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Egyptian society has been fighting over abortion for over 10 years. Abortion is still illegal in the country, but there have been many moves to legalize abortion pregnancies that are the result of rape. So after all this fighting, why is there still no result?
In a 1998 action that was described as “revolutionary appeal” by the international women’s right watch, Egypt’s former Grand Mufti Shaikh Nasr Farid Wasel approved abortions for rape survivors before 120 days of pregnancy. In June 2004, Grand Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi of Al Azhar, approved a draft law allowing women to abort a pregnancy that is the result of rape even more than four months after conception. Mr. Mohamed Khalil Quetta, a member of the Egyptian people’s Assembly, presented a legislative amendment to give a rape victim the right for an abortion in case where the rape resulted in a pregnancy to the assembly on Dec 26, 2007. On Dec 30, 2007, Al Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy approved abortions for rape survivors. Then, in April 2008, Quetta’s move was approved by the People’s Assembly to be presented to Constitutional and Legislative Council committee—a step that is still not finalized now, five years later, because legal and religious officials split up into two teams: those who were in favor of the proposal, and those who refused it.
On November 9, 2009, a diverse group of NGOs gathered together as part of the international campaign “One Day, One Struggle”, organized by the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies. Egypt’s participation was by both Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and New Woman Foundation, who held a press conference that day.
Activists asked the Assembly to treat the matter of abortion rights for rape survivors with much more consideration, in light of what is, according to EIPR researcher Dr. Dalia Abdel-Hamid, a double failure:
“The continued denial of these women’s rights reflects the double failure of the government, which failed first in the protection of these women from the horrible crime of rape, and then failed again to preserve them their dignity and mental and physical health through giving them the right to terminate a pregnancy resulting from the crime.”
On the other hand, Hoda Mahmoud, a women’s advocate and development specialist, has a different angle from which she is looking at this matter:
“Egyptian society continues to stigmatize rape victims. Why would they go to the police just to have them say disgusting and horrific things at them? Egyptians continue to believe they are at fault for being raped and until we can change the perspective, things will not get better, even with a law.”
Egyptian media highlights Mahmoud’s concerns. The Egyptian TV show 90 minutes has interviewed three guests from different sides to discuss this matter. The guest list included Quetta, Shaikh Gammal Kotb–who supports the draft–and Dr. Faiza Khater, head of philosophy and religion at Al-Azhar University, who wonders why everyone is being so attentive to the rape victim, rather than questioning why she got raped in the first place. After victim-blaming rape survivors, Khater hinted that rape results from how expensive life is now in Egypt, which makes it even harder for men to get married and have a legal wife!
Dr. Khater’s alarming statements are not all that uncommon. Even one of the women who works on Egypt’s Centre for Women’s Rights, Engy Ghozlan, says, “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.”
These statements reflect the myth that rape is about sex. Rape is about power, and Ghozlan’s statements hint at the fact that unemployed men feel powerless, but then mistakenly attribute rape to sexual frustration.
Now, after a long time of dealing with this matter as a topic for talk shows to interview celebrities to talk about, blame officials, and vaguely ask the community to prevent such a crime of rape, we can actually witness a complete change. The law has been approved by different official institutes; when the grand mufti approves such a law, it’s a step. All we need is the vote for it. I know it’s not huge, but it’s a very good start to have the support of shaikhs and government officials in dealing with issue. Before, no one even talked about this matter. Slowly, editors, TV presenters, and even TV series started to discuss it. At first, the dialogue was all about blaming the victim, even if indirectly, but now it’s slightly changing. Two of three guests on 90 Minutes were with the law: one is an MP and the other is a sheikh–normal people are now watching these words coming from these people, these men. Perhaps because of this, majority opinion on abortion may change.
In a country that does not allow elective abortion, allowing a rape victim to have a safe legal abortion is not only the victim’s right, but in fact the government owes this to her: they couldn’t protect her at first, but now they are ready to share responsibility and help her through getting over this. She no longer has to go through the life-threatening experience of illegal abortion.
When the law is passed, this is going to change the whole perspective by which Egyptians look at rape and rape victims. Even when abortion is medically allowed, it is still something big. Having the government give a rape survivor the right to do this means a lot.