How Pop Culture Normalises Violence against Women in Egypt
[Op-Ed]: A recent survey by UN Women found that 90% of Egyptian men agree that a woman should tolerate violence to keep the family together. This is a closer look at how pop culture has played part in that.
UN Women, in coordination with Promundo, a Brazilian-based non-governmental organisation focused on promoting gender equality and non-violent masculinity, recently carried out a survey titled The International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) - Middle East and North Africa. The name itself is self-explanatory; the survey, which is the largest of its kind in the MENA region, takes a closer look at what it means to be a man in the region, tackling key issues both in the public and private life in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine.
Go on the survey’s homepage, and the first statistic you’ll see at the bottom is: At least 26% of men in the Middle East and North Africa agree that a woman should tolerate violence to keep the family together. Upsetting, but still leaves a sliver of hope that around 74% of men in this region still hold on to some form of sanity and don’t find this to be acceptable in any way, shape, or form. That’s all good and well, until I made the mistake of clicking on the 'Egypt' tab, and was presented with this gem:
Some insight; if you do the math, we are a population of nearly 95 million people, around half of whom are men. That’s about 47 million males in the country, and NINETY percent of those believe that a woman should tolerate violence to keep the family together. By my estimates, that would mean that there are currently around 42 million abusers living among us.
I have to admit, at first, I was so shocked I couldn’t even process what I’d just read. I have had the great privilege of growing up in a loving, nurturing, abuse-free environment that taught me violence is never acceptable, whether it is carried out against me or by me. So I will not presume to know anything about the experience of violence, particularly in the home, in all its forms. What I do know though, is that after the initial disbelief and shock at this figure began to wear off, I realised that it is actually not that surprising. Because we see it every day, and believe it or not, in a lot of cases, we laugh. No, I am not saying we actually witness violence against women first hand and stand there laughing at it, I am talking about the countless movies, series, and songs that portray some form of violence and package it as comedic.
With this realisation, one particularly infamous scene from an otherwise entirely entertaining Ismail Yassin movie kept coming to mind...MAFISH HANAFY!
Those of you who are familiar with this movie will know that poor Hanafy had been bullied throughout the film by his wife, never ever getting his way or taking a stand. So naturally, when he finally did put his foot down, we cheered him on, as did his clearly very happy wife. A lot of us probably even laughed at her gleeful zaghrouta. And that’s all great, good for him for standing up for himself, after all, we are all for gender equality and just as we go up in arms when a woman is being bullied, we get equally upset when it’s a man. Except that what the movie essentially did with that one short scene was equate being a man and taking a stand with hitting a woman. And therein lies the issue. Had the scene not included this slap, and maybe just depicted Hanafy angrily shouting that famous line and leaving it at that, everything that followed from her happiness to our laughter, would have been okay. But it’s not because what that little scene did was embed in our psyche the idea that manliness means violence. That to get your wife to do your bidding, no matter how right you are, you should hit her. And that the woman will inevitably celebrate the fact that you’re finally acting like a man.
But violence against women isn’t solely reserved for their husbands or partners; fathers and brothers are just as complicit. There seems to be a notion that discipline requires physical punishment, and in some cases, a brother will discipline his sister and be commended for it. Just take a look at this scene from a 1970s film called Ekhwato El Banat.
A little context; the story revolves around a family of a mother, son, and four daughters. The eldest daughter is portrayed as a bit of a rebel; she’s modern, a feminist, and constantly challenging society and her mother. In this scene, she brings home a colleague of hers to have a study session. Her family automatically assumes that this well-spoken young man is here to ask for her hand in marriage. Awkwardness ensues, and when they find out the truth, the poor unsuspecting visitor is kicked out, and the brother finally disciplines his sister with a slap across the face. And while he looks as though he immediately regrets what he did, his mother’s first reaction is 'teslam eidak!' (Attaboy!) Yes, thank you so much for assaulting and traumatising your sister for not bringing home a suitor, what a man’s man! Again, another movie, another short little scene that ingrains a twisted, messed up idea in society that women must act a certain way and if they don’t, slap them across the face!
And while some may argue that these movies and scenes are insignificant, that I am taking them too seriously when they’re simply fiction, only meant to entertain, I would beg to differ. Because media and art have a responsibility. They have a responsibility not only to depict the truth, but to bear the burden of knowing that they play a vital part in shaping the society in which they exist. So when we are consistently casually exposed to domestic violence as a form of entertainment, and comedic entertainment at that, then film, TV, and even music are directly complicit in the fact that it is 2017 and 90% of men think that not only violence is okay, but it should be tolerated by women so as not to break the family apart. Because imagine the number of young boys who watched a man get applauded by his mother for hitting his sister, and subconsciously linked that to their own family dynamic.
But perhaps the most saddening and dangerous phenomenon is when women justify and even celebrate the violence against them. And I don’t just mean physical violence, because violence comes in many forms, not all of which leave a physical mark. Sometimes, the violence comes in the form of control. I recently came across a Donia Samir Ghanem song in which she happily describes how her partner now controls her, from what she wears to who she can be friends with. The song is meant to be sweet and romantic, and in no way has her complaining about this excessively controlling behaviour, but rather celebrating the fact.
As long as we continue to take these things for granted, and obliviously label them as entertainment, we will always live in a society that turns a blind eye to a very pressing subject and continues to bring into the world new generations of women who will never stand a chance because even if they do try and speak up, they will be told not to break the family apart because del ragel wala del 7eita (it's better to take shelter behind a man than a wall).
For more on the results of the survey, click here.
*The views expressed in this op-ed are the author's and don't necessarily reflect Cairo Scene's.