Every society has taboos. In Egypt, one of them is marital rape, which is when a husband forces his wife to have sexual intercourse without her consent.
In a culture that often expects a wife to satisfy her husband sexually as an obligation in the eyes of God, the idea of marital rape is rejected as innately false.
Magda Boutros, researcher for the Violence and Bodily Integrity Program within the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says this kind of domestic violence is widespread in Egypt. As Boutros puts it, while women consider being forced to have sex humiliating, painful and somehow not right, "they have no escape, and no one on their side. If they go to the police station, they will be laughed at. Same with their family and female friends.”
Every five years the Ministry of Health and Population runs a survey on women within households, which includes a section on domestic behavior. Boutros' research incorporates the results of that survey, and she says the findings are striking: victims simply do not know what to do.
“It is very difficult for them to talk about it and they have no clue on how to reach a step further," she says. NGOs are around to help, such as the Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, but usually the victims do not think about or know how to get in touch with such organizations.
Another solution is state-run shelters that are spread around Cairo and provide a temporary roof for women who are suffering. Some also welcome children. They’re free of charge if the woman is unemployed. Professionals are also available to offer mediation between wife and husband. Boutros claims that his solution is often considered quite extreme, but is often successful.
The lack of public awareness campaigns keeps victims in the dark when it comes to solutions and resources available to them. Boutros says that the Ministry of Social Affairs told her “we do not want to publicize them [shelters] too much or there would be too many women going there."
Boutros says that under the Mubarak regime, “marital rape was too sensitive a subject, so his government ran campaigns on violence, but didn’t include anything related to sexual violence.”
“We need to tackle it out loud, to make it clear even though it might be controversial,” she insists.
Hussein Gohar, a Cairo gynecologist, says marital rape has serious impacts on a woman's health, mind and sexual life. It can lead to vaginismus, an involuntary tightening of the vagina that can prevent women from having sexual intercourse.
Domestic violence can cause depression, which can result in eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia. Marital rape also has an impact on a woman’s body, resulting in bruises and infections that Gohar says are obvious to her gynecologist. Gohar bemoans the standard of “shouldn’t tell him ‘no’," saying that a woman is the only one who can decide what to do with her body and that she is not a “sexual object.”
Samir Abolmagad, an Egyptian psychiatrist, believes that some men's need for frequent sexual intercourse is a “compensation for the husband’s low self-esteem and his belief that he isn’t manly enough.”
By having sex as much as he wants, a man may perceive himself as more manly, but Abolmagad says that "what he doesn’t understand is that being a man isn’t only about sex, but also acting like one, which means caring for his wife and being able to protect her," adding that “it’s unfair that they cannot chose when they want to have sex – women are not machines.”
Boutros explains that “sexual violence [should be looked at] in the broader context of political, social and economic oppression."
Sexual abuse within a marriage also has a psychological impact on children. Not only do children notice tension between their parents, they may also develop a flawed perception of what sex is about.
“They will see it as something that is very dangerous, brings pain and discomfort,” says Abolmagad. ”It might later generate sexual identity problems, which are the main causes of marital rape. That’s where the vicious circle starts.”
Both Abolmagad and Gohar agree that sexual education could help curb the problem.
“Let’s start from the beginning and learn sex at school," says Abolmagad. "People have to understand that the main difference between animal and human is emotions; a man shouldn’t make love like an animal but respect his wife instead."
Women should also be taught that there are more choices than divorce or suffering in silence.
“There are things in between” says Abolmagad. Boutros adds that shelter managers or NGO employees are usually happy to help couples communicate with each other in order to improve their daily life.
Miss Ossama shelter, 6th of October City, tel: 010-112-6287 (Arabic only)
Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture tel: 2578-7089