Egypt was scandalised last summer when an 11-year-old girl named Hend Farghali was allegedly raped by a 21-year-old man. Petrified, the girl did not tell anyone until she was five months pregnant.
Such extreme cases involving children may be beginning to change attitudes to rape in general which, though illegal, has traditionally been seen as more of a family misfortune rather than a crime.
Stories like Hend’s help in opening up the issue for discussion, Lilli Dinesen, clinical director of Cairo’s Maadi Psychology Centre, said.
“We can feel what we want about her being put out there for everyone to see,” she said, “but maybe we need everyone to see and make everyone shocked. I think it has always existed but it is beginning to have more focus and [there is] more focus on women’s rights over their bodies.”
“We want to change traditions, but it is not easy,” Rania Hamid, manager of the family counselling unit at the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), said. “These traditions are not 20 years old, they’re ancient. You have to change them bit by bit.”
Hend is one of 20,000 women or girls raped every year, according to Egypt’s Interior Ministry, a figure which implies that an average of about 55 women are raped every day. However, owing to the fear of social disgrace, victims are reluctant to report cases, and experts say the number may be much higher.
“If the Ministry of the Interior gets 20,000 then you should multiply it by 10,” said Engy Ghozlan of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) anti-harassment campaign.
“It’s hard to tell [exactly how many women are raped] because there aren’t a lot of statistics. Most people won’t come out and say it happened because culturally it is not accepted.”
Rape statistics are notoriously problematic, partly because there is no precise, universally agreed definition of the crime of rape. In Egypt, for example, spousal rape is not illegal. “The law prohibits non-spousal rape and punishment ranges from three years to life imprisonment; however, spousal rape is not illegal,“ says a US State Department country report for Egypt dated March 2006.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also warns against comparing rape statistics from different countries: “In the case of some categories of violent crime – such as rape or assault – country to country comparisons may simply be unreliable and misleading.”
Keeping quiet about rape
“No one comes to me and says ‘I have been raped.’ It does not happen,” Rania said. “Girls consider it to be quite enough that a few people know about the rape.”
Rape is also a problem within many families. This is especially so in more traditional parts of Egypt, Rania said, where “honour killings” may take place to redeem the family of the rape victim. In some areas of southern Egypt, the perpetrator is often a family member, perhaps an uncle, and blame is often shifted to the victim, she said.
“There are problems of honour. Sometimes a brother or cousin may kill her, saying ‘you wanted this, you encouraged this, you’re not honourable, and what is that you are wearing’?… Of course it’s not her fault, but who are you going to tell that to? The girl or society?”
“Honour crimes” are not technically illegal in Egypt, according to the US country report for Egypt mentioned above.
Fearful of being ostracised or hurt, rape victims shun help, and go through post-rape trauma alone.
“I have never had an Egyptian case, and it’s rather strange. I would think they are too embarrassed to come and seek help. Being raped has somehow come back to the woman as her fault,” said Dinesen. “They will feel shock, disbelief, there is a lot of fear, rage, panic attacks; there is some kind of worthless feeling.”
Rape victims fear for their standing within their families, among friends, at universities and schools, and even when trying to get married, she said.
“You don’t want to widen the circle (of people who know),” Rania said. “The girl won’t want to tell anyone that someone raped her.”
The number of rape cases does not seem to be decreasing, Engy said, adding that many young men lack employment and incomes – so much so that marriages are being delayed, making men sexually frustrated and giving them lots of free time to sexually harass women or consider rape.