Growing Dysfunction of Arab Societies Parallels Rise in Violence Against Women

Naomi Pham and Elie Chalala
From left to right clockwise, web-based photographs of Naira Ashraf, Lubna Mansour, Shaima Gamal, and Iman Ershid, victims of femicide.

Gender-based violence is not a new phenomenon in the Arab world. Attacks against women have been on the rise for years. One might recall the attacks on female social media influencers in 2018, leading to the deaths of former Miss Baghdad Tara Fares, beauticians Rasha al-Hassan and Rafif al-Yasiri, and the human rights activist Suad al-Ali. In 2021, the gruesome death of Farah Hamza Akbar, a Kuwaiti mother killed in front of her children by her stalker, filled headlines with an outcry against the lack of protection for women. 
Last month, the Arab world was stunned into outrage and fear as the murders of at least four women filled headlines within days. An Egyptian student, Naira Ashraf, 21, was stabbed and beheaded outside her university on June 20 after refusing a man’s advances. Days later, Jordanian student Iman Ershid, 21, was shot and killed for similarly rejecting her stalker in an attack inspired by Ashraf’s murder. Several deaths followed in succession: Jordanian graduate Lubna Mansour was stabbed to death by her husband in a car, and the body of Egyptian broadcaster Shaima Gamal, who had been missing for 20 days, was discovered on private property, suffering from wounds to her head and disfigurement to her face with nitric acid inflicted by her husband, a judge. More recently, they arrested a Jordanian man who killed and buried his nine- and twelve-year-old daughters. 
Arab News cites Ibrahim Al-Zibin, a professor of sociology at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, saying that gender-based crimes against women — whether physical, emotional or sexual harassment or death — are more prevalent in conservative and lower-income communities. But this surge of deaths has intensified the climate of fear for many women across the Middle East. Cases of violence against women are often hidden from the public eye, the perpetrators shielded from retribution. In the words of Ibtihal al-Khatib in Al Quds, “Privacy is one of the most important and perhaps encouraging concepts of murder. Because of privacy, we hear neighbors’ screams and do not interfere. We see parents’ violence and do not interfere… we are always silent in front of the “sanctity” of homes, homes that do not know what is forbidden and what is permissible, from which the cries of women spring, breaking the darkness of their long night.”
Male entitlement over women’s bodies remains an ongoing problem in the Middle East, increasing concern. Under the patriarchal system, privacy and agency are rights reserved for men and stripped from women. For Naira Ashraf, Iman Ershid, and many other women, “no” was not enough to deter unsolicited advances from men but incited anger from their attackers and led to their deaths. Recent developments seem to have encouraged these attacks so that they are no longer confined to homes but result in the mutilation of women in public spaces with bystanders who still fail to act in the face of violence. Further anger sparked over the case of Naira Ashraf when Egyptian media reported a forensic doctor examined her body posthumously to determine the state of her virginity. Activists on social media condemned this “immoral measure that perpetuates the patriarchal system,” pointing out that even though Egypt “is facing a horrific crime, social norms are still at the fore,” as cited in Al Modon.
Indeed, according to Haifa Bitar in Diffah, the cultural norms of the Arab world deify men and degrade women, treating girls as inferior to their brothers from as early as birth. Bitar writes, “When a male child walks into the house, everyone flirts with his sexual organ with joy and pride. As for the girl, if she sits with her feet even slightly apart, she gets violently abused, and her mother and caretakers reprimand her that shame and sin are in her.” 
Femicide and honor killings are intrinsically tied. Cultural norms perpetuate the belief that a woman’s honor is linked to a man’s body; conversely, a man’s honor is connected to the bodies of the women around him, whether his sister, mother, or another relative. Virginity reduces the value of a woman (and her future) to the intactness of her hymen. Women have little say over the privacy of their bodies, and many are forced to prove their virginity to their husbands via intrusive examination. Victims of rape are beaten and shamed. Bitar recounts the story of a mother and her eight-year-old daughter, who their 55-year-old neighbor had raped: “When the gynecologist who sewed the child’s torn vaginal wall reassured her [the mother] that she would be fine and he would give her a paper proving that she had been raped, the mother screamed: who will believe just a piece of paper? She has lost her honor.” She continues, “Many young girls like this girl, instead of undergoing psychological treatment that helps them overcome the trauma, receive harsh treatment from their parents as if they had become a scandal and their future is lost. Most raped minors are married off to men the age of their grandparents, pushing them to prostitution or suicide.”
Because of social taboos and shame, women accept and tolerate aggression from men. Social norms socialize boys from a young age into believing these behaviors are right. The normalization of male entitlement and control over women’s bodies from youth directly creates a society that allows men to not just get away with violence but to carry on these behaviors even after receiving punishment. “Marital rape is not punishable by law because of common perceptions that men have the right to sexual intercourse with their wives whenever they like,” cites Kamal Tabikha in the National. According to Bitar, “no real penalties are commensurate with the crime of killing women, and many honor killings still do not punish the offender or have a light punishment issued after months of an amnesty law for him.” One need only look at the murder of Shaima Gamal by her husband, a judge; his identity remained protected in coverage as if shielded from further damage to his reputation despite his crime. Naira Ashraf’s killer gained sympathy when it emerged that his motive for the attack was romantic rejection. Several associations reportedly raised millions to pardon him (he has since received a death sentence), according to Samir Atallah in Asharq al-Awsat. Undoubtedly, disproportionate punishment for these crimes will lead to more murders of women.
As Ibrahim al-Zibin writes, “Women get used to thinking that they must prepare themselves, that they must respond ‘appropriately’ to men’s reality, women should be more aware of a man’s aggressive behavior — regardless of their relationship — and protect themselves by reporting it to a family member or law enforcement. He believes that attempts to deal with men’s aggressive behaviors alone can lead to an escalation in the harassment, which might ultimately lead to murder. However, the law and authorities have shown little capability to protect women and fall short even when cases of violence and harassment are reported to them. 
One might ask the redundant question, why do women, especially victims of violence, remain silent? But the answer is clear by observing this culture that holds little accountability to men for their actions and pushes the responsibility of preventing their own murder onto women, on top of the unforgiving standards on women who speak out about their experiences. 
According to Asmahan Qarjouli in Doha News, Farah Hamza Akbar and her family had filed several police reports before her murder last year, but Kuwaiti authorities ignored them. Her sister told France 24, “We said he would kill her, and now he killed my sister. Where is the government? We told the judge. I told you many times he would kill her.”
Similarly, Naira Ashraf and her family attempted thrice to get a restraining order against the man who killed her, but the court dismissed her case. “So, she went through the legal steps, went to the police station, filed the report that was supposed to get a restraining order, but it did not take place… it’s deplorable that we have to get to where we see a live video of a woman being killed at midday on the street before things change,” said Egyptian women’s activist Lobna Darwish in Deutsche Welle.
Victims of violence must navigate a fragile dilemma: either turn to the police, who may ignore their claims, or remain silent in fear of inciting a scandal. Many women’s experiences are dismissed or attributed to their circumstances. Some often accuse them of fabricating stories, according to Qasim Marwani in Al Modon. In the words of filmmaker and activist Aida El Kashef in the National, “When a woman above 21 and no longer under her father’s will visits a police station to report that he is beating her, officers will most often call her father, the very guy she is filing a report against, to come and pick her up since they believe it’s a family matter that should be resolved privately.”
Some victims downplay the extent of their assault as a trauma response to mitigate its emotional impact. According to Marwani, many cases show that rape victims suffer limited memory loss for a certain period after their assault, which may include doubting that they were raped or believing they were responsible. He continues, “It does not mean that the victim does not remember being raped, but that a mixture of events happened. This confusion and the inability to remember the events in their correct sequence push the victim to remain silent for fear that no one will believe her.”
Female victims of physical, emotional, and sexual violence lack robust support systems, from a personal level — family and friends — to a societal level. The narrow circles they had access to shrank further with the onset of the pandemic. A study in the Journal of the Egyptian Public Health Association noted increased intimate partner violence (IPV) among Arab women during the COVID-19 lockdown. Intimate partner violence ranged from psychological, verbal, physical, and sexual violence and included financial abuse. Conducted between April-June 2020, the study compiled responses from 490 adult Arab women ages 18-68 who lived with their husbands and compared rates of violence experienced before and during the lockdown. About 50% of the women surveyed reported IPV exposure before lockdown. During the lockdown, the exposure of women to any IPV increased by 7.3%. Results showed that 42.7% of the exposed women did not ask for help after their exposure to IPV, likely because of the limited resources available and the isolating factor of quarantine regulations.
Now, two years after the initial lockdown, violence against women continues to soar. The recent murders brought activists and women’s rights advocates to the streets and social media in the Middle East and globally. But the push for women’s rights in the Arab world continues more vigorously than ever. Thousands of Arab women participated in a general strike on July 6, protesting domestic violence and femicide and calling for cisgender and transgender women’s protections.
The surrounding narrative of violence against women has shifted significantly over the past decade. The rise of movements like #MeToo witnessed various organized efforts worldwide, bringing awareness to the abuse women face. In the Arab world, more and more women were vocal about their experiences and outraged at their governments’ lack of protection and pro-activeness. Last year, Lebanon headed a 16-day campaign against gender-based violence, beginning on November 25 with the International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women and ending on December 10, Human Rights day. ABAAD, a resource center for gender equality in Lebanon, used broadcast and social media to promote discussion on women’s safety. The widespread reach of social media provides a powerful platform for human rights organizations and women. Topics widely considered taboo — like domestic violence — have room for open discussion away from the traditionalist constraints of Arab society while simultaneously affecting the worldviews of younger generations who often flock to the Internet. 
However, for change to occur, the normalization of violence against women must end. Media personality Rabia al-Zayyat aired an episode on domestic violence in her program “Over 18” last year, inciting backlash for trivializing the subject by suggesting a man’s abuse of his wife (and the saying ‘the beating from the beloved is like eating sweet raisins’) could be rationalized. The treatment of gender-based violence as a norm permeates the consciousness of Arab women, clear in the portrayal of men, even in literature. The Egyptian critic Bahaa El-Din Mohamed Mezyed examined the “stereotyped” portrayal of men in Arab women’s narratives as “a liar, a traitor,” and how “they see women as nothing more than a ‘fun hole’ or body.” In addition, men are depicted as the oppressors of their daughters, sisters, and wives, as well as their mothers, imposing on them what suits him, not what suits them. The book also depicts men as “cruel, violent, a sadistic rapist, raping even his wife if she disobeys him.”
“Not all men,” as the famous anti-feminist argument goes, abuse women. But the problem lies within a culture that holds women to a harsh standard while weakly denouncing the behaviors of the “bad few.” Consider the women whose deaths could have been prevented and other women currently seeking help, whose cases to which the government turns a blind eye. In the words of Haifa Bitar, “A man is only faulted by his pocket. As long as a man’s pocket is full of money, there is nothing wrong with him, regardless of immorality, corruption, and injustice.” Mezyed reminds his readers that narrative texts do not arise or live in a vacuum but are connected to texts and experiences that surround them, both inside and outside their culture, where reality is. Regarding the ‘stereotyped’ image of men in Arab women’s writings, he writes, “There is no rebellion in the mature, well-established Arab women’s writings to declare rebellion or trade wounds with men, but there is a need for accountability for masculine norms that have preoccupied women in life and writing.”
In the case of Naira Ashraf, an Egyptian court has demanded a live broadcast of the execution of her murderer as a measure of “public deterrence” while also pressuring the Egyptian House of Representatives to amend a legal article to permit the broadcasting of executions, or at least the beginning procedures. But such measures do little to bring the change necessary for women’s safety; rather, they transform the tragic killing of a woman into a public spectacle. 
Two major changes must occur. The increasing violence against women revives the push for a law and order approach. The Arab world needs rule of law governments where no one is above the law, regardless of religious affiliation or other considerations. In Lebanon, criminals who have committed even the most heinous crimes are shielded from punishment by political and religious authorities, leaving their victims to pay the price. While stiff penalties are urgently needed, a more comprehensive approach to violence against women must incorporate reforms and education on a societal level. A new educational system that socializes respect for women separate from the influence of Christian and Muslim clerical establishments is a step in the right direction. On top of this, personal status laws must be changed immediately. Currently, personal status laws leave matters of marriage, divorce, and other personal issues in the hands of religious establishments. These issues should instead be resolved within rational civilian courts, weakening the hold of the traditional institutions which often legitimize criminal acts. While these changes cannot be implemented overnight, they make up for a constructive beginning.
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid