In late 2013, the Thomson Reuters Foundation conducted its third annual poll on women’s rights in Arab states.
336 specialists designed the poll to assess the extent to which states adhere to key provisions of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which most Arab League states have signed, ratified or acceded.
Egypt was ranked the worst for women in this poll which covered 22 Arab states, and here is what is Egypt is “worst” at:
- Vulnerability to corporal punishment
- Prevalence of FGM
- Recognition and punishment for marital rape
- Risk of trafficking
- Impunity for perpetrators of gender violence
- Social acceptance of violence against women
- Social protection for victims of violence or rape
- Prevalence of honour killing
- Lack of reproductive rights, including pregnancy and job security, access to reproductive education, healthcare, birth-control, abortion…as well as freedom to decide when and whether to have children
With such a catastrophic situation, one would expect hell to be raised by the media, but months go by without any mention of such issues in the papers or TV shows that pollute the airwaves with their nonsensical topics. It does not sell. Such topics simply do not sell. If anything, they drive away audiences.
Conferences, seminars and workshops are being held continuously in the West tackling issues we have here, and yet we remain unbothered. We remain oblivious to the ramifications of these problems. Few women’s rights organisations are carrying the burden for all of us, but they seem to be talking to no one at all. The media is not paying attention, no front page stories on the 91% of Egyptian women and girls being the victim of female genital mutilation (FGM), no story of what that even means and how problematic this centuries-old practice is.
No front page stories on trafficking women, abducting and selling them. A quick search without much trouble will give a Wikipedia page saying: “Egypt is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children who are subjected to trafficking in persons.” No media coverage here except for a few stories in the even fewer independent online news outlets. But that is it.
No one will speak about the number of women subjected to domestic violence. The most recent studies and official statistics show that almost two thirds of women and girls have experienced some form of violence at home, either by their spouses or other male family members. 47% of women (married, divorced or widowed) reported that they have been beaten by their husbands. Nearly 45% of the women said that they had been a victim of violence by a male other than their husband, like fathers, brothers, cousins or uncles. If these are the strong women who reported such violence, I cannot begin to imagine the real number of abused women in a society that shames female victims of violence or sexual assault.
It simply does not sell. Women’s rights do not sell, but women’s sexuality sells. So we have TV shows dedicated to sensual belly dancers or singers. Pages in newspapers about sex life and “how to look good for your husband”. Stories on top of stories about beauty and fashion and cooking targeting women.
But can we blame the media if women’s rights do not sell?
Generation-after-generation of women and men were taught that a woman’s place is at home under the shelter and the “protection” of those males responsible for her: father, brother, or husband. They are taught that women could never be as good as men in anything except in household chores and raising children. They are repeatedly told that inequality and discrimination in our society are not real, and that the differences in treatment and rights are because of the differences in the nature of males and females, that God created them differently to perform different tasks: Women for households and men for work. And for the life of me, I could never put my hand on any religious text that says so!
The result of such ingrained beliefs, is that most men view themselves as superior to women, with a non-disputable right to “reform” them by any means possible, including physical violence or using an absurd Obedience Law granted to them by the Egyptian legal machine. The worst part is that many women deal with such superiority of the men as an accepted fact, and do not find it all degrading. Again, result of centuries of the same repeated teachings and upbringing. This all leads to a lack of support for the calls for women’s rights. Many women are under the impression that women’s rights revolve around sexual freedoms and that is all there is to it. To those women, women’s rights are a western concept that does not comply with our traditions and faiths, thanks to the media for this one!
The questions remain: How can we fight against a patriarchal misogynistic society without the full backing of all women, or at least most of them? How can we educate and raise awareness without the support of the media?
Rana Allam is former Editor in Chief of Daily News Egypt and commentator on Egyptian affairs