Breaking Taboos: Exposing Violence to End Violence in the Arab World


By Sherine Ibrahim

The Middle East has been receiving a bad rap for the treatment of women. Multiple reports, articles and personal testimonials point to an upsurge in violence against women on the streets and other spaces. But these increased reports might actually be a sign of hope. Confronting social and gender injustice is exactly why many young women spoke up during the Arab uprisings. I believe that our continued commitment to exposing injustice affirms, rather than undermines, hopes for the Arab Spring.

A newly released Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of gender experts sent shock waves throughout the Arab region by ranking Egypt the worst country in the region for women to live - based on issues such as political and economic participation and gender-based violence. The poll has prompted a flurry of condemnation, scepticism, and denial, questioning the survey’s representativeness and validity. This response is not a surprise in a context that is fraught with silence and denial when it comes to the personal safety of young girls and women. Yet with Egyptian women at the forefront of the battle for women’s rights in the region, it could also be argued that Egypt’s poor ranking may actually be an indication of a greater awareness and willingness to expose injustice against women.

I myself often questioned claims about the rise in sexual and gender-based violence in Egypt, the country where I live and work. However, I also believe that one of the wonderful outcomes of the popular uprisings in Egypt and other countries in the region has been the breaking of taboos, with violence now being monitored and reported in ways that are undeniable. A recent report by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), which states that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed, serves that very purpose. Demographic and health surveys have been equally damning about the practice of female genital cutting. Undoubtedly the spotlight on the region has helped with greater monitoring, reporting, discussion, debate instead of denial and silence.

In this context, enforcing the law is not, and will never be, enough. Real change requires us to put a mirror up to our faces and ask real questions around power and injustice in our homes and on our streets. Innovative initiatives to expose violence against women, such as “I Saw Harrassment” and “Harassmap” in Egypt are a step in the right direction. Such initiatives depict the reality that women suffer daily and force us to think about the needed conditions – including freedom of expression, assembly and association – that allow women and civil society to thrive.

As we commemorate the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, the bravery of women like Yasmine El Baramawy, in detailing the sexual harassment and violence she was exposed to on open media, cannot be underscored. Such testimonials make what we try to conceal, deny and silence less palatable. They force us to think deeply about sanitizing our reality. The more we confront our reality, the less we will tolerate sexual harassment or practices like female genital cutting, honour killings and early marriages throughout the region. Ultimately, highlighting the region’s “bad rap” may actually be a step towards positive change.


About the author: Sherine Ibrahim has been working in the field of development for the last 18 years, starting her work as a researcher on sexual and reproductive health rights in Egypt. Since then, Sherine has worked extensively in Egypt, South Asia, the United States and Middle East. Sherine currently holds the position of Deputy Director for Regional Programs in the Middle East and Eastern Europe for CARE. CARE works in 83 countries around the world to protect the rights of women and girls and end poverty. To learn more, visit