MAI SHAMS ELDIN
NESMA Nasr once stayed a week without water in her Cairo apartment, afraid to call a plumber because of the scrutiny from neighbours she feared a male visitor would provoke.
As a young woman living alone, she says she fears the kind of social control that became a talking point last month when a 35-year-old fell to her death from a balcony in Cairo after neighbours confronted her over suspected pre-marital relations.
The death prompted an outpouring of anguish from women who say living independently in the conservative, Muslim-majority country is a daily struggle. Some posted photos of themselves on social media dressed in black to express solidarity with the victim.
“Society decided to impose complete control on women,” said Nasr. “It decides on every aspect of their life — who to meet, who not to meet, what work to do, when to leave home and when to come back.”
Some women and activists also saw the woman’s death as a sign of the need for deep social and legal change to safeguard women’s rights, after a campaign to highlight claims of sexual abuse among the Egyptian elite last year, inspired by the international “#MeToo” movement, ran into resistance.
“There is a lack of protection mechanisms,” said Nehad Abo El Komsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women Rights, adding that laws such as one that criminalises beating are often not enforced.
A study by Egypt’s official statistics agency and the United Nations Population Fund released in 2016 estimated that each year 7.9 million women in Egypt are subject to violence by their husbands, people in their social circles or strangers.
Egypt’s population is just over 100 million.
A justice ministry spokesman said efforts to protect women’s rights included legal changes made to criminalise sexual harassment, protect witnesses and increase penalties for female genital mutilation.
According to Egypt’s public prosecution, in early March a young woman in the capital’s Al Salam neighbourhood fell to her death from her apartment shortly after three people, identified by local media as neighbours, stormed in with sticks and chains, attacking a male visitor they found inside.
“The victim was so horrified that she threw herself from her apartment’s balcony, leading to her death,” a prosecution statement said.
The three suspects were arrested and charged with using force and threatening violence, and will face trial next month.
Egypt’s National Council for Women condemned the incident.
“We reject all forms of violence and bullying, and Egypt will always remain a state of law and institutions,” the council’s head, Maya Morsi, said in a statement.
Also in March, on women’s day in Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said protecting the future of women and girls had become “a priority borne by all state institutions”.
He has said a draft personal status law criticised by activists for increasing women’s dependence on their husbands would be reviewed, and has urged parliament to pass legislation to criminalise child marriage.
It is unusual for women to live alone in Egypt, where social networks tend to be close-knit and most live with their families until marriage.
Those renting apartments can fall under sharp scrutiny.
“All people around you are suddenly informants, they all have an authority over you,” said Ghadeer Ahmed, a feminist writer who moved to Cairo from Gharbia province aged 20 after Egypt’s 2011 popular uprising, and lived alone for a decade.
“I left my family home to have some freedom,” she said. “But I’m engaged in a conflict with wider society that restricts my freedom even more.”
Particularly tight limits are common in densely packed, poorer areas, where neighbours, landlords and doormen informally police women’s behaviour, according to Ahmed.
Nasr, a 29-year-old textile engineer who left her family home in the southern city of Minya to study and work, does not even host female friends at her apartment in the working-class Cairo neighbourhood of Ain Shams.
She introduces a brother who bears little resemblance to her when he visits, “so that his presence does not cause problems”.