She was lying beside her red-clad blonde doll. The image reflects how the world appeared in her child’s imagination, a fairy tale unfolding in an enchanted universe. But Jannah’s childhood was nothing like that. She died naked, but for a cover studded with pink butterflies and red kisses. Next to the smiling doll lied this little ventilator-dependent princess with intravenous solutions being pumped into her body, with third-degree burns on her back and her intimate part, bruises on her ankles and wrists from being tied up.
Jannah was systematically tortured by her grandmother. The forensic report states that the child “has been repeatedly subjected to injuries as a form of intentional torture. The resulting complications led to a failure in her vital body functions, which in turn caused acute circulatory and respiratory failure, ending in her death.”
When Jannah’s parents divorced, she and her sister Amany (6) were taken in by their grandmother and uncle, in keeping with Egypt’s custody law which seeks to protect children of divorce from homelessness and mistreatment at the hands of stepparents. Away from their parents, living with a violent grandmother, Jannah and Amani suffered first from urinary incontinence, which drove the grandmother to beat them more, not realizing that their problem was psychological. She went far. She heated a metal rod and repeatedly burned the girls’ backs, bellies, legs, and intimate parts. Jannah’s body could not withstand the burns. The one on her leg became gangrenous. The child was first admitted at Shirbin hospital to have her leg amputated. She did not survive the complications of such surgery.
Jannah’s story generated wide sympathy after pictures of her bruised body were published. Thousands attended her funeral in what became a high-profile public opinion affair. The droves of mourners posed the question: until when will child abuse remain hidden in Egypt?
At some point in my journalistic career, I participated in group therapies. I heard stories of people with deep emotional wounds, scarred by a violent childhood, who live disconnected from their bodies, and from society.
Children’s Sad Stories: Sarah
Jannah’s tragedy sparked a debate over the methods used in raising children in Egypt. It shone a light on children who suffer behind closed doors.
In 2013, journalist Basma Mustafa published a story about a child named Sarah who was repeatedly burned and raped by her uncle. When the mother discovered blood on her child’s underwear, she escaped with her to Cairo. The uncle and grandfather threatened to kill her if she spoke up and caused a “scandal.” Ms. Mustafa led a fundraising campaign to support Sarah and her mother financially, but Sarah’s abuse was met with indifference: “My circle of friends and acquaintances were in shock. But the public did not adopt the case. Violence against children and women is not a priority for the state.” Ms. Mustafa insists there must be “strict laws against child abuse, be it physical or psychological. And social awareness should go hand in hand with that.” The journalist notes that “Sarah’s uncle was given five years in prison, but he did not serve the sentence because law enforcement didn’t make a move to arrest him. As for Sarah and her mother, they disappeared and I never heard from them again.”
Ms. Mustafa admits to Daraj the truth that “upholding the rule of law does not seem to be the state’s priority. Seeking to protect its own interests, the state does not clash with society on issues related to women and children’s rights, and turns a blind eye to the illegal customary courts in Saeed, for example. The government never seriously addressed child labor. It finds “amicable solutions” for rape cases instead of prosecuting rapists. This all points to a lack of a genuine will to uphold the state of law. The government’s priority remains its own political security.”
Jana the Pampers’ Girl
Publicly known as “The Pampers’ Girl,” the child Jana was raped by her neighbor in 2017 when she was only 20 months old. Public pressure and a good family lawyer led to the rapist being sentenced to death and executed. This reveals the inconsistency of verdicts in these types of trial where a strong media campaign and a skillful attorney can make a whole difference. Busat Karim villagers attended Jana’s funeral by the thousands. Yet, looking at their sympathy, one cannot help but wonder whether it was not generated only by the fact that violence led to death in this case, and whether or not they themselves used violence against their own children.
Burn marks that last forever
29-year-old Noura* says her story is very similar to Jannah’s. She has had burn marks on her back and thighs since she was a child: “I was 8 when my mother heated a fork and began to burn me with it. She did it 5 times with my father’s help, when she found out I was playing with boys in front of our home. She asked me if anyone had touched my body, pointing to my chest and intimate parts. Under torture, I said yes, thinking that would make her stop. Instead, she asked my dad to tie me up, so she could discipline me. And as if that wasn’t enough, my mother took me to the neighbors’ house to report their 8-year-old son was “sexually harassing” me. Imagine accusing children at that young age of such a crime! The boy was punished, and all his tears and denial could not help him. This had a terrible effect on my social life. The boy’s family told the rest of the neighbors what happened. All the children were my schoolmates. At school, I was repeatedly called “the slut,” a reputation that continued to haunt me until highschool. I had no friends, no self-confidence, I felt like a lonely outcast, self-loathing and ashamed.
The stories of Jannah, Jana, Sara, Ilham, and Noura came out to the public. Despite torture and death, they were brought to trial.
I never came to terms with sex, even after getting married”. Noura continues that in the same year, when she was still 8 years old, she was sexually assaulted by her uncle: “He used to lay on the bed beside me and make me touch his penis. He said his penis was a protection for me against those who wanted to kidnap me at night. He would wait for me outside the bathroom door and ask me to kiss his lips. I remember I felt him tremble. He would take me up to the roof, strip me of my clothes and make me open my legs. That continued until I turned 12. He threatened to kidnap me if I told anyone. But my bigger fear was my mother, because if she knew, she would torture me with the hot fork.”
31-year-old Ilham tells Daraj she suffered from urinary incontinence until the age of 18: “It started on the day my mother slapped my face when I told her my brother was sexually assaulting me whenever we were alone. The slap made me black out for a moment, but I came back to. However, the psychological darkness engulfed me for years. I can never forget my mother’s words: “Your brother is a decent boy. He would never do such a thing. Shame on you!” My mother treated me as if I wasn’t her daughter. She would give my share of food to my brother, beat me without mercy and shut me up harshly and reproachfully whenever I opened my mouth to speak. She would never look me in the eye. I felt her hatred of me. I felt unwanted and often thought about running away. I would go to the mosque, sit there and cry. She used to beat me whenever I urinated during sleep, until my father decided to seek psychiatric help.
I was quickly put on medication. For years, I took pills and was made to urinate slowly, exercising my urethral muscles to make them stronger. To no avail. One day, someone advised my father to take me to psychoanalysis instead. The moment I entered her clinic, the therapist looked into my eyes, saw how miserable I was, and asked my father to leave and send my mother in his stead. I was terrified that she read the whole story in my eyes. She would certainly blame my mother and my mother would certainly beat me again. But when my mother came home that day, she told me she loved me, that I was still her daughter. She hugged me, turned me around and around in her embrace. We both cried. And ever since, I stopped urinating in my sleep.”
The stories of Jannah, Jana, Sara, Ilham, and Noura came out to the public. Despite torture and death, they were brought to trial. There are others who continue to suffer this nightmare in silence and terror.
Jannah’s grandmother is currently facing a possible death sentence, according to article 230 of criminal law. But such severe punishments do not end the tragedies. Violence as a means of discipline and education or even as a mode of self-expression is a multifaceted issue: cultural, economic and political. Social violence is still prevalent and requires a great deal of serious discussion.
During the last few hours of her life, Jannah was lying on her side, her back to her doll, while the doll was sleeping face down, suffocated, blinded, turning her back to a life where there is no room for Cinderellas or Snow Whites, a great deal of misery that Disney’s princesses would never be able to bear.
*All names have been changed.