It appeared to be an unprecedented victory. But one year after Egyptian feminists secured the reversal of Article 291—which exonerated rapists who married their victims—the enthusiasm and energy for an issue that once bubbled in the Egyptian press seems to have gone flat. But feminists there say they’ve learned their lesson: it takes real activism to change things.
Leading women’s rights activists and lawyers say that since the article’s reversal, no women have attempted to prosecute rapists. “It’s not about the law,” explains Azza Soleiman, head of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Aid. “It’s about values and norms.”
Twenty-three-year-old Salma is caught in that trap. She was raped on three separate occasions and says that this is something she will forever keep to herself. “It’s too embarrassing,” she says. “Everyone would look down on me if I spoke about it.” Indeed, says Dr. Magda Adly, of El Nadim Centre for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, “Rape is still regarded as the woman’s fault. The removal of this law will only make a difference when we have more women’s shelters, but the problem is a lack of funding and a lack of support.”
Mariz Tadros, one of Egypt’s leading feminist writers, concurs, “From the officer at the police station to the person who examines the victim to the parents, we need to create an atmosphere in which women can demand their rights. There’s also a lack of political willingness on the part of the government and a lack of prioritization.”
While continuing to challenge the social attitudes that keep rape victims closeted, Egyptian feminists have managed to win another legal battle: overturning the personal status law. This law, which is older than Article 291, required women seeking a divorce to prove they had been mistreated. Already it has had more impact than the repeal of the rape law. At press time, one woman had filed for divorce under the new standards.
Activists, however, remain unconvinced that these improvements in women’s legal status alone will have a measurable impact on women’s lives.
“Changing the personal status law is part of an ongoing campaign,” says Aida Seif el-Dawla, a professor of psychiatry and volunteer at El Nadim. “But in Egypt, a law in itself does not mean a lot in practice, and there are limits to our activism. Distributing leaflets and demonstrating with more than five people is illegal. So we can’t be as loud as activists abroad.
“Now, we’re tackling the taboos,” says el-Dawla. “And for the past fifteen years, women’s rights groups have been mushrooming everywhere.”