I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: women who travel to Egypt need to understand that rape and sexual assault are routinely used as political weapons, not just by radical Islamist groups, but by secular activists also. Phrases like “war against women” and “culture of rape” seem overblown to me in the United States, but they’re dead-on accurate descriptions of what happens in Egypt as a matter of course.
I don’t know if Egypt is the worst place in the world when it comes to violence against women, but it is by far the worst place I’ve ever been. My wife has traveled with me a few times in the past when I’ve been on assignment, but I will never take her to Egypt. Not for any amount of money. It’s never going to happen.
Every single woman I know who has been there has been aggressively harrassed at the absolutely minimum, and some have told me they get aggressively harrassed every five or ten minutes when they’re out on the street, especially when they don’t have a male body guard.
Egypt hasn’t always been like this. Leyla Doss in Verily magazine explains how Egypt got this way:
It may be hard to believe, but Egyptian streets were filled with miniskirts in the 1960s, during the time of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Older generations boast that Egypt had a greater sense of community back then: Passersby would always intervene if a woman was being publicly harassed or attacked.
In the seventies and eighties, increasing urbanization from rural areas, economic crises, and a rise in slums all helped to corrode that sense of community while increasing grievances between diverse populations. As the quality of state services declined, Islamic religious groups filled the vacuum of a failed welfare system by providing services and charities. Quite naturally, people turned to the faiths that cared for them and adopted the conservative beliefs and practices of these sects. “Many turned to religion and began to dress more modestly,” Heltne says. Egyptians who returned after migrating to ultraconservative Arab Gulf States during oil crises in the seventies and eighties also increased conservatism in Egypt.
“Religious ultraconservative groups advocated strict gender roles by promoting the idea that women should remain in the domestic sphere,” Heltne explains. Yet, with this shift toward ultraconservative conceptions of women in some segments of the population, there occurred a concomitant movement for women’s emancipation. “Women,” according to Heltne, “were increasingly defying these [ultraconservative mores] and filling Egypt’s workplaces and streets and even managerial positions.” A clash was inevitable. Many Islamic religious groups attempted to pressure women to return to traditional roles—pressure that could manifest as coercion, intimidation, and assault.
Worth noting, however, is that Egypt’s war against women and its culture of rape are trans-partisan.
Secular activists committed the infamous assault against CBS correspondent Lara Logan a couple of years ago. Hosni Mubarak’s secular regime and nominal US ally used rape squads against dissidents, as did the Egyptian Army between the Mubarak and Morsi presidencies.
I don’t want to tell women they should not visit Egypt—I get tired of hearing from various people that I shouldn’t visit dangerous places like Lebanon, Iraq, etc.—but nobody should go in there blind.