Tomorrow, seven women will face trial in Cairo after 84 days in prison. Their crime? Attending demonstrations denouncing Egypt’s controversial protest law, which profoundly restricts fundamental rights to assembly and expression.
Egyptian prisons are known for their increasingly harsh conditions; reports suggest that they fail to meet even the most basic standards for prisoners’ rights. Prison officials neglect inmates’ health, placing them in unsanitary and overly crowded conditions, and even subject them to torture.
In the summer of 2011, a smear campaign was launched against foreign-funded organizations, accusing them of being foreign agents. As the country director of one of foreign NGOs in Egypt, I was caught up in a wave of investigations, threats, and intimidation.
During investigations, I received nightly harassing phone calls loaded with sexual profanity. I was told that if I complained, it might aggravate my case and subject me to harsher conditions.
I spent endless hours and days in interrogation and was locked in a courtroom cage. Throughout my ordeal, my gender was used against me as a tool of coercion. The prosecutor constantly threatened that if I uttered a word about what unfolded in the interrogation room, I might not go home to my children.
My guards treated me with special contempt, wondering out loud, “You seem to be from a good background. You should have stayed home, instead of bringing shame to your family. What brought you here?” No one asked the men on my team, imprisoned by my side, those questions.
“What brought them there?” wasn’t a question just for me: It is a question asked of women all over Egypt who dare to protest or participate in politics. Although it is undeniable that men face equally reprehensible conditions as a result of their activism, women face additional injustice; on one hand, their gender is used as a means of coercion through sexual harassment and abuse, and on the other hand, society considers it their fault in the first place — as women — to participate in politics and public acts of resistance.
Dissident women face a range of hurdles; these were noted during the 2011 revolution and continue today. Mob sexual assaults and gang rapes have plagued the country; allegations have surfaced of virginity tests at the hands of military guards; the Ministry of Interior targeted female protesters in Alexandria expressing dissidence against the regime and forced them to undergo pregnancy tests, and rights groups have expressed concern about the violence and abuse directed at female prisoners at Qanater prison.
Despite the critical role that women played in the Egyptian revolution, dissidence, resistance and political participation are not seen as the “appropriate space” for women. This viewpoint subjects female activists to all the risks they face, with the approval of society.
After Eighteen months of trial, I was sentenced to five years in prison in absentia. As an Egyptian, I now live in exile in the U.S. I am free because my case drew international attention. Brave women like Yara Sallam, Sanaa Seif, Hanan Mustafa Mohamed, Salwa Mihriz, Samar Ibrahim, Nahid Sheif, and Fikreya Mohamed may not be so lucky.