| The rape started in the last five years. And it became more frequent when I tried to abstain from having sex with him. […] Now I have an ulcer in my uterus, and another one in my stomach. Doctors say it’s due to my deteriorating psychological health. Sometimes I feel that my only escape is death,” says Amal in utter desperation.
This is how 36-year-old Amal, who requested her name be changed in this article due to fear for her personal safety, describes her daily life with her husband, the father of her four children.
It was a traditional marriage. But little did Amal know when she tied the knot at 22 that she would forced to endure 14 years of verbal and physical abuse that would lead to rape on a regular basis.
Often falling within the broader category of domestic violence, marital rape is defined as non-consensual sex in which the perpetrator is the spouse. But in the eyes of a community that sees intercourse within marriage as the prerogative of the man, it is not rape at all. And with religious and cultural traditions working against Amal, and countless other wives, her predicament is largely ignored by a society that would rather back her husband than accept Amal as a victim.
Amal’s nightmare began when she got pregnant. Unluckily for her, that was on her honeymoon. Her middle-class husband, a college graduate like herself with a professional career, would get upset if she wasn’t able to do her domestic chores “properly” due to her condition. His response: beating her ruthlessly.
“At first it started with him firing off extremely harsh words at me, as well as cursing and yelling,” she recalls. Then the continuous physical abuse started. “He beats me severely, usually over and over on the head. His hands bruise me all over. Sometimes I bleed from my nose and ears. I have a hole in my eardrum from all the beating.”
In the last five years, however, the abuse has not stopped at the beatings. Amal’s husband rapes her — often. And the last time he did, she fell pregnant with her fifth child, which she is now carrying.
“Sometimes he rapes me after a fight, and sometimes he rapes me just because he believes he has the right to. Once I lost consciousness because of my health problems, and after I woke up, he told me go take a shower because he had done so and so …” she trails off, embarrassed to go into more detail. Then in a voice overcome by shame, she whispers, “He raped me, like an animal or some woman who sells her body for money — while I was absolutely out of it — as if I was a worthless object.”
There is no legislation outlawing marital rape in Egypt, and it was only recently, in the 1980s and 1990s that it became punishable by law internationally. It wasn’t until 1993 that the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was issued, calling violence against women a “manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men. […] Violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.”
Host of Kalam Kebir (Big Talk) sex advice TV show Dr. Heba Kotb explains that there are several reasons a husband rapes his wife. “A man resorts to sexual violence out of possessiveness at times, or if he feels that his wife isn’t giving him enough time and attention,” says the certified sex therapist. “This is characterized as a kind of projectional behavior in psychological terms. Men suffering from any sense of inferiority, such as being handicapped, unemployed or debilitated, may have tendencies of sexual aggression as well.”
Aggression, as defined by the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women is “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”
Amal can’t quite put her finger on the real reasons behind her husband’s violent behavior or what she does that triggers it. “Sometimes it’s misplaced jealousy, or maybe [unfounded] suspicion,” she says. “Sometimes it’s if I’m just a bit late while running errands, or maybe I looked good while attending a wedding.”
Dr. Reham Al-Mallawani, a clinical psychologist at Psychhealth Center, explains that the key lies in the man’s psyche. “We have to look at a man’s complexity. The man’s psyche here in Egypt is very complicated.”
Al-Mallawani emphasizes that here, especially in upper-class circles, a man is usually conflicted between wanting as well as admiring the successful woman, who is strong, educated and even open-minded. But at the same time he expects her to be “submissive” in marriage. This false expectation makes him believe she’ll change after marriage, and when she doesn’t, he’s resentful.
“It becomes an issue. But it’s a very silent issue,” she says. “You will never find a man talking about it. But he starts behaving and acting differently.”
Amal found herself a victim of this false expectation when she landed a good job as a teacher with a reasonable salary. “My husband told me he was ok with it at first,” she recalls. “Then after a period of treating me really badly, he just exploded all of a sudden and started hitting me and told me, do you think I’ll let you feel good about yourself?” Amal’s husband subsequently prohibited her from taking the job.
According to Al-Mallawani, rape is often part of a “full package” that comes with a violent marriage. It starts with the husband’s verbal and emotional abuse demeaning his wife in every act she does. He will put his wife down whenever she feels pretty or accomplished as well. Then, the rape begins.
Keeping the Silence
In 2008, the Ministry of Interior estimated that around 20,000 women are raped in Egypt each year — an average of 55 women a day. But those are just the reports filed; it is believed that a far greater number of victims remain hidden in the shadows, too afraid or ashamed to come forward.
A 2008 CAPMAS study found that 47% of Egyptian women between 15 and 49 had been victims of domestic violence, while 7% reported rape by their husbands.
In its 2009 Violence Against Women study, the National Council for Women (NCW) noted, “Research has consistently found that a woman is more likely to be assaulted, injured, raped, or killed by a current or former partner than by any other person.”
The NCW researchers pointed to data from earlier research, including a 2005 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) that found 36 percent of 5,613 respondents reported experiencing some form of marital violence (emotional,physical, and/or sexual) from their current husbands.
The seemingly low figures are not surprising.
Culturally, a woman is expected to keep her sexual life with her husband strictly confidential. Kotb recalls the case of a very well-educated friend who was upset because her married daughter complained about her sex life. “She told her daughter, ‘You must mold yourself according to your husband,’” remembers Kotb, who strongly encourages spouses to seek help in such situations. “Our society, unfortunately, considers it inappropriate for women, even married women, to talk about this.”
Similarly, Amal was only capable of telling her parents that she was regularly being raped when things really got out of control. “My father was passive. They would make excuses for my husband, or tell me to forgive him because he’s the father of my children and that I need him to support me,” she says with disappointment.
In a nation where many traditions are rooted in religion, most men believe it is a woman’s duty before God to obey her husband.
Sheikh Taha Mohamed, who is versed in Islamic jursiprudence, explains that in Islam women are expected to “obey their husbands in everything.” He is quick to point out, however, that “The Prophet [PBUH] advocated that a man should be considerate of his wife’s feelings, particularly during any physical contact, and should treat her with kindness.”
Abusive husbands like Amal’s, it seems, only take notice of the part about obedience. “One time after he raped me he said, ‘You’re my wife. And it’s my right to do whatever I want with you, whether you like it or not. Allah will not punish me for sleeping with my wife,’” Amal recounts.
But there are many women too who also believe in this God-given “right.” “The husband may hurt his wife or may even make her bleed, but in the back of her mind she doesn’t consider that as rape,” Al-Mallawani explains.
Where is Justice?
Mohamed Abdelrahman, a lawyer at the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), an independent NGO that seeks to improve the political and human status of women in Egypt, notes, “There isn’t any article in Egypt’s law that criminalizes marital rape, unfortunately.”
Abdelrahman says a woman cannot file a suit against her husband for raping her, because simply “the court won’t accept the case,” adding that women rarely report marital rape for fear of “causing a scandal.”
Even if a case were to be accepted, proving it would be impossible because of the general lack of evidence provided. “Even in the West, where marital rape has been outlawed, these cases take so long to get a verdict because it’s usually ‘your word against his,’” says Kotb.
In Egypt, a woman can take her husband to court for beating her, but there must be evidence of physical harm such as bruises or fractures, according to Abdelrahman.
With no legal recourse, Amal’s only way out may be filing for khulaa (that does not mandate her husband’s consent), as filing for divorce on the basis of marital rape will get her nowhere. But while khulaa may fast-track Amal and others like her out of an abusive marriage, it will not guarantee her any of the financial rights she would be entitled to in a traditional divorce.
Amal’s situation is particularly dire. Pregnant and professionally inexperienced, she is unlikely to find a job at the age of 36. Her parents cannot support her and her four children, and the constant rape and abuse have left her both physically and emotionally drained.
“If it wasn’t forbidden in Islam to commit suicide, I would’ve ended my life a long time ago,” she says. “I’m miserable. Do you have any solution for me?”