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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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By Desmond Shepard

Aug 9th, 2010

CAIRO: Israa looks at the table in front of her, pictures strewn across that show the bruises and bumps she incurred after her husband punched and threw her around the house after the two had a disagreement over when to send their three-year-old daughter to Kindergarten. It is yet another incident of violence against women, a trend that appears to be growing in the Arab world’s largest country.

According to a monthly report published by the Children of the Earth Center on incidents of violence against Egyptian women during June, it said that it reviewed 40 incidents against women, including 21 murders, 8 major injuries, 8 rapes and 4 suicides as a result of living conditions.

“What are we supposed to do when the men keep fighting us and using violence if they don’t like what goes on?” asked Israa as she filed the photographs back into the white envelope she was preparing to send to the prosecutor’s office in Cairo. She isn’t optimistic.

“When we send in our file, they either tell us it is going to take too much money or they simply don’t have the witnesses to make a case against people. It is horrific,” she told Bikya Masr.

The report highlights the growing violence that is engulfing Egypt. According to the center, violence is “getting out of control.”

The report added that the causes of violence against women varied between domestic violence, which was the cause of 19 incidents.

They then said that following such violent disputes, a lack of health care confounds the problem. Women are often unable to receive proper medical attention because husbands and family members often intimdate doctors and hospitals.

“They understand that when a woman comes to get care, we have to make a report and that report can then be given to the prosecution for further review and can make a case,” said Tarek Ahmed, a doctor in Agouza, a middle-class district of Giza. He added that when husbands come in, they often push doctors and nurses out of the way and “take their wives or daughters away without us being allowed to see them.”

Israa is one of the lucky ones. She didn’t go to a nearby hospital, instead spent her remaining pounds on a taxi to take her to a central Cairo clinic where she was treated for a broken nose and a number of cuts and bruises. She said she received 18 stitches around her shoulders from the punching her husband delivered.

Now, staying with a family friend, she is in hiding, afraid to return home for fear her husband would beat her again for going to the police.

“I am afraid, yes, but I want to see my children and have some justice against what has happened. My husband is not a loving person and he treats me as if I was a pet that he can do whatever he wants to, whenever he wants,” she revealed.

Ahmed believes society is to blame for the rise in violence against women. He argued that there is only so much the government can do to stop the growing problem.

“The government certainly needs to prosecute these people for their abuses, but in the end, we as Egyptians are responsible for the way we treat people. Violence is growing as a result of frustration and anger at the current living situation facing our country,” he said.

A number of studies in recent years have pointed to the rise in violence and sexual harassment against women in the country. The report from the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), stated that nearly two-thirds of all Egyptian women are subjected to daily harassment on the street, in the form of both verbal and physical assaults.

Amnesty International last week reported that 35 percent of Egyptians believe it is okay for women to be beaten by their husbands. This figure, some women’s rights advocates say, is arguably smaller than the reality.

“We are becoming increasingly violent in the past few years and other studies have shown that the vast majority of Egyptians, women and men, believe it is okay for women to be hit if they act inappropriately,” said one activist who asked not to be named.

But, the question becomes for many, “what is inappropriately” and in a country where life’s struggles continue to remain difficult, “how do we combat this growing state of violence that we find in Egypt?”

For women like Israa, efforts to make public the daily life they are forced to persist in is part of the solution, she believes.

“What else can I do, but try to make a point and get people to change the way they think,” she said.

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