When Defending Women and their Bodies Becomes A Crime

Mozn Hassan
Executive Director

Blog Post

18 Apr 2016

Throughout its history, the feminist movement has become accustomed to facing turning points: ups and downs; progress and regress; successes and failures; setbacks and accomplishments, even if slowly achieved. At each point, however, there was a price to pay; from accusations associating the liberation of Women with immorality and debauchery, to feminists losing years of their lives in prison or under house arrest in exchange for the rights they demanded.

Today, the feminist movement faces a new challenge, with possible prosecution as well as defamation and censure for the public activities and peaceful action undertaken in recent years by many feminist groups, including Nazra for Feminist Studies, one of the non-governmental organization working in this field.

However, before moving to the formal response required by law, there are other statements that must be discussed out of necessity, or more accurately, out of two necessities. One arises from the fact that our work is targeted at our society, and that society has a right to know. The other arises out of a need to stand up to confusion, as facts are muddled or perhaps lost or deliberately hidden.

The charges we are facing as feminists are legally punishable by six months to twenty five years in prison. On the social front, there are attempts at vilifying our work and our role which is concerned with providing a safe space for the women and girls of this country.  Overall, we are “plotting against this country through an illegal entity” and are “parties to a conspiracy against it”. This is, unfortunately, how it is presented to the public, or what the campaign against us says implicitly.

I still do not know whether such accusation are only part of the growing trend to confiscate the public sphere, is it that our societies still use women’s issues in settling political disputes as the weaker party, is it that standing up for the women of this country is a crime, or is it all of these reasons combined which is in all likelihood the case!

The sum of accusations leveled against us in particular, as varied as they are, dictate that we address many questions that concern the public opinion. We shall start by saying that “Nazra”, one of the targeted organizations, is a non-governmental organization that has been working on women’s issues since 2008. The scope of our activities ranges from addressing violence against women and sexual harassment, to working towards having the State bear the responsibility for its female citizens and include their issues on its list of priorities. This is simply our mission for which we are being held accountable.

Yet I’m still wondering what violation of law do they speak of while “Nazra” has been active under the Egyptian law and before the eyes of the State since 2008. We have an official headquarters that is publicizes and known to everyone. We maintain clear, accessible and accurate books and records which are reviewed and audited by chartered accountants. We have transparent bank accounts in Egyptian banks under the supervision of the Central Bank of Egypt and the Anti-Money Laundering Unit. We pay our taxes and provide social security for our staff, as evidenced in State records. Our activities are public and have included young women, academics, politicians, psychiatrists and lawyers. We receive donations and grants, from which taxes are deducted, through our bank accounts openly and transparently. Our events are covered regularly on our website. We produce research, studies, publications, statements and press releases which we send regularly to journalists, officials and all sectors concerned with the issues we deal with. So, if the State sees us a threat to security, why haven’t we been shut down for all these years?

How can we be accused of such atrocities when we have had nothing to hide from all the parties whose participation we sought as part of a comprehensive strategy for tackling women’s issues? How can we be accused of such atrocities when we have tried to reach the  broadest segments of female violence survivors, the general public, politicians and government officials as well as every person concerned with women’s issues in this society? This is our conviction which we have championed, not for a desire to distance ourselves from a particular party, but for our belief that the issues of women in the public sphere are much larger than any narrow political debate for which women are made to pay the price in violation of their bodies, as we have witnessed in the past few years.

We have worked, coordinated and conducted interviews with everyone. We have worked with civil society organizations and political parties as well as the Department of Combating Violence Against Women in the Ministry of Interior on sexual violence, with Cairo University on campaigns against sexual harassment, with officials from the Ministry of Justice on amendments to the Penal Code to include a definition of sexual harassment as a crime, with officials in the Ministry of Health and the Department of Forensic Medicine on how to deal with female survivors of violence, with the constituent assembly which drafted the Egyptian Constitution on articles related to women, and with the National Council for Women and with the National Council for Human Rights, in addition to several other meetings which cannot all be listed here. One question still remains, are all the aforementioned agencies unaware of our existence as a legitimate and publicly known entity? Why has none of them objected? Why did no official, and I repeat official, agency hesitate to meet or work with us under the pretext that we are conspiring against the country or threatening its national security?!

I do not know of any national threat that might be posed by those who are defending the integrity of women’s bodies, and working so that they are not subjected to violence, so that they enjoy their right to a safe public sphere, or so that they are empowered to secure their economic, social and political rights.

Are we, in 2016, still seen in this perspective? Is protecting the bodies of women against violation a crime? Is providing therapy for female violence and rape survivors a threat? Is speaking about female representation a threat? Is trying to help society produce in full capacity without the exclusion of women a threat? Is working with civil society organizations, politicians and State authorities to empower women a threat? Is everything that early feminists from Hoda Shaarawi to Doriyya Shafiq demanded still seen as a threat?!

Our concern today is not limited to prosecution of those working on women’s issues, it is also that the Egyptian feminist movement seems to be facing a new era of regression, returning to face the very basic question: how can there be a movement without freedom of association? How can there be a movement if the State does not reconsider its position that our issues are part of some Western conspiracy against Egypt?

** This article was published in Al-Masry Al-Youm on 28 March 2016.