CAIRO — July 16 marked the fourth month since Nahed Lashin, the first female mayor in Egypt’s Sharqiyah governorate, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, raising many questions about whether her disappearance or abduction was related to her being a female mayor and whether such a hypothesis would prevent women from running for positions of power.
Lashin became mayor of Hanout village in Sharqiyah governorate in September 2014, thus becoming the first Egyptian woman to win the post of mayor after the January 25 and June 30 revolutions, despite the heavy participation of women in both events. Lashin is the second woman in the history of Egypt to win the post of mayor, after Eva Habil, who became mayor of the village of Kamboha in Assiut in 2009.
Mayors in Egypt are appointed by the security directorate of their village, which chooses them based on their reputation, the opinion of the residents and the plans they provide to maintain security and take care of the interests of the citizens in the village.
Lashin’s disappearance has led to many rumors about her fate. On July 26, some newspapers reported that her body was found, while others reported that she had returned home. Salah Lashin, the mayor’s brother, denied the two rumors on the same day in press statements.
Most Egyptians associate the position of mayor with men, although neither the Mayors and Sheikhs Law No. 58 of 1978 nor its amendments in 1994, 2004 and 2015 prevent women from running for office. Only customs and traditions have gotten in the way of women holding such positions.
The mayor’s functions differ according to the executive regulations of the Mayors and Sheikhs Law of each governorate, but they usually include establishing security in villages that are located far from police stations. Albeit with limited capabilities, mayors coordinate with the security services on major issues, and they cooperate with governors on problems relating to agriculture, transportation and population issues.
Mayors amicably resolve local disputes before they develop into revenge or land seizure operations, which are common crimes in Egypt’s rural areas and in Upper Egypt. They also attest marriage contracts of girls who do not have official papers. Because mayors usually know all of the village families and residents, they can tell whether a girl has reached the legal age to get married.
Azza Kamel, a journalist focusing on women’s affairs, wrote in an article in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm on May 22, “The security director of Sharqiyah said he had found a message on Nahed's husband’s cell phone wherein she tells him she was not returning home and asks him for a ‘khula.’ If Lashin wanted to abandon her husband, then why did she disappear? A khula doesn’t require such a disappearance and is openly done. She has been missing for two months and a week. How come the security forces are so sure that her disappearance is linked to marital disputes?”
A khula is when a wife tells the court she wants a divorce and the court executes her demand after all reconciliation efforts end in failure. Also, the wife commits to repay the financial dues paid in the marriage contract and waives her future benefits.
Al-Monitor tried to contact Lashin’s husband to no avail.
Kamel criticized the security forces that are investigating the disappearance of Lashin and said, “Wouldn’t it have been better to deal with her disappearance as though it was related to criminal grounds pending a proof of the contrary? The fact that she fought with her husband and went to stay at her sister’s doesn’t mean that her disappearance is strictly linked to a marital dispute that can happen in every house.”
The mayor’s brother posted on Facebook on July 25 a photo caption calling on the people of the Hanout village to organize a silent protest on July 30 in front of the Sharqiyah governorate building in solidarity with Lashin’s family and to “condemn the security forces’ neglect in dealing with the mystery of her disappearance.”
A security source in the Security Directorate of Sharqiyah told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The security forces did not rule out other reasons. We have conducted several investigations, raided some hideouts and interrogated people known for their kidnapping operations in the village of Hanout and the neighboring villages, in vain. We cannot rule out the possibility that she might have willingly run away, especially considering that her family has not been asked for ransom, nor can we deal with her disappearance as a murder case because there is no evidence thereof. We have not found any body or weapon, and there was no threat of any kind.”
Kamel also noted the suspicious circumstances of Lashin's disappearance: “Her husband did not report her disappearance until April 26, meaning 40 days after her disappearance, and he did not explain why he waited so long before reporting. And since it is a woman, rumor has it that she was under a certain spell and that she was visiting sheikhs to break this spell.”
Al-Monitor contacted residents of the Sharqiyah governorate to ask them their opinions. Mustafa Khalaf, a student at Cairo University who hails from Sharqiyah, said, “The social interaction with the incident is normal as many rural residents, especially uneducated ones, believe that magic is behind many incidents of the kind. And her husband's delay in reporting the incident is also understandable because several families refuse to report such cases, even in Cairo, out of fear that the kidnappers would harm the kidnapped in the event they learn that the police were informed.”
He added, “I don’t think that Lashin was kidnapped because she is a female mayor. She is not the first person to be kidnapped in Egypt. She has been in office since 2014, but of course, many people in the countryside and in Upper Egypt are against women holding such positions. But I don't think this would lead anyone to kidnap or murder her, at least not nowadays.”
An agricultural engineer from Sharqiyah told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “I think Lashin’s disappearance is related to her position, even if she has been occupying it for a while now. Some religious or social fanatics may have been angered by decisions she has made. Also, there may have been attempts to overthrow her for some time now, but the conditions had not been ripe yet. There are rural families who refuse female participation in rural areas, and they continue to impose their influence through crimes and threats, albeit to a lesser extent, and the state should deal with these.”
Huda Badran, the head of the Egyptian Feminist Union, told Al-Monitor, “Women are discriminated against in all parts of Egypt and throughout the world, and the state is making efforts to empower them by giving them leading positions and appointing them as ministers or governors. But such efforts are not enough because citizens' cooperation is a must.”
She said, “The success of Lashin or other women in any position and their lack of exposure to harassment operations depends on how citizens deal and cooperate with these women, and there are certainly many who are against her holding of the position. It is also certain that the incident will prevent many women from running for such positions. Therefore, the state should make efforts to raise awareness of women's issues all the while going beyond the female quota in parliament as well as some female appointments.”
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