Women's human security rights in the Arab world: on nobody's agenda

Security breakdown has wreaked havoc with women’s lives in Arab transition countries, but it is hardly recognized in international debates on gender based violence, says Mariz Tadros

Mariz Tadros
2 December 2013
Four children holding hands walking away from the camera, wearing T-shirts with Arabic text on.

The T-shirts read: human dignity, bread, social justice and freedom. Photo: Nefssi

This is the first of two articles by Mariz Tadros discussing the disjunctures between the current international discourse on gender based violence and women’s realities on the ground in 'Arab transition' contexts.

Sometime past midnight in the early hours of the morning of Wednesday the 27th November, activists reported that a security vehicle dumped a group of women in the middle of the desert in Egypt. Security officers had arrested them the day before for protesting against the proposed protest law, which they believed would infringe on citizens’ freedom of expression. Some of the women arrested were also activists in anti-sexual harassment groups such as Fouada Watch and Opantish. Captured footage showing how roughly they were treated seemed déjà vu of the repressive security apparatus handling of dissent during Mubarak’s and Morsi’s authoritarian regimes. 

However, what is striking is that the arrests of the protestors did not stir the mass mobilization of the citizenry to rise in anger, raising the troubling question of why not?

The truth of the matter is that almost three years of having suffered from the withdrawal of the security apparatus from assuming their role in protecting citizens, most Egyptians now yearn more than anything for an end to what is locally referred to as al infelat al amny -  security breakdown/laxity. Human security -  the idea of putting the security apparatus in the service of people’s needs for safety and protection, rather than the security interests of a ruling regime or the interests of international actors, has never had a chance to thrive in Egypt -  or in any other country that has experienced revolts.

Following the January 25th 2011 revolution, the police force responded to Egyptians’ outpourings of anger against the security apparatus’s long history of ruthless use of force by simply retreating from performing their duty to keep criminal activity at bay. It is also believed that in order to avoid social stigma, hundreds of police officers resigned from the service. The so-called transition period has not featured any security sector reform, be it in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Yemen. People have simply been left to become prey to organized gangs, thugs and militias belonging to all kinds of groups. People have suffered from a great deal of politically, socially and economically motivated violence. Many people are desperate to enjoy the freedom of being protected on the streets via a functional security service, more than anything else.

In view of the fact that the masses risked their lives by revolting against authoritarian regimes and their use of brute force (personified in the security sector), why is it that many now -  as in the case of Egypt - have no sympathy for the violence perpetrated against the protestors on Tuesday the 26th of November? The issues are deeply associated with the pulse of the streets in Egypt right now, one that western reports have failed to understand. For a start, many Egyptians associate the current wave of protests with the pro-Morsi crowd whom they have no support for, in particular since many of these demonstrations were characterized by the use of violence. In view of the excessive violence used against pro-Morsi supporters at Rab’a el Adaweya, that may seem a little hypocritical on the part of Egyptians. And it is perhaps reflective of the intensity of animosity felt by so many citizens for the year they lived under the shadow of the Muslim Brotherhood's rule. Policy makers internally and externally were so consumed with the idea of Egypt being on the democratic transition path, that they failed to capture the scope and depth of the rising opposition to the Brothers’ governance.

But the main reason for the desire of the masses to see the security forces back in control is the extent to which their lives have come to a complete halt as a consequence of the absence of an effective, responsive police force. Security breakdown has brought life to a standstill, and women have born disproportionately the greater burden of it - from the shores of Benghazi through to the city centre of Cairo, and down to the heart of Sanaa. Its impact has been devastating on every aspect of their lives. First, there is the issue of safety in public space. In Egypt, women have been subjected to more frequent and more aggressive forms of sexual harassment. True, sexual harassment in crowded and empty spaces had been a growing problem for many years, but the absence of the police (or their inaction) after the revolution sent signals to men that they can, and will, get away with it. There is simply no law and order. Sexual harassment in the subway has become such an acute problem that many women who cannot afford private forms of transport (micro and mini buses) are cursing the day they have had to go out to work. Women in Benghazi who worked night shifts (for example as doctors and nurses) are no longer able to do their jobs. 

Women working in the informal sector whose livelihood requires a high level of mobility (purchase of goods in bulk from central markets, or making home visits to clients or sitting in the streets) are exposed to all kinds of violence: the imposition of levies by thugs, the confiscation of their goods, theft, and sometimes sexual violence. This is not new, women have always been vulnerable to such forms of violence, but it has increased dramatically.  Women’s mobility by and large has become deeply constrained, even in rural areas. Whereas they could commute outside their villages or neighbourhoods alone in broad daylight, in many parts of Egypt this has not been possible for some time. As the economic situation is worsened by the absence of security, it is having its toll on gender relations at home, as well as on parental relations with their offspring. 

The new security concerns have not just taken their toll on women's livelihoods, but on their freedom as well. Men are called upon to chaperone female members of the household on regular errands or on visits to family and friends, which was not the case before, and sometimes social events have been cancelled altogether. “We are suffocating” [Etkhana’nah] became a frequently heard expression, and it cut across class - though poor and working class women suffered the most. In effect the rights they had claimed in public space over the decades and during the revolts, were being taken back, and no one could blame the husbands, fathers, brothers, and friends who worried about the wellbeing of their loved ones because the threats were very real.

It is the same story in Tunisia, a country where women had historically enjoyed high levels of freedom in public space. Samah Krichah a Tunisian activist and board member of the Tunisian think tank The Democratic Lab has spoken how new groups, such as the ultra-radical Islamist Salafis, emerged in public since 2012 and have claimed the authority to verbally (and sometimes physically) “chastise” unveiled women for their attire, with the police doing nothing to refrain or hold them in check. It is not only on the streets, but in the universities and schools. “My sister who is 14 years old was reproached by the school guard for wearing a half sleeved shirt. My father went to school to tell him not to talk to her”.

Some parents have over the course of the past two years withdrawn their daughters from education. The decision did not emanate from chauvinism or discrimination against the girl child, but from concerns over her safety: who is going to prevent their harassment, kidnapping or bullying? In incidents where children’s schooling was disrupted, women could no longer allow them to go to school on their own, or even with their friends. They had to drop and pick them up themselves, stretching the time they commit to unpaid care even further.

The theme of this year’s 16 Days of activism against gender violence, “from peace in the home to peace in the world: the end to militarism”, puts the spotlight on violence perpetrated by state actors, the connection between domestic violence and small arms and the prevalence of sexual violence during and after conflict. The 16 Day campaign’s emphasis on holding the state accountable for its record in perpetrating gender based violence, is one that is congruent with the international policy makers focus on sexual violence against women’s rights defenders in Egypt, and elsewhere. However, what is missing from the 16 Day campaign, as well as the broader western policy agenda towards supporting women in countries that have experienced regime ruptures, is the recognition of how the absence of security - not just repressive security -  is wreaking havoc with people’s lives.  One is aware of the dangers that this argument may play into the hands of autocrats who want to prioritize stability over human rights, and we must emphasize that the freedom from security infringements on citizen rights, as well as the freedom to enjoy safety and protection through a gender sensitive and responsive security apparatus, go hand in hand.  We must not forget that in a context of a complete security breakdown women rights defenders won’t be able to get to protest spaces in the first place. Enas Abdelwanis, a human rights defender in Libya, explained that due to the security breakdown there has been a demobilization of political activism in public space since the overthrow of Ghadaffi’s regime. Young people in Benghazi are no longer organizing protests or marches, and many spend most of their days engaging in virtual space. “We are going underground because we are feeling under threat”, she said.

Yet not only has the discourse and policy focus ignored these realities, western supported programmes have reproduced the same disjunctures. Donors seem to all offer the same menu of gender in democratic transition packages of supporting women’s efforts to influence constitutions, and increase political representation. While both are critically important for advancing women’s long term interests, there also needs to be a responsiveness to the situation on the ground. It may be, as unsustainable as they are, that cash transfers, safe schools, and supporting informal groups working on gender based violence to scale up their work may help. These are piecemeal solutions, but desperate times call for desperate measures until we have proper security sector reform.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData