Recently, Egyptian MP Zeinab Salem suggested a somewhat extreme solution for an epidemic that Egypt has been chin-deep in for decades: “Castrate sexual harassers!” she declared. Her statements sparked major backlash among political and human rights circles, and soon after, the streets erupted with disputes and debates.
Salem tells Raseef22 that her suggestion came with the purpose of stirring up the stagnant waters, particularly after the infamous mass harassment incident targeting a young woman in the Sharqiyya region last month. Meanwhile, she pointed to the stalled discussions of a draft law that would increase the penalties for sexual harassers/assaulters, previously proposed by MP Suzy Nashed.
She has not proposed the draft law to parliament yet, but her controversial statement came as a prelude to testing the feasibility of the idea, as she plans to propose it for public discussion among politicians and human rights activists, to gauge public opinion on the matter.
Salem affirms that the intense polarization regarding the issue affirms its importance and relevance, that she hopes will help generate new ideas to develop or amend the proposal. She further notes that she plans to reach out to human rights groups and civil society organizations to research the legality of the proposal, and its compliance with international human rights legislations.
She further clarifies that she does not wish to castrate all harassers, as some media outlets claimed, but rather hopes to make castration the maximum penalty in cases of repeat assaults, for example. This would apply to defendants with recurrent convictions of harassment or assault, as well as rapists.
She claims that such a penalty would be a major deterrent, both on the public deterrent and the personal levels. The perpetrator, once penalized, will never again commit the act, and will feel the same way the victim did when she was violated, Salem contends. As for the public deterrent, she says that as soon as the penalty is enforced on just one perpetrator, no one would dare commit the act again, and the phenomenon will be erased.
Despite the accusations she faces of being too radical and violent, Salem holds fast to her position, insisting that the proposal did not come out of thin air. According to her, the current laws are not sufficient. Many women, moreover, refuse to report assaults, out of fear or bearing the brunt of the blame in an uncompromisingly traditionalist society.
She says her proposal came “after intensive monitoring of the phenomenon [of sexual harassment] and the way in which it has become increasingly pervasive in recent times. Not a single public holiday or celebration passes without dozens of cases of sexual harassment or assault. We must put an end to this scourge, which has come to threaten Egyptian women daily, and we must confront it decisively and without any leniency.”
Chin-deep in Sexual Harassment
According to a study conducted by the UN in 2013, 99.3% of female respondents stated that they had been subjected to some form of sexual harassment, ranging from uncomfortable all the way to physical assault, and rape. Moreover, 93.4% stated that they would not report it to the police, with 34.6% citing fear of scandal as the reason, while 10.2% stated that they would not report it for fear that their families would not believe them, and would put the blame on them.
The study further stated that in 40% of street harassment cases, passers-by did not intervene, considering it to be a normal behavior, while 11% pretended they did not see anything.
Approximately 8% of the assault victims were found to have attempted suicide. Unemployed men constituted the highest demographic of harassers, followed by university and high school students. 25.8% of harassers do so out of habit, without gaining any pleasure from the act, while 24.7% of the respondents said they harass women to affirm their “manhood”.
Additionally, the study indicated that 48.8% of police officers intervened in cases of harassment, while 21.1% of them arrested the harasser. However, 13.8% ridiculed the victim.
Official numbers from Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), issued in a recent report, indicate that about 49% of young women who live in low-income areas in Egypt are subject to physical and verbal assault. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) stated that 64% of Egyptian women are harassed on a daily basis, while 33% have been harassed more than once, though not on a daily basis.
In light of the numerous surveys indicating the proliferation of the phenomenon, the legislative council in the Egyptian House of Representatives has agreed to the draft law proposed by Suzy Nashed to extend the penalties on harassers/assaulters.
The draft law stipulates a minimum one-year sentence as a penalty for harassers/assaulters, up from the previous six-month minimum. Meanwhile, for repeat offenders, the minimum penalty is raised to two years, up from one year in the current law, which sets the maximum sentence for offenders at five years if the harasser/assaulter is armed.
In the same context, Nashed explains that the delaying the discussion of the draft law is due to the parliaments’ preoccupation with other issues, such as counter-terrorism laws and legislations.
Tougher Penalties vs. Raising Awareness
Ahmed Hegab, head of the Safe Areas unit at the Harass Map initiative, tells Raseef22 that the latest survey by the United Nations indicates the scope of the issue in Egypt. He further notes that the phenomenon cannot be overlooked any longer, as it has proliferated exponentially throughout Egypt.
Hegab moreover contends that the idea of intensifying penalties against perpetrators is not necessarily the solution for eliminating the phenomenon. Rather, he suggests working on raising social awareness over the idea of sexual harassment as a crime; as it currently stands, harassers often do not recognize the extent of the harm caused by harassment. He moreover points to the recent incident in Sharqeya, noting that the way the men gathered around the victim indicates that they were proud of their actions, and wanted to shame the woman.
When reporting prominent incidents of sexual harassment, Egyptian media outlets often include such details as the woman’s attire or the time of day, at times implying an indictment of the victim’s behavior instead of criticizing the actions of the perpetrator. Moreover, in many cases, police officers will refuse to file a report, out of consideration for the perpetrator’s livelihood, particularly if he has children.
Hegab further shares that proper enforcement of existing laws would be sufficient to reduce the prevalence of the problem. In cases where police officers refuse to file a report, he suggests that victims should file another report against the officer in the appropriate security directorate. He further calls on the Ministry of Interior to announce the statistics on the number of men who have been convicted in harassment and assault cases, in an effort to deter other perpetrators. While there is a 2013 law criminalizing harassment, he says, many are unaware of it.
Amid Egypt's spiraling sexual harassment epidemic, some individuals have come up with unusual solutions...
Can you fight violence with violence?
Hegab views Salem’s statements on castrating sex offenders as illegal, on the basis that this is considered a form of corporal punishment, which is prohibited in Egyptian law, as it is considered a form of torture. The Harass Map initiative opposes all forms of violence, and encourages instead the enforcement of the prison penalties included in existing laws.
Fathy Farid, the founder of the I Saw Harassment initiative and a researcher at the Aman Initiative for countering sexual violence, tells Raseef22 that any penalties that would violate a person’s safety and wellbeing are considered criminal, and anyone who calls for them should be tried. Such calls would only double the offense, as the role of MPs is presumably to come up with legislations that protect citizens’ rights and freedoms, and to modify legal solutions, but not through introducing further crimes into the legislation.
Should an actual law be proposed and passed, he adds, it would be enforced by a legally appointed individual, as a representative of the executive authority, which would essentially translate into legitimizing and legalizing torture. The international definition of torture is the physical violation of a citizen by a public official, in an official or unofficial location. Based on this, Farid calls for the trial of the MP who made the proposal.
Previous Cases of Surgical Castration
Surgical castration is an existing penalty in a number of states in the US, at times on a voluntary bases for repeat offenders. This includes the removal of both testes, or, alternatively, what is known as chemical castration. In some states, such as Colorado, drugs are administered with the aim of reducing the offenders’ libidos.
In other states, such as Ohio, Illinois, and Arkansas, offenders opt for surgical castration in exchange for ending their life sentence.
However, those who oppose the law claim that it is a savage punishment for sex offenders, with various rights groups condemning the law and calling for its repealment. Further, researchers and doctors have suggested different methods with similar effects, however in a less violent form.
Those who defend the practice, on the other hand, state that it has incontestable results. In Germany, for example, a study dating back to 1997 found that, among 104 sex offenders who were monitored, only 3% repeated the offense following castration, while 46% of non-castrated reverted back to the crime.
Yet, in Egypt, where the lack of enforcement of laws is as much influenced by underreporting as it is by other external and cultural factors, perhaps the more appropriate question to propose is whether castration would be mo re of a deterrent to the offenders or the victims.