Militarisation and women’s rights in Egypt

Summary: in the militarised world of Sisi’s Egypt women pay the heaviest of prices, with violence against girls and women endemic; one third of family households are run by women and rampant inflation and the collapse of the currency has forced them into debt and for tens of thousands into debtors prison.

We thank Dr Dina Wahba for today’s newsletter which continues our interrogation of the Sisi dictatorship ten years on from the 3 July 2013 coup that brought him to power. Dina is a feminist scholar and a postdoctoral researcher in the Communication Science Department, University of Salzburg, Austria. Her upcoming book is entitled Counter Revolutionary Egypt from the Midan to the Neighbourhood. Dina has worked on several gender issues in the Middle East and among Arab diaspora in Europe such as sexual and gender-based violence, feminist leadership, and women’s political participation.

Dina Wahba is a feminist scholar and a postdoctoral researcher in the Communication Science Department, University of Salzburg, Austria
Dina Wahba is a feminist scholar and a postdoctoral researcher in the Communication Science Department, University of Salzburg, Austria

In 2013 thousands of Egyptian women took to the streets alongside men to protest former president Mohamed Morsi. Many of the women who demonstrated against the Muslim Brotherhood were worried about a possible backlash to women’s rights and supported the current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as he came to power with the promise of protecting and advancing women’s rights. Despite his pledge, there have been increased levels of all forms of violence against women in both the public and private sphere and women’s rights have been substantially eroded in the ten years of Sisi rule.

To understand Egyptian politics since 2013, one needs to understand militarised masculinities. By militarised masculinities I mean that ideals of manhood are determined by military characteristics or as Maya Eichler notes “Put simply, militarised masculinity refers to the idea that real men are soldiers and real soldiers are men.” (Eichler, 2014, p. 90). Feminists argued for years that militarised masculinities constitute a major barrier to feminist goals of gender equality. There is much evidence that shows constructions of masculinity and femininity in the military context shape the entire gender order in each society (Connell, 1995; Segal, 1997). These different aspects of militarised masculinity constitute one-half of an “elaborate gender ideology” (Enloe, 1983, p. 211) which encourages men to believe their role is to fight and protect and teaches women that theirs is to look after the “home front”. Constructions of gender within militaries shape masculinities in wider society. It becomes hard for many men, particularly those in positions of authority and leadership, to be seen as too risk-averse, compromising or conciliatory or for any man, especially leaders, to admit to vulnerability and interdependence, of either themselves or their state. Instead, they are compelled to buy weapons, pursue aggressive policies, and continue course even if it is clear that we are on the wrong path and that the myth of the possibility of perfect security and ideal society is being perpetuated.

The conception of the ideal man, the hegemonic masculine in Egypt post 2013 has important societal implications. Specific ways of enacting manhood are privileged such as competition over compromise, action over consultation, force over talking, etc. Men who most resemble the hegemonic model are privileged.  The concept of hegemonic masculinity enabled critical scholars to highlight the connection between masculinity and militarism (Hutchings, 2007). The commanding officer is a very powerful model, which, has dominated as one form of “ideal man”. It is as a result of this ongoing privileging of a stereotype of masculinity that certain advantages such as wealth, respect and power stay in the hands of men, some more than others, both within and beyond the military (Connell, 1987; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Hooper, 2001). This is obvious in the case of Egypt (see yesterday’s newsletter by Hossam el- Hamalawy.)

Militarisation in Egypt as realised by the Sisi regime has far-reaching consequences leading to increased levels of violence against women. Research published by Tadwein for Gender Studies titled “We Are Killed Because We Are Women” documents and analyses femicides in Egypt. It shows that there were 151 recorded femicide cases between October 2021 and October 2022, 94% were killed and 6% committed suicide. In the first quarter of 2023 51 femicides have already been recorded. The report calls upon authorities to provide protection from all forms of violence inflicted on women and girls. Since 2011, many feminists in Egypt have been calling for a comprehensive law aimed at ending violence against females yet nothing  has emerged from Sisi’s rubber-stamp parliament. Rather, new legislation such as the “Cybercrime law” has been used to arrest women for “violating family principles in Egyptian society” for posting “indecent videos” on their social media accounts.

The summer of 2020 witnessed the rise of the Egyptian Me too movement with hundreds of women coming forward using social media to speak out against sexual violence. However, feminists faced major challenges as they attempted to litigate some of those cases which in many ways halted the progress and the potential of the movement. Furthermore, Egypt is currently undergoing one of the most difficult economic crises in its contemporary history and women are suffering through various levels of economic violence with a third of Egyptian family households headed by women. Gharemat (women in prison for debt) account for 25% of Egypt’s prison population. In 2021, a study published by the Forum for Development and Human Rights Dialogue (FDHRD) documented 35,000 indebted women in prison with some women serving sentences for as little as US$ 300 used to buy medicine or pay for medical bills. The phenomenon of the prisoners of poverty is only one of the manifestations of the ways through which Egyptian women are struggling under the current economic crisis trying to feed their children amid rising food prices and record levels of inflation.

In the light of all of this, feminists, women’s rights activists and progressive Egyptian women inside and outside Egypt have been trying to organise online and offline to share experiences and plan the way forward while being confronted with an ever-shrinking public sphere in Egypt.

In tomorrow’s newsletter we feature a photo essay on the revolution, the coup and the aftermath by Hossam el-Hamalawy. Wednesday’s podcast offers personal thoughts and expert analysis from Maged Mandour in this week of the ten year anniversary of the Sisi overthrow of Egypt’s only democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi 3 July 2013.

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