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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Violence Against Women and Girls Sees Spike in MENA

Violence Against Women
Activists take part in a demonstration against sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence in the Lebanese capital Beirut on December 7, 2019. ANWAR AMRO / AFP

Dana Hourany

Nayera Ashraf, a 21-year-old student from the northern Egyptian city of Mansoura, was about to enter her university’s gates on June 20 when a man attacked and fatally stabbed her.

Iman Rashid, a 21-year-old nursing student from Amman, Jordan, was tragically murdered on campus three days later.

Rashid’s attacker shot himself in the head as soon as the police arrived, but Ashraf’s killer was found and given the death penalty some eight days after committing the crime.

Both Ashraf and Rashid had been threatened by their murderers for turning down their advances. Ashraf’s rejection of multiple proposals was cited by the Egyptian killer, Mohamed Adel, as the reason behind his crime.

Similarly, Rashid allegedly received a message from 37-year-old Uday Khaled Abdullah Hassan threatening to kill her in a manner that is similar to Ashraf if she refused to speak to him.

Gone but not forgotten

While the murders of Ashraf and Rashid were widely reported, the month of June saw the killings of many other women across the region.

Lubna Mansour, a 24-year-old Jordanian woman of Palestinian descent, was fatally stabbed in broad daylight on June 24. Her lifeless body was discovered inside her vehicle. According to media reports, Mansour was murdered by her husband in the United Arab Emirates’ city of Sharjah, only days before she was set to win her divorce case.

Ranin Sal’us, a 20-year-old student hailing from the Palestinian village of Majdel Bani Fadel, was discovered lifeless and hanging from a tree on June 24. Without a conclusive investigation, widespread theories imply that the victim’s close relatives staged the murder to appear as a suicide after Sal’us chose to marry her paternal cousin, whom her mother rejected.

42-year-old Egyptian journalist and broadcaster, Shaima Gamal‘s body was discovered buried on a farm in Giza on June 28, where postmortem examinations revealed evidence of blows, suffocation, and mutilation on her face and upper torso.

Ayman Hajjaj, the main suspect, is the victim’s husband and a senior judge who was exposed by an accused accomplice who had led law enforcement to the location of the body.

Similarly, and days earlier, local media reported that an unnamed Egyptian businessman had killed his pregnant wife and set the body on fire before burying it in a deserted area. The motive of the murder, according to media reports, is the fact that she was carrying a female rather than a male.

The victim’s family had reported their daughter’s sudden disappearance to the police in Giza, three times before the husband confessed to his murder. Prior to the murder, the victim was subject to severe physical and emotional abuse.

Violence against women, in all its forms, is not MENA-specific. However, entrenched patriarchal systems in the area have long discriminated against women by law and in society, normalizing and enabling violence.

“The difference between femicide in the West and femicide in the Middle East is that women are perceived more or less equal to men in Western countries, therefore they’re granted more legal and social protection,” Egyptian feminist journalist and activist Wafaa Khairy told Fanack.

“Shadow Pandemic”

Rates of violence against women have significantly increased recently, and UN Women has labeled this rise a “shadow pandemic,” particularly in light of extensive COVID-19 lockdowns, which forced many women into seclusion with their abusers.

According to UN Women, 37% of Arab women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, however, a significant number of cases go unreported.

More than 6 in every 10 women survivors of violence refrain from asking for support or protection.

Crimes of passion,” or killings brought on by men refusing to acknowledge women’s agency in rejecting their romantic advances, typically garner more attention than “honor killings,” in which a woman or girl is killed by family members who frame the victim as one that has brought shame to the family.

Human rights defenders and feminist activists across the MENA region have brought women’s rights issues to the forefront in recent years. However, many were met with rape and murder threats, as well as acts of intimidation and government crackdowns, according to a report by Amnesty International.

The region also largely lacks the mechanisms necessary to protect women from gender-based violence, like the provision of shelters and hotlines. Additionally, even when laws are passed to protect women from violence, they are seldom enforced properly.

Such laws exist in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Morocco. But lawmakers and religious authorities maintain the upper hand and in many cases prevent the revision and implementation of such laws.

“Power plays a huge role in the implementation of laws and religious groups hold major power over the public discourse around women’s rights. Therefore, the public doesn’t always reject the misogynistic notions they preach,” Khairy said.

Furthermore, some experts claim that judges avoid ruling against abusers in a sort of “male compassion in times of crisis,” where families are thought to be affected financially in the absence of a male provider.

Victim-blaming culture

Khairy claims that women in Egypt who are not covered up are at a significant disadvantage since much of the religious language attributes harassment and violence from men to the women’s attire.

For example, Mabrouk Attia, a professor of Islamic law at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, said in a televised interview that slain student Nayera Ashraf was to fault for her death because she wasn’t veiled, prompting a man to kill her.

Attia continued by stating that if women wished to avoid having “the same fate” as Ashraf, they should “completely cover themselves up.”

“Go ahead. Let your hair down and wear tight clothing. [Men] will hunt you down and kill you. Go on [with your] personal freedoms,” Attia, 63, said in a clip that went viral in the wake of Ashraf’s killing.

In his court confession, the murderer blamed the victim for mocking him when he first threatened to kill her. “I felt so offended that day that I started taking drugs to prove to her that I’m a man  … I took the drugs so I can kill her and show everyone that I’m not weak and I don’t regret my actions.”

Khairy contends that if the murderer were from a wealthier and more connected family, the verdict would have been different. Nevertheless, she believes that the widespread discourse of victim-blaming will incite further acts of violence against women in the region.

“Men feel like they are absolved from any moral responsibility from birth. So once they witness all this hate against women being shared around on social media, they will no longer believe that their actions have repercussions,” she said.

“Middle Eastern men, fed patriarchal values from an early age, are brought up to see women as objectified sexual beings that they have power over. Some families even rejoice in the birth of boys and detest the birth of girls,” she added.

“Some men find it challenging to acknowledge a woman’s rejection of their advances as they are brought up to believe men are privileged and dominant while women are inferior and submissive,” Khairy continued.

While victim blaming is one way to silence women, censorship is another. The official spokesman for the Jordanian Public Security Directorate, Amer Al-Sartawi, called on all audio-visual media and social networking sites not to publish “any unreliable news and information from other than its official sources,” in the wake of Rashid’s murder.

He justified the decision by saying that the information shared affects the course of the investigation and the victim’s family. However, this was widely seen by rights activists as a means to silence widespread condemnation on the ineffectiveness of both the university’s security and local law enforcement forces.

In a televised interview, Ahmad Al Ajlouni, Vice President of the Department of Applied Sciences at the university where Rashid was murdered said, “in America, everyday someone enters a high school and kills 20 people.” Rashid’s case “[is] a very simple issue, yet we tend to make simple issues bigger,” he continued.

“It is a false comparison,” Khairy responded. “This isn’t about lack of regulations around guns and rampant school shootings that are more or less unique to the US – this is about a woman who was killed for turning a man down, and a culture that downplays it to avoid a semblance of responsibility,” she said.

Violence all around

Jihane Isseid, a Gender Based Violence Strategy Coordinator at ABAAD, a Lebanese resource center for gender equality, told Fanack that introducing protective laws to the MENA region would only be efficient with the right implementation strategies, accompanied by awareness sessions for all communities, as well as including gender-equality education in school programs.

“It is vital for the media to take an informative approach and help organize the public discourse around protecting women instead of justifying men’s violent actions,” she added.

“Violence is rampant in both the public and private sphere. It’s always the most marginalized groups like women and girls, refugees, LGBTQ+ people and migrant domestic workers who are forced to bear the most extreme forms of violence,” Isseid said.

Not limited to MENA

The seemingly upward trend in violence, whether physical or by law is not limited to the MENA region. In the United States, the US Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, declaring that the constitutional right to abortion, upheld for nearly a half century, no longer exists.

UNFPA expressed its fears over the likelihood of abortion cases skyrocketing worldwide if access becomes more restricted. Similarly, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, said that legal access to abortion is deeply rooted in a woman’s autonomy and agency over her life and body, with no discrimination, violence, and coercion.

“This decision strips such autonomy from millions of women in the US, in particular, those with low incomes and those belonging to racial and ethnic minorities, to the detriment of their fundamental rights,” she warned.

Social commentators and women’s rights activists fear the overturning of Roe will lead to an increase in violence against women, especially low-income women, young women, and Black women who will be disproportionately impacted by these bans, Vox reported.

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