May El Shamy worked for Youm 7, a privately owned newspaper and website in Egypt, before, she said, one of her bosses started to make comments that made her uncomfortable. (May El Shamy)

May El Shamy could have kept silent, but she didn’t. So when the 28-year-old fashion editor goes to work these days, she feels proud. She’s done what few Egyptian women have done: filed a sexual harassment complaint against one of her bosses.

“At the same time, I am a little scared,” she said. Her boss, who denies the allegation, remains in his job and in charge of her fate.

A growing number of Egyptian women, many influenced by the #MeToo movement, are coming forward to expose sexual harassment, women’s rights activists and lawyers say.

Even as Egyptian women are starting to call it out, they are facing a perhaps unique obstacle, a repressive government that often considers such complaints to be a form of unacceptable criticism. In some recent cases, government authorities have taken legal action against women.

In other instances, like Shamy’s, the women are subjected to a vicious backlash that brands them as terrorists or extremists. These campaigns against the women seem to be modeled on the tactics used by the government to target political opponents and critics.

Shamy is believed to be the first Egyptian woman to file a police report against her superior, a man who works for an influential newspaper aligned with the government. After she filed the report, she was targeted by an online smear campaign, which included accusations that she is a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, considered by the government to be a terrorist organization.

“May broke the barrier of fear and this will encourage more women to speak out against sexual harassment,” said Intsar El Saeed, her lawyer. “But the challenge we are facing now is to not allow them to politicize the case and drag it away from the sexual harassment issues.”

Restrictions on speaking out

In July, Egypt’s parliament passed a law granting the government sweeping powers to regulate social and traditional media, permitting President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s widening security clampdown on free speech and dissent to deepen.

Then, last month, the government handed human rights activist Amal Fathy a two-year jail sentence for posting a 12-minute Facebook video detailing her allegations of sexual harassment at a bank and decrying the government’s failure to protect women.

Authorities said Fathy “was spreading false news” to undermine the country’s image and suspended her sentence only after she paid a hefty fine. But she is now facing a separate trial after the government accused her of being a member of a banned “outlaw group.”

The watchdog group Amnesty International blasted the verdict as an “outrageous case of injustice,” adding that Fathy’s case “highlighted the vital issue of women’s safety in Egypt.” Najia Bounaim, Amnesty’s North Africa campaigns director, said Fathy was “not a criminal and should not be punished for her bravery.”

This summer, a Lebanese tourist was sentenced to eight years in prison after she described in a Facebook video the sexual harassment she endured while on vacation in Egypt. A Cairo court found her guilty of spreading false rumors harmful to society, among other charges. Only after an international uproar threatened Egypt’s tourism industry was the woman’s sentence cut short last month and she was allowed to leave Egypt after paying a heavy fine.

Sexual harassment has long been a problem in Egypt. A United Nations survey in 2013 found that 99 percent of Egyptian women reported having experienced it. And last year, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey found Cairo to be the world’s most dangerous megacity for women.

The abuses continue despite a law adopted in 2014 criminalizing sexual harassment. Sissi himself vowed to take a stand against sexual violence and protect women’s rights.

Since then, however, lawyers and activists say they are seeing more women report sexual assaults, whether on social media or in local media. Police and prosecutors are more willing in some cases to investigate their claims in a timely manner, said activists and lawyers.

The #MeToo movement in the United States, they added, has prompted more public discussion. Last month, a woman posted a video on Facebook showing a man pestering her to have a cup of coffee with her, sparking a discussion on social media on what constitutes sexual harassment.

“What’s happening in Egypt is that people are becoming more and more aware of sexual harassment and how much of an epidemic it is here,” said Shamy’s lawyer, Saeed. But she added that while there “has been a lot of progress in the last few years, there is still a lot more to accomplish on this front.”

Harassment at work

Shamy had worked for seven years for Youm 7, a privately owned newspaper and website. Over the summer, she said, one of her bosses, Dandarawy el Hawary, started to make comments that made her uncomfortable.

“I was verbally harassed multiple times,” said Shamy, tall and soft-spoken. “And when it turned into physical harassment I decided to speak out against it.”

Shamy, on her lawyer’s advice, declined to specify the nature of the assault until after the investigation. Shamy said she was not raped.

“He’s not supposed to touch me in anyway,” said Shamy, who is married.

Hawary, in an interview, denied the allegations, saying there is “not a single evidence against me, not even a weak one.”

“How can you criminalize one man and support an alleged victim?” he added. “I agree with you we all should support the victims of sexual harassment, but you have to have proof they are victims.”

Shamy initially filed an internal complaint, but she said it became clear the newspaper was “very passive” in dealing with her allegations. Shamy then filed the police complaint, which triggered an investigation by Egyptian prosecutors.

Since the news of her complaint leaked online, she’s been under attack. Some on social media have claimed she’s having marital problems; others have sought to portray her as mentally unstable to destroy her credibility, Saeed said.

Activists are concerned that the backlash could stop other sexually assaulted women from coming forward.

“All of these are tools that make it harder for victims to seek justice,” said Mona Ezzat, director of the work and women’s program at the New Woman Foundation in Cairo.

Today, as Shamy awaits the findings of the prosecutor’s investigation, she makes every effort, she said, to avoid her accuser who still writes for the paper.

“We don’t talk,” she said.

Read more