Natasha Smith is one of the many reasons why I am a feminist and why Egypt still has a long way to go as it continues its revolutionary journey.
The detailed and harrowing account of Natasha’s unfortunate ordeal has left many women reeling, ashamed and disgusted. Prominent journalists and feminists took to twitter to express their disgust at the sexual assault which took place in the very heart of Egypt’s revolution – Tahrir Square.
Her brave and courageous openness about her experience should not be called an eye opener. The eyes are already open, but, in Egypt, sexual harassment, assault, rape and other forms of sexual violence are unfortunately ignored or selectively dismissed. Some are ignored for risk of shame and tarnishing the reputation of the girl or man, and in many cases, there is utter denial of the incident. Just as Natasha’s piece describes, the apathetic reaction and subsequent attitude of doctors and nurses, at the hospital where she was being treated in the aftermath, means many Egyptian women are forced to remain silent about their own experiences for fear or certainty that their story will fall on deaf ears. Add to that the risk of interrogation regarding their marital status and whether one is a virgin or not: such questions can only further add insult to injury and alludes to the idea that the victim could be blamed.
Natasha’s experience, with that of Lara Logan and countless other western and Egyptian women who endure sexual harassment, is also indicative of the attitude of a religiously and culturally conservative society that has overlooked the severity of the nature of sexual violence and its implications. A society and culture that advocates a sense of purity and shame with regards to the treatment of oneself and of its fellow human beings, informed by Islamic tradition and principles, has some serious deep underlying issues which need to be addressed if Egypt is to move forward and make solid progress.
If denial of incidents of sexual violence and blaming the victim is the norm of how these incidents are viewed and consequently dealt with, then if anything has to change, it is society’s awareness of and attitude towards sexual violence, support and counsel for victims and punishment of perpetrators. However, Natasha’s account and Egyptian women fearful of voicing their own experiences demonstrates the rarity of such resolve.
A common notion of feminists and commentators of the Arab world claims, that, the underlying cause of this behaviour of men towards vulnerable women goes much deeper to the male psyche in the Arab world where women are still treated as second class citizens against their male counterparts. This understanding is also informed by misinterpreted and man-made Islamic traditions juxtaposed with old Bedouin ideas where women are subjugated to obey, and their individual freedom is curtailed.
The reverence of man in religion and culture has culminated in a centuries old attitude, which has only purported to obstinate the progress of women in wider society. Additionally, the evolution of religious forces over time has tightened man’s grip and control over women. Consequentially creating a society where some men feel women are at their disposal, and therefore, can treat a woman how they please: an attitude that is deeply entrenched in their mind and will be very difficult to eradicate.
To counter such attitudes, feminists, and women have worked hard to depict their image of how a woman should be perceived. Religious fanatics and Islamists have all spurted rhetoric about the vulnerability and value of a woman, and how she needs to be protected. The veil is symbolic of these ideals, but has only further caged women to another submissive religious role – many have adopted this wilfully. However, the progressive cultural and social status of women in Egypt and the Arab world still remains far out of reach. Women also carry the burden of responsibility to make sure her reputation remains intact and that of her family’s. However, when a man lays a hand on a woman, what happens to his reputation?
On the whole, the acts of a few bad apples do not represent Egypt. Natasha attests to this, so can many Egyptians and I can too, having experienced life in Egypt and gauging the cultural lifestyles of many Egyptians.
However, sexual assault in Egypt is endemic and chronic. It is not just someone groping a lady on the street, or on a busy tram or bus, it also functions as a form of torture. Sex as a subject matter is increasingly suppressed in Egypt, it is still very taboo, hence the rarity of open discussion about sexual violence. Egyptians can change their attitudes, and can change how they choose to perceive sexual violence as a menace in their society. Again, this is up to the nation that has just democratically elected their first President in nearly 30 years. So talk of democracy, civil liberties, and human rights should not be carried out in vain and Egyptians need to come out and speak up against this barbarity.
It is therefore encouraging to know that Natasha has not allowed this incident to cease her mission to expose sexual violence and increase awareness of it. She is indeed a courageous young girl, who despite her own experience will hopefully be a catalyst for real change in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world in countering sexual violence and empowering more women to fight it.