When she met her husband, Amina Agami never thought her home would become the place of nightmares – nor that one day she would have to gather the courage to leave him.
But more than a decade ago and, after years of domestic abuse, the now 42-year-old Egyptian arts graduate Amina took her two young children and, simply, left.
Soon after leaving her abusive husband, Amina joined local organizations that worked to stop violence against women and protected the rights of sex workers and people living with HIV/AIDS.
“The most important thing for women is economic empowerment. Without that, they cannot escape abusive relationships or situations. They are trapped. This was my main obstacle to leaving my husband,” she said.
But the Egyptian authorities have frowned upon her work and in January 2010 she was arrested while interviewing sex workers, taken to Old Cairo police station, strip-searched and kept in a cell overnight.
Standing up to abuse
Despite the risks involved, Amina continues her struggle to protect the rights of others and is on the front line of the battle for human rights in Egypt.
And she is not alone.
Across Egypt, women are standing up to those who commit human rights abuses, showing solidarity, speaking up or setting up organizations to help survivors of abuse.
Mary Daniel, for example, whose brother Mena, and other Christian Copts, were killed at a protest on 9 October 2011 in Cairo’s Maspero, is now a renowned activist demanding justice for the families of those killed during protests.
Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman, who had her skull fractured by soldiers in December 2011, now campaigns for justice for those injured and killed by Egypt’s security forces during and since the uprising.
Long-term activist Engy Ghozlan decided to fight sexual violence against women by creating HarassMap, an online initiative that documents such incidents. Manal Tibe, who resigned from Egypt’s Constituent Assembly because it failed to protect human rights, works to stop forced evictions in slums and promote the right to adequate housing.
But instead of honouring the invaluable contributions of these women, and others like them, the authorities in Egypt have often been directly responsible for their repression.
Over the past few years, Amnesty International has documented a pattern of abuse against women by the army and security forces, including the repression of women protesters, and sexual violence – including forced “virginity tests”.
Women also face widespread sexual harassment and violence in the streets, workplace and home, an issue put back into the spotlight in recent months by a series of horrific attacks on women protesters around Tahrir Square. Just this week the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has found the Egyptian authorities responsible for failing to protect women demonstrators from sexual assault in relation to incidents in 2005 under the rule of Hosni Mubarak.
None of those responsible for the attacks, have faced justice.
The level of sexual and gender-based violence is frightening. Amnesty International has published a Checklist to combat sexual and gender-based violence, calling on the Egyptian authorities to address the sexual and gender-based violence that stops women from claiming their human rights.
Indifference and inaction
Authorities in Egypt have announced a number of laws and initiatives to protect women but they are yet to be implemented.
Domestic violence is not criminalized as such but lumped together under “assault”. Nor is marital rape criminalized by the Penal Code.
The new Constitution, adopted in a rushed referendum last December, has failed to protect the rights of women.
The document sidelines women into roles as homemakers and dependents, and does not explicitly prohibit discrimination against them. Instead, the authorities are likely to use its provisions on Shari’a law to justify discrimination against women.
Egyptian authorities’ attempts to rollback on women’s rights can also be seen in their engagement with United Nations bodies where they block progress on issues such as sexual and reproductive rights and fighting discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation.
“Today, the rights of women in Egypt are under threat. More than two years after the ‘25 January Revolution’, women are sidelined by the authorities from key decision-making positions and still face discrimination in law and practice.
“Women have fewer rights than men in areas like marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, and the law says that a woman is required to obey her husband," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
But women in Egypt are not waiting for the authorities to tackle discrimination, sexual violence and harassment.
“Given the current situation, I don’t expect to get individual justice for Mena’s death, but I will continue to struggle for true justice for him, which would be that Egypt becomes the most just country in the world – a homeland without poverty, repression and discrimination,” said Mary Daniel, as she continues to look for justice for her brother.