Honor Killings, #MeToo And The Future For Egyptian Women

Women in Egypt have definitively broken the silence around sexual violence — but what comes next?

Egyptian women pass by Ramadan lanterns in Cairo, in May 2018.
Egyptian women pass by Ramadan lanterns in Cairo, in May 2018.
Yasmin El-Rifae

CAIRO — About two weeks ago, Dalia's doorman, landlord, and neighbors — at least three men in total — suspecting her of having sex or some kind of sexual interaction with a guest, forced their way into her apartment in the Cairo neighborhood of Salam, beat her and either threw her out of the window or terrified her so much that she jumped. The National Council for Women, missing the point, said in its press release that Dalia's body was found "fully clothed." Newspapers reported that the prosecution had ordered a vaginal examination of her corpse.

Two weeks earlier, a draft of a long-awaited personal status law was shown to the public. The draft does nothing that women hoped it might to advance their legal standing — it in fact regresses it in several areas. The bill further diminishes women's already embattled legal and financial guardianship rights over themselves and their children: Being of legal age is not enough to legally consent to marriage — a woman's male relatives can object to the marriage within a year. Being the mother of a child is not enough for a woman to issue their birth certificate, open a bank account for him/her, or consent to their surgery — a power of attorney granted by the child's father or court document is necessary.

The draft law was met with a firestorm from women's rights organizations and a campaign called #guardianshipismyright, which included thousands of stories of women struggling for control as females, as wives and as parents.

The state and society dealt women two blows at the same time.

Public mourning of Dalia, who died in what could be described as an honor killing, has combined with the campaign against the proposed personal status law, with women insisting that the two injustices are inherently connected. In an ugly accident, the state and society dealt women two blows at the same time, and in response, they are braiding them together and identifying them as a package of injustices that make one another possible: secondary citizenship rights, lack of bodily and sexual control, violence, oppressive and gendered social policing, family values.

Screenshot from campaign, March 18th. "Mourning Dalia, martyr of Salam, for complete citizenship for women." — Photo: Mada Masr.

The connections have always been there. The TikTok women were arrested and tried both for making money in ways the state didn't understand, and for being outside of the class that's allowed to flirt, dance, or be sexual online. One of them said she was pressured to submit to a virginity test while in custody (she refused). In an openly patriarchal society, presided over by authorities so accustomed to unchecked transgression, few of the codes and binaries that govern our bodies and lives are hidden.

The challenge is to confront these different problems, these recurring violations and unfairnesses, without losing sight of the larger matrix they are a part of. The linking of Dalia's violent murder to the personal status laws builds on the last few years' public — and very online — momentum around sexual harassment, but it is also a topical shift, or expansion, away from it.

Sexual violence is a symptom of social, political and economic orders which favor the needs and views of men over women. It provokes strong feelings and responses, from empathy to outrage to a need to do something. Perversely, it is also a crime that patriarchal systems are able to publicly decry, and be seen to act against: men must defend their women, the law must defend the mothers and daughters of the nation, the police are given individual culprits to catch and display, prosecutors open investigations that easily lead away from the corridors of power. Taboos, importantly, may be broken, but in the theatricalized social and legal punishment of an individualized crime, we are all unified in flaying the bad guy and upholding the status quo.

It's costly to talk about sexual violence. It's costly for the victim speaking out. It's costly for other women who feel called on to show solidarity, especially on the policed and trolled terrain of social media. It's costly for the collective audience, so many of whom feel traumatized again. More than this, sexual violence becomes overwhelming, it becomes another spectacle: the fact that women are talking about rape becomes the story itself.

The thousands of testimonies published and shared since last summer, while often followed by regressive and exhausting debates, have been powerful and cathartic for many, and inspired demands for better accountability in universities and workspaces. Many have willfully, and wishfully, called it a women's revolution. But we haven't yet addressed the larger problems that make sexual violence so prevalent in the first place. By focusing on it as an isolated problem, we become stuck, and it starts to seem like the root of women's oppression, rather than a symptom. It becomes easier, also, to treat it as a problem of individuals — bad men and better men, strong survivors and weak ones.

Women marching against Egypt's sexual harassment, in Cairo, in February 2013. — Photo: Amanda Mustard/ZUMA

We've seen this happen throughout different iterations of the #MeToo movement, and in older mobilizations around harassment as well. This is partly because working on sexual violence takes so much energy and attention itself, but also because, again, it is such a unifying battle — at least on the surface. Agreeing that rape happens and that it's bad is not a large enough common ground from which to address the systemic problems that perpetuate rape in the first place. To do this, we have to break from the idea that there is one kind of feminism.

The state, mainstream media and often also NGOs and women's movements themselves tend to perpetuate a singular image, tone and agenda of women's rights. Social media gives us each our individually framed view on what women are talking about; the people who sell us things and shape our identities as consumers have always been ready to select and monetize feminine, and feminist, ideals. Certain voices are heard over others, a certain vocabulary becomes the only one acceptable. Some of this — ditching harmful expressions, for example — can be seen as a step forward, but a hardening of discourse and language not only becomes exclusionary, it has a limiting effect on our thinking, imagination, and, eventually, our communication itself.

In confronting patriarchy, we start looking for ways to act unified.

There's a fear that if women start paying attention to our different views on religion, family, the economy, or the political order then we will be faced with irreconcilable gulfs, exemplified in some of our perceived binaries of the secular feminist focused on social freedoms versus the Islamist feminist's reverse views on what those freedoms should be, or a feminism that wants to "lean in", versus one that sees capitalism itself as the root of our problems.

A colleague points out that in confronting patriarchy, we start looking for ways to act unified, because unity is seen as strength and gives us a certain ability to negotiate. For example, we deal with victims in one particular way, expect them to react to aggression in one particular way, and hold up one particular path of survival and recovery as the best, strongest one. Sometimes we ignore or reject victims if their reaction doesn't fit our perceived ideal. Salma El Tarzi, for example, wrote about her rape and was attacked by readers who dismissed her as having Stockholm Syndrome. This becomes the position from which we think we're able to negotiate with the larger system, and it keeps us in a reactive framework — we move not based on our own needs and visions, but on how the system sees us and what it permits. And so we replicate its hierarchies and exclusions.

Women have definitively broken the silence around sexual violence — but what is the next step? What is it that we want, beyond an end to rape? Sexual liberation? Legal equality? Socialism? Better capitalism? Anarchism? Discussions that allow for these differences won't necessarily lead to sisterhood and unified agendas, but they might activate an engagement with the wider political and social issues that keep us secondary. If we believe that confronting sexual violence can be a path to broader liberation, we have to ask: beyond a belief that rape is bad, what unites us?

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Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."


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