The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Egyptian women shout slogans against sexual harassment during a protest in Cairo in 2014. (Amr Nabil/AP)

CAIRO — Scores of Egyptian women have been raising their voices in recent weeks, detailing on social media the sexual assaults they say they have endured. Among those accused, an affluent student and human rights activists.

In some cases, alleged abusers have been detained. Under pressure, the government has drawn up a measure to protect victims’ identities.

It is all part of a reckoning viewed by many Egyptians as their #MeToo movement.

But then there is the case of Menna Abdel Aziz. In May, the teenager posted a TikTok video of herself sobbing, her face bruised and swollen, saying she had been raped. Instead of treating her as a victim, authorities jailed her, charging her with “debauchery” for wearing clothes they deemed immoral and with misusing social media.

Even as women are coming forward to confront their attackers in an unprecedented fashion, others are being arrested merely for expressing themselves.

Justice remains uneven for women and often hinges on their social class and wealth. An inadequate penal code, few prosecutions of sexual attackers, weak sexual harassment policies and harsh morality laws have worked to silence women, say women’s rights advocates.

“This is certainly a significant moment,” said Mai El-Sadany, managing director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington. “We are seeing victims and survivors in so many different contexts, from the university setting to doctors’ offices to the human rights field, publicly sharing stories of sexual harassment, assault and violence in an effort to galvanize structural change.”

“However,” she added, “it is too early to say how this moment may affect Egyptian society and systems in the long term, and there is still much to be done.”

Online testimonies

On July 1, women in Egypt took to social media accusing an affluent Egyptian student of rapes and sexual assaults. By the end of the day, nearly 50 accusers had come forward, and the number eventually exceeded 100, according to @assaultpolice, an Instagram and Twitter account set up by activists to collect testimonies.

The alleged assaults and harassment began in 2016, according to women on social media. Some women, including minors, said they met the young man in person or online when he was studying at an elite international high school. Others crossed paths with him at the American University in Cairo, the country’s most prestigious university.

Within days, he was expelled from the EU Business School in Barcelona, where he was taking online courses. The school filed a complaint with Spanish authorities urging an investigation.

After the social media fury, Egyptian authorities arrested the man. In a five-page statement, the country’s prosecutor said the man admitted to meeting at least six young women online on different social media platforms.

The prosecutor also made allegations that he said the young man denied, including that he threatened to send revealing photos of women to their families if they did not have sex with him or if they left the relationship. Prosecutors said they were investigating additional allegations, including rape and indecent assault by force or threats.

“No sooner had he the chance to be alone with them, he attacked them, trying, forcefully to have sexual intercourse with them,” the prosecutor said in the statement.

The young man’s father denied the allegations when reached by phone. “There is a misunderstanding here,” he said. “He didn’t admit anything. This is not true.”

'Huge stigma' for victims

Since the young man’s arrest, other alleged sexual offenders have been accused. They include Mohamed Nagy, a well-known activist, who was dismissed by his organization after it said he admitted to sexually harassing women on his Facebook page. He apologized to his victims, blaming his actions on his “bad upbringing and the society around him.” He declined to comment when reached by telephone.

Another rights group said it suspended an employee for sexual misconduct, and authorities detained a well-known publisher after he was accused of sexual harassment, which he denied in a Facebook post. Victims have also opened up about being abused at elite schools and in churches.

This month, female students at the High Cinema Institute, the national film school, demanded measures to protect them against sexual harassment.

In a rare public statement, the nation’s Al-Azhar establishment, the Sunni Muslim world’s authority on religious life and Islamic education, spoke out against sexual harassment. Al-Azhar encouraged women to report crimes and denounced the targeting of women for wearing clothing that might be considered suggestive.

The social media campaign also prompted the government to amend the country’s criminal law to give judges the authority to protect the identity and personal details of sexual assault victims. The bill, which has been submitted to parliament for approval, raises hopes that more women will come forward to expose abuses.

Some Egyptians have questioned whether the current moment should be described as a #MeToo one. That “makes it sound like Egypt needed inspiration from abroad to realize it had a sexual violence problem and it finally woke up,” tweeted Amro Ali, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo.

Sexual assaults have long gone unpunished in Egypt. Women’s groups and activists have documented mass sexual assaults at demonstrations, religious festivals and other gatherings since 2006. Egyptian victims even have a name for being surrounded by their attackers: the circle of hell.

A 2017 survey by two groups, U.N. Women and Promundo, reported that nearly two-thirds of men in Egypt said they had sexually harassed women or girls on the streets. More than three-quarters of the men said that a woman’s “provocative” dress was “a legitimate reason for harassment,” the survey said.

“In Egyptian society, there is a huge stigma that follows survivors of sexual assault,” said Amr Magdi, Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch. “They are pushed to be silent and keep what happened to themselves, which brings continuous trauma.”

Many universities and workplaces have either weak or no sexual harassment policies. Egypt’s penal code is sorely in need of amendments to better protect rape and assault survivors, activists say. There still isn’t a law that criminalizes domestic violence, despite years of promises by officials to address this legal gap. Existing laws to punish sexual offenders have not always been enforced.

Without the pressure of the social media campaign, Magdi said, it is unlikely “the government would have taken any action” against the student now facing multiple allegations from Egyptian prosecutors. Egypt’s State Information Service did not respond to two requests for comment.

'Morality' enforcers

Women — from singers to belly dancers, novelists to fashion-hungry teenagers — continue to be detained on morality charges. One belly dancer, Sama al-Masry, was recently sentenced to three years in prison for inciting “immorality and debauchery” with photos she posted on her social media accounts.

Then there are the recent arrests over TikTok videos. Since April 23, authorities have targeted a number of women, accusing them of spreading immorality and debauchery and of violating Egyptian family values. Their crime: dancing and wearing what the authorities deemed were suggestive or revealing clothes.

At least nine women, some with millions of followers on TikTok, remain in custody. On Monday, a Cairo court sentenced two female TikTok social media influencers to two years in prison for “violating family values and principles.”

Abdel Aziz, who was arrested after posting her disturbing video about her rape, was transferred to a rehabilitation center for abused women after women’s rights advocates intervened. Her alleged attackers now face prosecution, but the charges against her remain.

Socioeconomic status may be a factor in these women’s incarcerations. All the TikTok women were from lower-income neighborhoods. They wore clothes and danced no differently than women from wealthy and elite backgrounds in fashionable nightclubs.

The student’s alleged victims, by contrast, were presumably also from elite backgrounds, and thus were able to win more attention for their accusations and bring about his swift arrest and prosecution, activists said.

“If they were poorer women or from lower social classes, there could have been less chance for accountability,” Magdi said.  

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