My name is John-Paul. I am a teacher. I work at a school in Wellington, New Zealand which is organising some events for the annual Amnesty International Freedom Challenge. This year the event is focused on the rights of women in your country, Egypt. The events at our school are being organised by the girls in the human rights group.
Amnesty International wants people like me to send an email to you. They have a suggested text that begins: “I call on you to combat the sexual violence and discrimination that prevents women from claiming their rights”, so this is what I am doing. I fully agree with the message in their email. I am sending you a personal message because it is important to me to be completely sincere about a political action. I don’t, with respect to Amnesty, think that adding your details to a generic email and pushing send is really taking action about something.
I also don’t want to sound too preachy. In New Zealand it was not so long ago that the rights of women were not taken very seriously. It is true that women won the right to vote very early in my country, but that turned out to be only part of the equality problem.
My mother, for example, went to school in the 1940s and 1950s and girls weren’t really expected to do certain things here. Once, with some other girls, she approached a teacher about starting a cross-country team, and was told that this would not be possible because “girls don’t run”. Later a lot of people found it odd that my mother wanted to go to university, and then to do post-graduate study. Just as they found it odd that she wanted contraception and not children in her twenties. I suppose that was the 1960s, which really isn’t that long ago. Sometimes I think that people forget that New Zealand too was an extremely unequal place for women who wanted to do certain things not very long ago, they forget, and then they preach at others in a way that it not very flattering.
In schools in New Zealand now girls can run. I think that’s good. It would have been good if my mother had been able to. I suppose that she wouldn’t have become a famous athlete, but she would have had the opportunity to pursue a simple thing that she liked to do. If my daughters want to run they will be able to. They will also be able to go to university, and have some control over their bodies. That’s good. Although some people would disagree with me, I don’t think that any real harm has come to our society because of these changes. I think our society has been greatly enriched. I know that birth control is a controversial issue, but we have not seen the end of love, or of family in my country: just new forms of those things, jostling beside the old ways.
I don’t want you to think that I am foolish enough to believe that my country is perfect when it comes to the issue of women’s rights even now. It isn’t. The statistics around domestic violence, and the number of successful convictions for rape here are sobering. They reflect real failures in my society to fully realise equality. Our arrangements for childcare also fail to create a truly equal division in the labour of parenting. I hope that this is different for my daughters. I hope that men can take responsibility for what masculinity is and change it. It’s hard though, and it takes a long time. It takes a lot of people standing up over a long time to effect change. Leadership helps – it really does – and I think that this is what Amnesty, and people like me, want to encourage your government to do. To stand up and strongly condemn violence against women, and to offer women the protection that laws and a police force, and a judicial process should offer.
I accept that we are from different cultures, and that we come from different religious traditions (I am not religious myself), but I know that neither of our societies accept sexual assault or rape as the proper way for a man to act. I also find it hard to believe that any man with a mother, sister, daughter, wife or female friend would want to deny them happiness and fulfillment. Unfortunately some people do want to deny those things to other people’s mothers, sisters and wives, and for this reason a government needs strong laws that are enforced. So far, in your very difficult political situation, your government has not taken a stand on this issue, and has not punished offenders of manifest crimes against women. Therefore, I implore you to:
*Condemn all forms of sexual and gender-based violence and harassment, without reservation;
*Order full, impartial, and independent investigations into sexual and gender-based violence and ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice in fair trials;
*Implement a comprehensive plan to eradicate sexual violence and harassment against women;
*End discrimination against women in law and practice, and introduce new legislation to tackle gender-based violence, including domestic violence, marital rape, and sexual harassment.
Egypt has always been a leader in your region. The difference your strength on this issue would make to millions of woman across the Middle East and the world would be immeasurable.
My own society is proof that change can happen. Let the women of your country have a voice they are unafraid to use; it will enrich your country, your communities and your people, as it will enrich the world.