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Killings of women at Mideast universities provoke outrage and worry

Naira Ashraf's mother attends the trial of her daughter’s accused killer in Mansoura, Egypt, on June 26. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT — Egyptian student Naira Ashraf boarded a bus to her university for the end-of-the-year exams last month while, unknown to her, on that same bus was a colleague carrying a concealed knife. As she got out, he stabbed her repeatedly in front of the gates of Mansoura University, then slit her throat.

He later admitted to killing her because she had spurned his advances.

Four days later, in nearby Jordan, another young woman, Iman Irshaid, was shot five times at Amman’s University of Applied Sciences, also by a failed suitor. A text message purportedly received by Irshaid later emerged saying, “Tomorrow I am coming to speak to you and if you don’t accept I am going to kill you just like the Egyptian killed that girl today.”

Violence against women is nothing new in the region, but the back-to-back killings by men who felt entitled to these women’s affections, and the apparent copycat nature of the second attack, have struck a chord with women across the Levant, the Persian Gulf and North Africa.

The gruesome, public nature of both murders, both taking place on or near campus grounds, caused a ripple of outrage that defied borders. Women in Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Algeria and Tunisia took to social media to express anger and solidarity. Large groups of mostly women protested in Sudan, holding signs that said, “Abolish the patriarchy” and “Free health care and education means women live in safety.”

In front of Jordan’s parliament on Wednesday, women clad in black held signs reading, “She said no once and was killed,” and they issued a statement calling for tougher laws and warning that this phenomenon was everywhere.

“The victims of male violence, here and in neighboring Arab countries, and in Arabic-speaking places, and in the world as a whole, are us,” it stated.

Egypt’s women are rising up against sexual violence. Others are still being jailed for TikToks.

The explosion of fear and anger for Middle Eastern women came at a time of renewed concern over women’s rights around the world — especially following the Supreme Court’s decision last month to overturn Roe v. Wade, revoking the constitutional right to an abortion in the United States.

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But few places in the world have justice systems or practices in place that sideline women’s issues as much as the Middle East, where many of the countries are rife with female-targeted violence.

The two university attacks were not isolated instances. In the two weeks that followed, news of other killings emerged: A woman in the United Arab Emirates was stabbed by her husband over a dozen times in a parking lot. Palestinian authorities are investigating a woman’s death, which had been thought to be a suicide, after reports emerged implicating her family. Egyptian authorities found the body of TV anchor Shaima Jamal, killed and buried by her husband.

As women called for a largely symbolic general cross-border strike on Wednesday to protest the persistent violence targeting them, another gruesome case emerged: A Jordanian man was arrested after allegedly killing and burying his 9- and 12-year-old daughters.

In the past, such femicides would spark anger within countries, but this summer’s string of killings, and in particular the cases of Ashraf and Irshaid, appeared to cause a larger reaction across the region.

Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said one driver of the transnational outcry is simply that “we know why they were killed.”

Women in the region and worldwide are more likely to be killed by family members or by others they know. As a result, many cases are covered up, with “honor killings” — homicides of women who have “brought shame” to their families — frequently presented as suicides.

Men who kill their partners rationalize their actions by blaming the women’s behavior, and the victims somehow become responsible for their own killing, Begum said.

“It is incredibly scary to see it replicating,” she added. Women are “realizing that their oppression is not solely in their country or to them, but it is across the region. Whether you’re a woman in the West Bank, or Gaza, or Egypt, or in the UAE, your stories are very familiar and similar.”

In each of these cases, authorities failed the women, Begum noted, with laws and policies that discriminate against women and treat them as second-class citizens. In many cases, including Ashraf’s, repeated complaints about the assailants were filed to police before the attacks.

Neighbors told the local outlet Cairo 24 that Ashraf’s attacker never made any trouble and that people used to hear the family’s voices only “when he used to beat his mother and sisters.”

Last year, a Kuwaiti woman filed two police complaints against a man she said had been harassing and threatening her for over a year after she turned down his marriage proposal. He was detained and released, after which he crashed his car into hers, kidnapped her and her two children, and then fatally stabbed her in front of them.

Outrage in Kuwait after woman is stabbed to death by man she reported repeatedly for harassment

Women are realizing “they can’t go out in public, they can’t say no to a man, without fear of being killed because of his sense of entitlement over them,” Begum said.

In Beirut on Thursday, a group of mostly women gathered to protest the recent rise in cases of violence against women around the region.

“Women are still being killed because there are no deterrents,” said Faten Abou Chacra, a campaign coordinator with Kafa, a nonprofit organization that works against violence and exploitation directed at women. Its Arabic name means “enough.”

Lebanon has a domestic violence law, but Abou Chacra said it is rarely invoked, and she accused the state of not protecting women and children and having no national strategy to try to change men’s mind-set.

“Everything is cumulative,” she said. “The sexual harassments that take place are hushed up, which evolve into assault, which is hushed up, which evolves to rape.”

Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.