It wasn’t easy growing up as a teenage Muslim girl, with a father who thought he owned your body just because he put a roof over your head or food on the table. Not just that—this was a Muslim man who perverted the teachings of his own religion to justify the sexual abuse that he inflicted upon me, his own daughter.
He would say a good girl “must listen” and “respect” her father’s needs.
“You think I’m spending all this money on you just so another man can have you?” he would say to me as he tried to brush up against my breasts or backside. He would make jokes out of it. But I knew this abuse was no joke. I would scream at the top of my lungs, curse him, and sometimes even slap him in the face to defend myself.
It’s difficult and almost impossible to explain what it feels like to be treated like a piece of property, a useless object that is only created to satisfy the sexual desires of a man—especially when that man is your own father. I was so embarrassed by what he did that I was scared to bring home my girlfriends. I was scared they’d find him out. I was scared of being judged.
At times, I even blamed myself. I thought if I dressed more conservatively that maybe he would stop. But it didn’t stop.
Today, I wonder how far my father would’ve gone if I did not defend myself when he’d try to make contact with my body. Would he have had the courage to rape me? Would he have had the lack of heart to go further? I’ll never know.
Still, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I am someone who didn’t feel obliged to give him what he wanted, simply because he was supporting me financially, as he would say. I am also one of the lucky ones who dared to defend herself.
I never spoke about it publicly until now because I wanted to protect my father. That’s the way it works, especially when you live in a conservative Middle Eastern household that puts so much emphasis on honor and family pride. I didn’t want to hurt his reputation or get him in trouble with authorities. Some women worry about the well-being of their abusers because they are family members. They also fear the social stigma. In fact, domestic abuse is one of the most chronically underreported crimes worldwide, let alone in Egypt.
‘A HOUSEHOLD AFFAIR’
More than a third of women in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia report have been subjected to physical or sexual abuse from a partner at some point in their life, a 2013 study by the World Health Organization found. In the U.S., 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women. One in every four women in this country will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime.
In Egypt specifically, 47 percent of women ever married reported that they have been victims of physical violence in their household, according to a 2005 study by the Egypt Demographic and Health Survey. Nearly 45 percent of the women said that they had been a victim of violence by a male other than their husband. The fathers in the households were reported twice as often as brothers to be the abusers, the study found.
An Egyptian women’s rights activist, who was molested by her grandfather at the age of 7, told me that at one point as a child she thought it was acceptable for her father’s dad to abuse her. Although this happened almost 30 years ago, she asked me to keep her name confidential because of the sensitivity of her family’s situation.
“He used to babysit me and my little brother,” she said. “I liked to paint, so he would keep papers and colors in his briefcase as bait to lure me into the closet with him.”
That’s where her grandfather would molest her—in the closet. She was left guilty, confused, and broken. She still carries that pain decades later.
“I saw how close my grandpa was to my dad,” she said, her voice cracking with sorrow. “I thought my parents knew about it and approved of it all. It continued for two years till I was about 9, but for me it went on forever.”
Since then she couldn’t stand being in the same room with him. Her family, a traditional Middle Eastern family, was in denial. “He would touch me inappropriately in front of them, and it’s like it was normal,” she said. When she turned 18 and her grandfather had passed away, the young woman finally mustered enough courage to tell her family. But it was to no avail. They called her a liar and accused her of trying to ruin her grandfather’s legacy.
She never considered going to the police, and neither did I.
When such violence happens in Egypt, many women say the police simply do not care. They don’t even see it as physical or sexual abuse—they see it as a household affair between the man and his wife, or family. Consequently, the woman, who is responsible for raising the children, is left to deal with her suffering on her own. Her pain is then inflicted on her children, and the suffering continues. Beyond that, boys who witness violence in the home are twice as likely to abuse their children or partners when they become adults, according to one U.S. study. Hardly unique to a single country, however, this is the global domestic cycle of violence.
CULTURE PLAYS A HUGE PART
In my case, my father never learned how to treat women. It wasn’t because he was Muslim; he was far from upholding the pillars of his faith. In fact, Islamic teachings preach the exact opposite: They state that you must be loving, caring, and attentive as you raise your children. It was because he grew up in a chauvinistic society that taught men they could do whatever they want and get away with it—simply because they did not have a hymen. My father would often boast about how society would never put the blame on him as a man if my mother asked for a divorce. He said it is the woman who is always shunned. And he was right.
My mother eventually left my father, but the damage was already done. She was blamed for ruining her marriage, even though she told her brothers and family that he had done deplorable things.
My father grew up in an authoritarian, impoverished system that treated women like objects—a system that still exists today under the rule of a military-backed government and a relentless patriarchal regime. Although my father was an educated man and a doctor of medicine, the system in which he was raised left an odious imprint on his character.
This system continues to leave the same impression on Egyptian youth. In a recent video, young Egyptian boys are asked why they think women are harassed so much in Egypt. Their answers were shocking: Each said women who are harassed are asking for it because of how they dress.
Men who cling to archaic Middle Eastern values continue to patronize the women of their culture. Many of these men are self-proclaimed moderates, yet when it comes to women, they have constructed different rules for themselves, restricting women to the specific roles of mothers, daughters, or wives—roles that are defined only by serving the men in their lives. They tell us how to dress so we do not get raped. They tell us not to raise our voices so as not to tempt men. They tell us not to be ambitious so we don’t intimidate the men who will pursue us for marriage.
Looking back on my own experiences, I have learned that it is imperative that we start teaching our Middle Eastern sons that they do not own the women in their families; rather, they owe these women. It is also crucial to start teaching our daughters that they control their own destinies—not the man or the father, simply because he pays the bills. As women, we must stop being afraid.
BLAME, STIGMA, AND HOW TO MOVE FORWARD
Violence and sexual assault in Egypt have reached new lows and continue to constrict the participation of women in society. Nearly 100 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lives, according to the 2013 UN study. Some men and women will tell you that a woman deserves harassment if she isn’t dressed conservatively or if she’s out late. A woman who was sexually assaulted by a mob of men at Cairo University in March was blamed for her own attack. Tamer Amin, a prominent Egyptian TV show host, said the girl was wearing “dancer’s clothes” and that she was “seducing” and “provoking” the boys. It is as if women are somehow public property in Egypt.
The Middle East, particularly Egypt, has a long way to go when it comes to women’s rights. In patriarchal societies like these, women and children are perceived as the weaker creatures that exist only to serve the needs of the men in society, even though among married women, about 62 percent provide more or half of their families’ income, according to the World Bank. Among single women, 7 percent are the sole breadwinners and 27 percent provide half or more their families’ income, the study shows.
But the important thing is that women should not be afraid to speak up. I was quiet about my father’s abuse for over a decade. I thought it was a test I had to pass for him to respect me as his daughter. Because Middle Eastern families put endless pressure on women to protect their chastity and so-called honor, women and girls feel it is their fault if they are abused—even if it is abuse that comes from their own family members.
We must break this stigma. And as women, we must start with ourselves. Women and girls facing abuse must know that it is all right to speak out. If they don’t, future generations of women will not only suffer in silence but think they deserve the abuse inflicted upon them.
It is time to start exposing our secrets so we can heal and move forward.