Who believes what in Egypt’s debates about rape?

Who believes what in Egypt’s debates about rape? March 27, 2013

Let me be honest here and say what I truly want to say about the following New York Times stories: It’s about freaking time. Now, I say that both as a journalist and as one of those old-school supporters of human rights who still likes to quote, every now and then, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from that right-wing think tank, the United Nations.

The top of this particular story gets right to the point:

CAIRO — The sheer number of women sexually abused and gang raped in a single public square had become too big to ignore. Conservative Islamists in Egypt’s new political elite were outraged — at the women.

“Sometimes,” said Adel Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, a police general, lawmaker and ultraconservative Islamist, “a girl contributes 100 percent to her own raping when she puts herself in these conditions.”

The increase in sexual assaults over the last two years has set off a new battle over who is to blame, and the debate has become a stark and painful illustration of the convulsions racking Egypt as it tries to reinvent itself.

Obviously, we have a conflict here about essential human rights. My working assumption, right from the get-go, is that there is no one Muslim point of view on women’s issues linked to modesty in public life. Anyone who has read anything on these issues knows that a wide range of viewpoints exist among Muslim women and men.

So what have the women done to ignite this cultural and, yes, moral earthquake in the wake of the Arab Spring and the changes at the highest levels of Egyptian government and law? What is the nature and the content of this conflict?

Let’s try to walk through the labels attached to the competing points of view:

Women … have … taken advantage of another aspect of the breakdown in authority — by speaking out through the newly aggressive news media, defying social taboos to demand attention for a problem the old government often denied. At the same time, some Islamist elected officials have used their new positions to vent some of the most patriarchal impulses in Egypt’s traditional culture and a deep hostility to women’s participation in politics.

The female victims, these officials declared, had invited the attacks by participating in public protests. “How do they ask the Ministry of Interior to protect a woman when she stands among men?” Reda Saleh Al al-Hefnawi, a lawmaker from the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, asked at a parliamentary meeting on the issue.

Say what?

So we have “conservative Islamists” in the lede and in this passage, as well as a prominent “ultraconservative Islamist.” Readers must assume that their views on issues related to these crimes are different than those of ordinary “Islamists.”

Meanwhile, all of these competing “Islamist” groups appear to be linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which means that there must be cultural and religious debates going on inside the ruling elite about issues linked to women’s rights, free speech, public protest, etc.

I am sure that in a debate between leaders in different Islamist camps, people often express their views in terms that are doctrinal as well as political/cultural. For example, what are the specific doctrinal, cultural and political views that are associated with what the Times calls the “most patriarchal impulses in Egypt’s traditional culture”?

Now, read the whole story and look for a single passage that references what any of these events have to do with the clashing beliefs found in these various “Islamist” camps.

Good luck with that.

What readers are given, instead, are shadows and hints. Consider this gripping passage, for example:

During a demonstration … against the new Islamist-led government, an extraordinary wave of sexual assaults — at least 18 confirmed by human rights groups, and more, according to Egypt’s semiofficial National Council of Women — shocked the country, drawing public attention from President Mohamed Morsi and Western diplomats.

Hania Moheeb, 42, a journalist, was one of the first victims to speak out about her experience that day. In a television interview, she recounted how a group of men had surrounded her, stripped off her clothes and violated her for three quarters of an hour. The men all shouted that they were trying to rescue her, Ms. Moheeb recalled, and by the time an ambulance arrived she could no longer differentiate her assailants from defenders.

To alleviate the social stigma usually attached to sexual assault victims in Egypt’s conservative culture, her husband, Dr. Sherif Al Kerdani, appeared alongside her.

“My wife did nothing wrong,” Dr. Kerdani said.

Why did men shout that they were trying to rescue her? Rescue her from what, precisely? Also, the husband bravely states that his wife “did nothing wrong.”

OK, I’ll ask, in the framework of the “most patriarchal impulses in Egypt’s traditional culture,” what was she accused of doing wrong?

Consider this statement later in the report:

The attacks have underscored the failure of the Morsi government, with its links to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, to restore social order. The comments by the president’s Islamist allies blaming the women have proved embarrassing.

What is to blame? The Times says “social attitudes.” Once again, what are the beliefs that produce these “social attitudes”?

Here is as close as readers come to getting an answer:

The Muslim Brotherhood said opposition leaders “ignored the brutal party of harassment and rape” in the square, according to a column on the Brotherhood Web site. The rapes are “a disgrace on their foreheads,” the column declared. Other Brotherhood lawmakers faulted protest organizers for failing to segregate the demonstrators by gender as the Islamists usually do.

Some ultraconservative Islamists, now a political power alongside the Brotherhood, condemned the women for speaking out at all.

“You see those women speaking like ogres, without shame, politeness, fear or even femininity,” declared a television preacher, Ahmed Abdullah, known as Sheik Abu Islam. Such a woman is “like a demon,” he said, wondering why anyone should sympathize with those “naked” women who “went there to get raped.”

Strong language there. Is that the language of an “ultraconservative” Islamist, a “conservative” Islamist or a mere “Islamist”? Which of these vague groups would support these words and which would oppose them? Why? Based on what specific beliefs?

To the credit of these reporters, the Times has offered more coverage on related issues and, thus, more hints and the occasional flash of specific information. Consider the top a report that ran under the headline: “Muslim Brotherhood’s Statement on Women Stirs Liberals’ Fears.”

CAIRO — During its decades as an underground Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood has long preached that Islam required women to obey their husbands in all matters.

“A woman needs to be confined within a framework that is controlled by the man of the house,” Osama Yehia Abu Salama, a Brotherhood family expert, said of the group’s general approach, speaking in a recent seminar for women training to become marriage counselors. Even if a wife were beaten by her husband, he advised, “Show her how she had a role in what happened to her.”

“If he is to blame,” Mr. Abu Salama added, “she shares 30 percent or 40 percent of the fault.”

Now, these kinds of statements are — we are told — very embarrassing to President Mohamed Morsi, since he “presents himself as a new kind of moderate, Western-friendly Islamist.”

Oh my, another let of labels attached to the undefined word “Islamist.”

Now, which of these brands of Islamism have endorsed the actual contents of a new Muslim Brotherhood statement reacting to a United Nations initiative condemning violence against women?

In its statement, the Brotherhood said that wives should not have the right to file legal complaints against their husbands for rape, and husbands should not be subject to the punishments meted out for the rape of a stranger.

A husband must have “guardianship” over his wife, not an equal “partnership” with her, the group declared. Daughters should not have the same inheritance rights as sons. Nor should the law cancel “the need for a husband’s consent in matters like travel, work or use of contraception” — a reform in traditional Islamic family law that was enacted under former President Hosni Mubarak and credited to his wife, Suzanne.

The statement appeared in many ways to reflect the Brotherhood’s longstanding doctrine, still discussed in classes like Mr. Abu Salama’s and in the group’s women’s forums. Feminists said its statement also may reflect the views of most women in Egypt’s conservative, traditionalist culture.

Do you get the impression that readers are being exposed to half of the rhetoric and logic in a very important debate, with all of the religious language and content cut out so that the conflict can be described in terms of conflict within this strangely secular “conservative, traditionalist culture”? What do members of Egypt’s various religious minorities think about all of this?

Please, will someone at the Times copy desk please request some definitions and some clarifications? Who believes what and why?

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I question the media’s loose use of the word “patriarch’ or “patriarchal” or “patriarchal impulses” to label the worst of the bloody and violent behaviour of some Moslem groups. I sometimes wonder if this indiscriminate use of the word to label violent Moslems as somehow typically “fatherly” (which is what the word patriarch comes from) is done in the feminist western press as a means of denigrating men as leaders and protectors of nations or families or daughters..
    A true patrarch is one who loves and protects his family and does not sacrifice them to any political or cultural ideology. In fact, a true patriarch is willing to sacrifice himself for his family. Thus, the highest Christian leader is given the title :”Patrarch.” One title for Pope Francis is “Patriarch of the West.” Leading Eastern Orthodox leaders also have the title:” Patriarch.” And Abraham in the Bible is a patriarch.

    • Richard Mounts

      Rev. Deacon,

      I, too, often bridle at “patriarchal” when used to express derision of male leadership or male leaders. As often happens to language over time, a politically neutral word is turned to use in a political argument. It’s is used that way by like-minded ideologues to such an extent that, even without scare quotes, the word or phrase most often connotes the new, usually pejorative, definition. I go through this to express some agreement with your frustration with the term as it’s most often used in the contemporary media. I also write this to advance tmatt’s journalistic argument about labels in my own weak way to arrive at the real point of my reply. “Feminist” has probably never been a politically neutral word, but it has been used to express at least two different points of view. “Western” has surely mostly been a politically neutral word until the last century.

      So I wonder what is the “feminist western press” of which you write? Is all the “western press” feminist? If not, which parts of it are? Can only the “western” press be feminist? It sounds to one’s media-tuned ear that your use of “feminist” is negative in the way Rush Limbaugh uses the term. You and Mr. Limbaugh are surely entitled to whatever view of feminism that you have whether you and he agree or not. That’s not my point. I want, maybe others also want, to better understand the labels you used to describe the press. (By the way, did you intend to mean all forms of reporting the news with “press,” or did you mean specifically the printed forms of news reporting?)

      • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

        By “western press” I mean the mainstream media in what is sometimes called the western world. I grew up on print media so I sometimes use that word as a covers all– the way media is used today.
        As for what I mean as the “feminist” press (or media) I am referring to the fact that the mainstream media is virtually anti-male because of the influence radical-liberal feminism has in those precincts. This radical feminism seems so much a part of media culture that it has a strong effect on what stories to cover, what kind of slant to place on them, and even what language to use. Thus, it is not unusual to hear news people in discussion on camera to refer to some man they don’t like (or his polititics) as having a “testosterone problem.”And, of course, if any male dares disagree with media gurus on issues affecting both males and females, the male is charicatured as a “misogynist.”

  • Julia

    “To alleviate the social stigma usually attached to sexual assault victims in Egypt’s conservative culture”

    This is a strange thing to say. The US media (at least almost all of them) have policies not to name sexual assault victims or even their relatives so that people won’t know who the victim was. Why is that, if not to avoid stigmatizing the victim? Back in my youth in the 50s, it was thought that the victim would never get a date again or even get married if guys knew she had been raped. Don’t know if that was true then or now, but what is the official explanation for that media policy in our country 2013? Are we also a conservative culture like Egypt?