Women’s Human Rights in Egypt: Cautious Optimism and the Way Forward

Lucinda Marshall

For a few brief days during the Egyptian uprising, women felt relatively safe on the streets of Egypt where sexual street harassment has, for many years, been a problem of epidemic proportions.

For a few brief days during the Egyptian uprising, women felt relatively safe on the streets of Egypt where sexual street harassment has, for many years, been a problem of epidemic proportions.  As The Daily Beast reports, “A survey released in 2008 by the Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women had experienced harassment.” But unlike past demonstrations where sexual harassment was rampant and women were discouraged from attending, this time, women were emboldened to take to the streets.  It was a heartwarming image.  And then CBS reporter Lara Logan was brutally attacked and sexually assaulted*.

People everywhere (including in Egypt) were horrified and her attack serves as a reminder that while the participation of women in the uprising has certainly fueled much optimism, improved rights for women in Egypt is anything but assured. As I pointed out recently on the Feminist Peace Network blog, “there is no real evidence at this point that indicates that violations of women’s human rights will be substantively addressed or ended by a new government”.

While we should be tempered in our optimism, there is certainly a real opportunity to advocate for substantive change.  One of the best tools for achieving that change and assuring women’s human rights is United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325), which among other things stresses that, “the importance of women’s equal and full participation as active agents in peace and security.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clearly stated the importance of this resolution in her remarks on the 10th Anniversary of UNSCR 1325,

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“The only way to achieve our goals – to reduce the number of conflicts around the world, to eliminate rape as a weapon of war, to combat the culture of impunity for sexual violence, to build sustainable peace – is to draw on the full contributions of both women and men in every aspect of peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peace building

Now, women’s participation in these activities is not a “nice thing to do.” It’s not as though we are doing a favor for them and ourselves by including women in the work of peace. This is a necessary global security imperative. Including women in the work of peace advances our national security interests, promotes political stability, economic growth, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Just as in the economic sphere, we cannot exclude the talents of half the population, neither when it comes to matters of life and death can we afford to ignore, marginalize, and dismiss the very direct contributions that women can and have made.”

It is paramount that we adhere to Clinton’s well-spoken words and not allow them to become empty rhetoric.  Last week Clinton,

“dispatched a team of diplomats to help in the hunt for Egyptian protesters who sexually assaulted CBS news reader Lara Logan.

According to the State Department, Mrs. Clinton has turned up the heat on Egyptian authorities searching for the attackers, and is said to be taking a personal interest in the case.

The Secretary of State has made violence against women a top priority since she took office, and the latest incident is said to be of ‘paramount’ importance to her.”

Unfortunately, Clinton missed a golden opportunity to point out that sexual assault in Egypt is a major problem, and that women in Egypt are assaulted and harassed with impunity every day.   Instead she chose to focus only on the attack on Logan because she is a reporter working for American media. It is certainly important that the attack on Ms. Logan be investigated, but what happened to her is only a part of the much larger problem of blatant disregard of women’s safety and rights in Egypt.

Women’s human rights in Egypt need to be addressed and women need to participate fully in the formation of a new government.  The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights reminds us that women participated fully in the uprising and, “They have every right to participate in building the Egyptian nation.” As the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) U.S. Section’s Human Rights Committee pointed out in a statement released during the uprising,

“Egyptian women are playing a fundamental part in the revolution, and they have long mobilized movements based on gender equality and human rights. As Egypt turns its present corner, women must be included, in equal numbers with men, at all negotiating tables with a full voice on the direction of their country. In line with obligations under UN Security Resolution 1325, the U.S. government should ensure that women are represented in any and all talks to which our country is a party, and Egyptian women’s and girls’ specific needs accounted for in the future governmental, political, and social structures determined by the Egyptian people as they reconstitute their country.”  

As WILPF notes, the inclusion of women in decision-making going forward is essential.  However, as I write this, it seems highly questionable that this will happen. Reuters ominously reports that so far there is a lack of women on the committee that is working to amend Egypt’s constitution. 

Egyptian feminist Nawla Darwiche described beautifully the reality of the harassment of women during the uprising telling the Associated Press, “All the men were very respectful during the revolution. Sexual harassment didn’t occur during the revolt. It occurred during that night.” 

The question going forward is whether the human rights of women in Egypt will continue to see the light of day.  The most critical element in achieving this is to ensure the full participation of women in the process of forming a new government and there is little if any evidence at this time that this will happen. 

There are however a number of useful tools that can be utilized to advocate for women’s human rights in Egypt. In addition to UNSCR 1325 there is also CEDAW, The Convention On All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women.  While the U.S. is one of only a handful of nations that has not ratified CEDAW, Egypt ratified this critical human rights declaration for women in 1981. 

Unfortunately, it is probably not realistic, given our lack of support for  CEDAW to advocate for the U.S. to insist on it being upheld in Egypt.  However we should heed Clinton’s very public support of 1325 and let her know that we heard her and that we, and more importantly, the women of Egypt, need her to show that she is concerned about Egyptian women and that those words are not empty rhetoric.

Despite much lip service, women’s human rights have never been a significant part of U.S. foreign policy. Let  Sec. Clinton know that it is time for that to change and that she can and should be a strong advocate for women’s human rights in Egypt.

__________

*In a mostly overlooked part of this story as reported on The Huffington Post, Logan and her crew were detained by the Egyptian military prior to this story and harassed for, in Logan’s own words, for being journalists, as were a number of other members of the non-Egyptian press. While one can’t draw conclusions from this, the possibility that the attack on Logan was instigated if not carried out by the Egyptian military should be investigated. 

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: Some Men Base Condom Use on Women’s Looks

Martha Kempner

This week, a study suggests some men are less likely to have safer sex with women whom they find attractive. There's now a study of women's pubic hair grooming habits, and a lot of couples don't have wedding-night sex.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Men Less Likely to Have Safer Sex If Partner Is ‘Hot’

The old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” is apparently easily forgotten when it comes to judging potential sex partners. A new study in BMJ Open found that men said they were less likely to use a condom if their potential partner was hot.

In this small study, researchers showed pictures of 20 women to 51 heterosexual men. The men were asked to rank how attractive the woman was, how likely they would be to have sex with her if given the opportunity, and how likely it was they would use a condom if they did have sex with her. The results revealed that the more attractive a man found a woman, the less likely he was to intend to use a condom during sex with her.

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Men also rated how attractive they consider themselves, and the results showed that this was also related to condom use. Men who thought of themselves as more attractive were less likely to intend to use a condom.

Researchers also asked the men to estimate how many out of 100 men like themselves would have sex with each woman given the opportunity and finally, how likely they thought it was that the woman in the picture had a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

The results of these two questions turned out to be related: The men assumed that women whom other men would want to sleep with were more likely to have STIs.

This did not make the men in the study any more likely to intend to use a condom with those women. In fact, the men were most likely to intend condom use with women they found less attractive, even though they considered these women less likely to have an STI.

This was a small study with a relatively homogenous group of men ages 18 to 69 near Southhampton, England, and it measured intention rather than behavior.

Still, the results could present a challenge for public health experts if men are making condom decisions on a broader scale based on attraction rather than risk assessment.

How and Why Women Groom Their Pubic Hair

A new study published in JAMA Dermatology is the first nationally representative survey of U.S. women’s pubic hair grooming habits. The study included more than 3,300 women ages 18 to 64.

Overall, 84 percent of women had engaged in some pubic hair grooming. Pubic hair grooming was more common among younger women (ages 18 to 24); among white women; and among women who had gone to college.

Before you start thinking everyone is out getting Brazilians, however, grooming means different things to different women. Only 21 percent of women said they took all their pubic hair off more than 11 times, and 38 percent of women say they’ve never done so. Moreover, waxing lags behind the most popular hair removal methods; only 5 percent of women say they wax compared with 61 percent who shave, 18 percent who use scissors, and 12 percent who use electric razors. (Respondents could choose more than one answer in the survey.)

Most women (93) do it themselves, 8 percent have their partners help, and 6.7 percent go to a professional.

The researchers were most interested in the most common reason women groom their pubic hair. The most common reason was hygiene (59 percent), followed by “part of my routine” (46 percent), “makes my vagina look nicer” (32 percent), “partner prefers” (21 percent), and “oral sex is easier” (19 percent).

Tami Rowen, the lead author of the study and a practicing gynecologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times, “Many women think they are dirty or unclean if they aren’t groomed.”

But while people may think that, it’s not true. Pubic hair actually exists to help protect the delicate skin around the genitals. Rowen and other doctors who spoke to the Times believe that women, especially teenagers, are taking up grooming practices in response to external pressures and societal norms as reflected in images of hairless genitals in pornography and other media. They want young people to know the potential risks of grooming and say they’ve seen an increase in grooming-related health issues such as folliculitis, abscesses, cuts, burns, and allergic reactions. As some may remember, This Week in Sex reported a few years ago that emergency-room visits related to pubic hair grooming were way up among both women and men.

This Week in Sex believes that women should be happy with their genitals. Keeping the hair that grows does not make you dirty—in fact, it is there for a reason. But if shaving or waxing makes you happy, that’s fine. Do be careful, however, because the doctors are right: Vulvas are very sensitive and many methods of hair removal are very harsh.

Wedding-Night Sex May Be Delayed, But That’s OK With Most Couples

Summer is a popular wedding season, with couples walking down the aisle, exchanging vows, and then dancing the night away with friends and families. But how many of them actually have sex after the caterer packs up and the guests head home?

According to lingerie company Bluebella—about half. The company surveyed 1,000 couples about their postnuptial sex lives and found that 48 percent of them said they did “it” on their wedding night. Most women in those couples who did not get it on that night said they were just too tired. The men, on the other hand, said they were too drunk or wanted to keep partying with their friends. (It is unclear whether the survey included same-sex couples.)

By the next morning, another 33 percent of couples had consummated their marriage, but about 10 percent said it took 48 hours to get around to it.

But whenever couples did have that post-wedding sex, the overwhelming majority (84 percent) said it lived up to their expectations.

Commentary Human Rights

A Sterilized Peruvian Woman Seeks Justice From the Americas’ Highest Human Rights Court

Cynthia Soohoo & Suzannah Phillips

I.V.'s case, I.V. v. Bolivia, illustrates the all-too-common scenario of medical providers making decisions on behalf of women who are deemed unfit or unable to make their own choices.

In 2000, a Peruvian political refugee referred to by her initials, “I.V.,” went to a Bolivian public hospital to deliver her third child. According to court documents, the doctors decided during the cesarean section that a future pregnancy would be dangerous for I.V. and performed a tubal ligation—for which they claimed they had I.V.’s consent. When I.V. learned that she had been sterilized two days later, she said, she was devastated.

After her complaint against the surgeon who sterilized her was dismissed by Bolivian courts, I.V. brought her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IA Court), which heard oral arguments earlier this month. In a region where there are widespread reports of forced sterilization, the case is the first time the court will consider whether nonconsensual sterilization is a human rights violation.

The IA Court should hand down its decision in the coming months. A favorable ruling in this case by the IA Court—the highest human rights court in the Americas—could require Bolivia to, among other things, pay reparations to I.V., investigate and possibly punish the doctors who sterilized her, and take steps to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. The decision will also have ramifications across the region, establishing a binding legal precedent for the 25 countries that are party to the American Convention on Human Rights.

I.V. v. Bolivia provides an important opportunity for the IA Court to condemn forced sterilization and to adopt clear standards concerning informed consent. It would also be joining U.N. human rights bodies and the European Court of Human Rights in recognizing that forced sterilization violates fundamental human rights to personal integrity and autonomy, to be free from gender discrimination and violence, to privacy and family life, and, as CUNY Law School’s Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic and Women Enabled International recently argued in our amicus brief to the IA Court, to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or torture.

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Further, the European Court and U.N. experts recognize that possible health risk from a future pregnancy cannot justify nonconsensual sterilization because there are alternative contraceptive methods to prevent pregnancy and women must be given the time and information needed to make an informed choice about sterilization. The IA Court should make similar findings.

Unlike the sterilization of Mexican immigrant women in the United States in the 1970s, recently portrayed in the documentary No Más Bebés, I.V.’s case doesn’t appear to involve a broad governmental policy of sterilizing poor or immigrant women. But it illustrates the all-too-common scenario of medical providers making decisions on behalf of women who are deemed unfit or unable to make their own choices.

Indeed, forced and coerced sterilization is disproportionately perpetrated around the world against women in stigmatized groups, such as women living with HIV, poor women, ethnic or national minorities, or women with disabilities because some health-care providers believe that such women should not have children. Whether driven by animosity against certain women, stereotypes that these women are unfit to become parents, or a paternalistic notion that “doctor knows best,” the end result is the same: Women are permanently robbed of their capacity to have children without their consent.

The parties contest whether I.V. orally consented to sterilization during her c-section. But even if she did so, medical ethical standards and decisions from U.N. human rights bodies and the European Court make clear that consent obtained during labor or immediately preceding or after delivery cannot be valid because the circumstances surrounding delivery—due to pain, anesthesia, or other factors—are inherently inconsistent with voluntary patient choice.

I.V. delivered at a public hospital that predominantly treats indigent women, many of whom are indigenous or migrants. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—which effectively acts as a court of first instance for the IA Court—considered the case before it went to the IA Court and noted the special vulnerability of migrant women seeking health care in Bolivia, given their reliance on public services and the lack of care options. It found that I.V.’s medical team was influenced by “gender stereotypes on the inability of women to make autonomous” reproductive decisions. It further concluded that the decision to sterilize I.V. without proper consent reflected notions that the medical staff was “empowered to take better medical decisions than the woman concerned regarding control over reproduction.”

Sixteen years after her sterilization, I.V. still acutely feels the emotional and psychological toll of having been sterilized. Because of the severity of physical and mental harms that forced sterilization imposes upon women, the Inter-American Court should join the European Court of Human Rights and U.N. human rights experts in recognizing that forced sterilization constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and may constitute torture.

In addition to condemning forced sterilization, the IA Court should recognize the multiple human rights violations I.V. suffered. The Inter-American human rights system protects women from gender-based discrimination and violence and violations of the right to personal integrity, information, privacy, and family life, all of which are at issue in this case.