One of yesterday’s New York Times headlines addressed the problem of sexual violence in Egypt that has “become too big to ignore.” The article by Mayy El Sheikh and David Kirkpatrick, “Rise in Sexual Assaults in Egypt Sets off Clash Over Blame” (originally titled: “Egyptian Women Blamed for Sexual Assaults”), discusses the ongoing – and seemingly increasingly violent – attacks against female protestors, alongside the clumsy, and at times outrageously misogynistic, comments by government officials and other political actors within the country. In the ever-growing pool of articles being written on the subject, this one proved more representative than most; clearly attributing victim-blaming to the outspoken among the “conservative Islamists,” and focusing on the stories and challenges as articulated by Egyptian women.
Perhaps most importantly, the article gave space for the often neglected voice of Egyptian men who are standing up against the attacks being carried out on their sisters, wives and mothers. Though not mentioned, this inclusion may also help to make space for those men who too have been victimized, a side of the narrative that is almost never addressed.
A portion of the piece tells the story of journalist Hania Moheeb, who was attacked at Tahrir Square on the second anniversary of the uprising. The discussion of Ms. Moheeb’s ordeal includes the caveat: “To alleviate the social stigma usually attached to sexual assault victims in Egypt’s conservative culture, her husband, Dr. Sherif Al Kerdani, appeared alongside her.” While this statement makes a broad value judgment about the nature of Egyptian society, it also helps to dispel the dichotomous portrayal so prevalent in the media: that Arab men systematically oppress and victimize Arab women.
This article has several redeeming qualities, but there are a few points worth keeping in mind: While writing about a television imam calling women “ogres … without shame” and “demons” makes for a good story, we can’t forget the comparable rhetoric that continues to emerge from conservative voices in North America. And while there is no question that the problem of sexual violence in Egypt must be combated, quickly and in a substantive way, perhaps one should question why this was front page news. As an Egyptian academic and women’s rights activist put it to me earlier this year, “stories that are about the body get more coverage in the Western media, whether it’s about veiling, cutting, beating. The Western media is obsessed with the female body.”
The picture of women protesting at Tahrir Square that accompanied the New York Times article discussed above, helps to substantiate her point. At the forefront, a woman in niqab raises her fist in the air; a seemingly endless sea of different colored hijab and Egyptian flags lay behind her. In terms of numbers this image may be representative – that is to say most urban Egyptian women either wear the hijab or choose not to veil. However in terms of focus, this image is not representative. While the number of women donning the niqab has increased since Mubarak’s ouster, they remain a minority. On the other hand, perhaps it is a good representation of misrepresentation, and a nice contradiction to the article’s assertion that “by the second anniversary of the revolution … Tahrir Square had become a no-go zone for women.”