt and rural areas than in cities. Some activists, including Naglaa El Essiely, a member of the National Council of Women (NCW), name illiteracy and poverty as reasons behind rape. Others, such as Human Rights lawyer Entessar El Saeed of the Cairo Foundation for Development and Law, say that rape should never be justified.

The Egyptian legal system defines rape strictly as a form of non-consensual penile penetration of a woman by a man. The law also excludes any forms of sexual violence against males.

“Of course I cannot prove this with data, but I doubt that occurrences of rape are at their highest in Egypt. Rather women are increasingly empowered to report rape because there is increasingly a culture of not turning a blind eye and of ensuring that justice is served,” Ms. Basch-Harod said.

The country’s definition of rape has been found unacceptable by human rights lawyers, victims, and activists, who argue that rape includes any kind of penetration, even with the use of hands or instruments, and both males and females can become victims.

“The definition of rape in the Egyptian law is lacking clarity because rape is not only restricted to penile penetration since current rape cases involve penetration using tools or violating any other body parts,” Entessar El Saeed, a lawyer and the head of the Cairo Foundation for Development and Law, told The Globe Post.

“The law is also considered a gender discriminator, as it only victimizes females who were raped, while a male is called a victim of sexual assault if raped,” she added.

Mr. Isaac urged Egyptian authorities to clarify the existing law and redefine both rape and sexual assault. “According to my perception sexual assault or molestation is also considered rape,” he said.

Ms. El Saeed defined sexual assault as misconduct involving one person uninvitingly touching another in any way.

However, sexual assault and rape are not punished in the same way, and the penalty for the former is less severe – imprisonment from three to seven years, or more than ten years in severe cases. The length of the prison time depends on the age of the victim and whether they were assaulted by a relative.

Legislative Protections

Women in Egypt are protected from sexual violence by only two fundamental documents – the Egyptian Constitution of 2014 and the Criminal Code of 1937, which has been undergoing changes.

Article 11 of the Egyptian Constitution introduced new ways to protect women while adapting to Islamic law which is the main source of legislation in the country.

Under the 1999 Egyptian rape law, a rapist could be proclaimed innocent if he married the victim. At the time, the legislation caused protests, with activists arguing that the law’s provisions introduced new crimes against women and encouraged individuals to commit rape. Since then, it has been amended.

The current law punishing rapists includes different degrees of the crime, and violators can face the death penalty, if their victim died or her case was considered an attempted murder, according to the former head of Cairo’s Criminal Court Refaat El Sayed.

“Although the 1999 rape law was abolished, what we saw in our organization was different: some victims who were raped by relatives were obligated to undergo a surgery that restores virginity and forced to marry any man who proposes to prevent a scandal and protect the family’s name in return for dropping charges against her rapist,” Ms. El Saeed said.

Since rape is recognized as a felony by the Egyptian Criminal Code, rapists can be sentenced to imprisonment, life in jail, or death, according to a report published by the Library of Congress.

The Egyptian Penal Code forbids execution of rapists unless a murder has occurred, but they can get sentenced to 25 years in prison, and if a rapist is a minor, he may get 15 years in prison.

This regulation is applied only in certain circumstances, if the perpetrator is related to the victim, works for or with them, or has committed rape with two or more accomplices.

Egyptian Law’s Partial Protection of Survivors

Although the laws punishing rapists exist, prosecution and conviction have not been a common practice. Women in Egypt are rarely able to defend their rights in case of rape.

Egyptian women are reluctant to report crimes related to sexual violence, according to Naglaa El Esseily, a representative and the head of the National Council for Women (NCW) in Giza. She said victims are afraid of law enforcement’s fragility and shaming that stems from the country’s conservative culture.

A report published by the Middle East Institute in 2014, said that another obstacle to implementing the law is the tendency to re-traumatize women who file claims against their rapists. Prosecutors often ask victims provocative questions, tease them and blame for what they were wearing, or say that the time or the place where the victim was present encouraged the crime.

In one of the cases, police officers forced victims to undergo vaginal examinations, which were pursued without the presence of a medical professional. Law enforcement agents have also failed to protect identities of victims.

Suggested Law Amendments

In the past several years, Egyptian women’s rights groups, researchers, and members of Egyptian parliament have pushed for law changes and suggested law amendments, including banning clemency, where a judge could reverse the death sentence to simple jail term without any justification.

There are several ways in which the existing regulations can be improved.

“One legislation, that recently saw the light and was deemed a positive step in tackling rape crimes, is legally punishing parents who push their disabled children to undergo unnecessary surgeries in means to protect the family’s name and prevent dishonor,” Ms. El Esseily said.

According to an investigative report published by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), there were several cases in Egypt when parents removed uteruses of their disabled daughters who suffered from either a mental or a psychological disorder in fear that they could get pregnant in case of rape.

Ms. El Esseily said such actions inevitably encouraged more crimes since they implied that the families did not mind rape as long as it didn’t result in pregnancy.

The law punishing parents came into force in late 2017.

“The new law is now able to punish the family or guardians responsible for the removal of the girl’s uterus through one form of punishment, including imprisonment,” Ms. El Esseily clarified.

In parallel to government vows to combat sexual violence, several suggestions have been discussed to improve the Egyptian legal system.

“In December 2017, a member of Egyptian Parliament Mona Mair proposed amendments to the Penal Code having to do with rape that mostly ends up with the death penalty. The fact that these amendments also explicitly apply to violence within families is very positive,” Ms. Basch-Harod said.

Although the legislation is yet to be passed to the cabinet for final approval, the proposed amendments could reshape the Criminal Code to protect victims’ privacy and provide them with access to improved justice and health benefits.

Other proposals for improvement included training officials to tackle sexual violence cases, establishing a fund to care for and rehabilitate the victims, and conducting multiple public awareness campaigns.

An Egyptian women’s rights NGO, Nazra for Feminist Studies, which provides rehabilitation service for rape victims, and state-owned National Council for Women (NCW) have been working to implement the initiatives.

NCW prepared a new bill that suggests the death penalty for rapists if their victim was under 18 years of age or suffered from a mental or psychological disorder.

Both Mr. Isaac and Ms. El Saeed strongly opposed execution and death penalty as a form of punishment describing it as “inhumane,” but they encouraged life imprisonment and hard labor as ways to punish rapists.

“The law has not been finalized yet, including the adequate penalty for rapists. It was expected to be approved by the cabinet which hasn’t overlooked it to this day,” Mr. Isaac said.

Campaigns to Combat Rape

Egyptian rights groups and NGOs have been working to raise awareness about incidents of sexual violence.

In 2016, Nazra conducted a campaign called “Bethsal,” or “It Happens.” It was carried out in Egypt under the framework of the U.N. campaign to combat sexual violence, which usually runs from November 25 to December 10.

The global #MeToo campaign against sexual violence has also reached the region with the #AnaKaman hashtag. Ms. Basch-Harod mentioned that the movement was particularly effective in Egypt as it showed how conditions have worsened since the 2011 uprising.

In her report for the Moshe Dayan Center for the Middle East and African Studies, Ms. Basch-Harod stated that despite significant changes in legislation, Egyptian women continue to be prone to unexpected sexual assaults.

“The personal accounts shared in the millions of tweets declaring #MeToo are a promising start, but they will not suffice,” she noted.

In 2015, NCW also launched a project to combat rape and other crimes conducted against women called “National Strategy for Combating Violence against Women” (NSVAW). It aims to tackle violence in four stages: prevention, protection, intervention, and prosecution.

Each stage features multiple sub-goals that 12 different ministries and authorities are expected to work on. The project seeks to end violence against women, including rape, within a five-year period with a tangible outcome by 2020.

“NSVAW has resulted in more women breaking their silence and girls feeling no shame in speaking out. The initiative was also able to raise societal awareness on sexual violence in which several women and girls are now aware that rape is not their fault,” Ms. El Esseily explained.

She added that the project encouraged the victims’ families to support them.

“The organization has witnessed days when families go with their daughters to report the incident, which is something that previously rarely happened.”

In the past three years, the project managed to develop a medical protocol guide for female and male doctors to be able to deal with survivors.

Approximately 172 hospitals in Egypt have already implemented the guide, but the NCW targets another 400 hospitals.

Ms. El Esseily also stated that NSVAW has succeeded in urging police officers to listen to the survivors’ stories, which wasn’t the case several years ago.

“Although improvement has been witnessed more in developed urban cities than in slums and rural areas, combating rape in Egypt needs great collaborative efforts from parents, society, police, and brave survivors,” Ms. El Esseily added.

Fate of Feminist Organizations

At present, feminist organizations in Egypt are facing new challenges. Nazra is only one of the struggling NGOs. Under the current regulations, feminists can legally face from six months to five years in prison if they “pose a threat to national security.”

Nazra for Feminist Studies Director Mozn Hassan condemned the regulations in a statement. She said the Egyptian society was using women’s issues to settle political disputes.

“The movement seems to be facing a new era of regression, creating a movement without freedom of association,” she said.

“In Egypt it appears that the state apparatus is not afraid to prosecute women’s rights advocates and organizations and accuse them of treason or money laundering, or any other charge to avert blame and accountability for the fact that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women experience some sort of sexual assault in their lifetimes,” Ms. Basch-Harod pointed out.

Despite Ms. Hassan’s and Ms. Basch-Harod’s concerns about the fate of feminist movement, Ms. El Esseily said the only obstacle NCW faces is the lack of cooperation between feminist organizations and families of survivors.

Rights activists argue that actions to counter patriarchal culture and implement policies justly can fight the ferocious crime.

“The culture of rape will only be mitigated after years of the law being held to every letter,” Ms. Basche-Harod concluded.