The Hymen Obsession: Inequality & Harassment in Egypt

Publication Date: 
June 3, 2011
Blog: idindeed
Egypt Women-January 25-2011

I am not writing this for the average Ali or Mahmoud on the streets of Cairo or Alexandria; rather this is written with the forward looking progressives of Egypt in mind; the internet savvy Egyptians of Twitter, Facebook & You Tube. Some ten years ago I went with my family to an Arab American convention in Washington DC, at the dinner table there was another Egyptian American family and their late teenage son & daughter who told us of their experience moving back to Egypt for a couple of years. The son loved it but the daughter complained bitterly of her experience in Egypt; I am sure you can guess why: sexual harassment! A year or so later, while on holiday in Egypt some total stranger scolded my daughter and her friend for their lack of head cover, he walked almost 50 Meters on a relatively deserted North Coast beach to deliver his little charming playful lecture leaving my daughter who was just recovering from major brain surgery and her, fresh off the plane American friend, distraught. 

It is the same story over & over again everywhere in Egypt, sexual harassment! You can read warnings about it in guide books and we hear about it in the news and you could see it in sickening details in movies like  with young men chasing a woman the age of their mothers’. Egypt is ground zero for sexual harassment! ..but why? This is a question that perhaps trained sociologists are better qualified to answer. I can only throw few guesses, from the move to separation of boys & girls in education, increased religiosity and delays in marriage age to the general oppression that Egyptians have & continue to suffer from. As an Egyptian American I can see how I am treated in Egypt depending on which passport I produce be at an Airport or hotel. We Egyptians are treated with no dignity & respect by our police, our schools, our sport coaches and in turn we treat others with little or no dignity & respect. Often times the perceived weaker sex gets the worst of it.

Is it just that, or is more to it? My guess is that there is more to it, there is a fundamental, at best discriminatory, aspect to position of women in Egyptian culture; we are brought up with it rich & poor, educated & illiterate, Muslim & Christian alike. It is a view of women as cross between a pet, object & a lesser being. I have memories of my mother pleading with A’am Naguib the father of our Christian servant child not to take her home to their village in south of Egypt to perform the “” on the then 9 or 10 year old Attiat. “tohor” is a word meaning purification, the same word used for male circumcision. Few days later after that Coptic Easter little Attiat came back not able to walk, constantly bleeding after her “purification” I remember my mother scolding the father, but his face was beaming, he achieved something important. Genital mutilation has been imposed on most Egyptian women, to my knowledge only Bedouin Arab tribes representing about 1% of the population of Egypt have normally not engaged in mutilation of their women. Many of the brave Egyptian women on Facebook & Twitter and on the streets during the protests standing up to Mubarak’s police & thugs wereand some of the children of the current Facebook generation are destined to the same fate.

In Pre Islamic Arabia baby girls were buried alive at birth for fear of the shame they may bring upon their families as adults, was genital mutilation the Egyptian answer to the same dilemma? The shame that can be brought upon a family if their daughter or sister got pregnant could be averted by interfering and reducing the sexual pleasure of women through mutilation, so instead of burying newborn baby girls, keep them for cleaning and cooking and also be available for man’s sexual pleasure; perhaps the word “tohor” or purification now make a bit more sense. While men often complain of the sexual desire of their wives I suspect Egyptian men are not just whining, Chinese women had their feet forcibly molded to small size, Egyptian women had their sexual enjoyment forcibly curtailed or removed. 

Egyptians, Muslims and Christians alike tend to be pious, devout and the vast majority highly observant of religious practice. To my knowledge Islam and Christianity both disapprove of sex outside of marriage and premarital sex is prohibited. I am, however, unaware of Islam or Christianity imposing stiffer bans or punishment on women than on men. Why is it that Egyptian families are happy and readily willing to send their young sons abroad for a semester or a post graduate education and more hesitant to send their daughters? Why do we Egyptian Americans tolerate or even approve our sons having girlfriends but freak out about our daughters having boyfriends? How many of us heard of Egyptian families shipping their daughters back to Egypt because they got “boy crazy” or were getting into that boyfriend stuff? In some cases whole families went back to Egypt or moved to some Arab Gulf country to escape the scary syndrome known as daughter’s boyfriend! The unequal application of what are essentially equal prohibitions is interesting to explore and dig into more to understand where it comes from, it is fundamental inequality drilled into us from birth.

In my own extended family over many years I have seen examples of discrimination against women as daughters, sisters and wives both dished out by men from my family and more often I have seen women relatives suffer at hands of husbands denying children visitation rights, denying divorce even where the husbands have taken second wives. Many Egyptians feel ashamed of discussing these horrible facts especially in English for fear it would damage the reputation of Egypt or Islam. Ask most non Islamist Egyptians on Twitter and they tell you they believe in equality, ask them if they are willing to marry a non virgin and then ask them if they have a problem with their sister or daughter having the same exact rights they had. We are not talking religions here, we are talking culture.

As a young father some 15 years ago, was about to leave on a long trip, I told my then 5 year old son, come on you are now the man of the house! The look on my daughter’s face, always competitive and nearly 18 months older stayed with me. I never repeated the words again; I caught myself falling into the trap of gender discrimination, what did I mean by “man of the house” was this innocent saying a harbinger for a new generation that discriminates against its women?

The Egyptian Jan25 Revolution showed amazing courage from Egyptian women starting from those who blogged and called for the protests to those who were in Tahrir for the 18 days that brought down Mubarak. Of the many amazing aspects of Jan25 was the reported absence or near absence of harassment in Tahrir; Egyptian women found their voice and place. Yet at the very same location, Tahrir Square, and almost one month after the fall of Mubarak, some 16 Egyptian women, who were protesting peacefully, were arrested, tortured and here it comes subjected to the ultimate humiliation, state conducted mandatory virginity tests. reported an army officer stated that the tests were conducted to avoid accusations of rape against the army and that that none were found to be virgin. I would have thought that showing all of them to have been virgins, even if one or two were married, would have been the exoneration the army needed to show that no "rape" per se occurred, but clearly that was not the real objective of the cruel tests. The objective was the sexual humiliation and ultimately the shame of these women. Those who conducted this shameful operation were well aware of Egyptian hymen obsession. the term counter revolution has been used a lot in Egypt recently, rarely have I seen such a clear example of blatant criminal counter revolutionary behavior, a cruel and violent attempt to take back Tahrir from these .

A sexual revolution in Egypt is most certainly not a goal of mine, neither am I writing to advocate premarital sex and promiscuous society. Egypt has too many pressing problems to deal with and the damage of promiscuity in terms of teen pregnancy, single parent struggle, sky high divorce rate and family disintegration are there for all to see in US and elsewhere. What is my goal then? In simple terms it is equality and real fundamental women rights, not a sexual revolution but rather an honesty revolution that allows us to get into the roots of our social ills. No society can move forward without advancement for half of it, no equality is possible without owning up to the current highly unequal status of those fellow humans born with hymens. It is thought leaders of the society, men and women, young men and young women those who made Jan25 possible, the Facebook & Twitter people who can lead the change, towards real equality, not lip service equality and certainly not promiscuity.

Author: Ayman S. Ashour