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Monday, 19 April 2021

Fighting sexual violence against women: No means no

Egyptians are taking to social media to try to halt harassers and rapists, reports Muhammed El-Naghy and Nouran El-Sawy

Muhammed El-Naghy and Nouran El-Sawy, Friday 28 Aug 2020
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Views: 3155

Egyptian social media users recently started posting information about two incidents concerning a serial sexual harasser and a gang rape in the wake of people beginning to tell their own stories of sexual harassment.

In July, the Egyptian prosecution announced that Ahmed Bassam Zaki, referred to as ABZ, had been detained pending an investigation into allegations that he raped, sexually assaulted and sexually harassed dozens of young women, using blackmail and intimidation to silence them. After Zaki’s detention, social media accounts of women accused Zaki of assaulting them.

The prosecution also said the alleged victims should start to press charges against Zaki if they wanted their cases to go to court.

In the gang rape incident, alleged to have occurred in 2014, the attorney-general ordered an investigation two weeks ago.

Social media posts maintain that six men raped a young woman after drugging her with GHB, or Gamma Hydroxybutyrate, a central nervous system depressant that is commonly referred to as a “club drug” or “date rape” drug, at a five-star hotel party.

According to another Instagram account, Gang Rapists of Cairo, which is currently collecting information about the incident, the offenders drugged the victim with GHB until she became unconscious. The account also says offenders filmed a video with their initials written on the victim’s body and started spreading it online as “a trophy of being gang rapists”, as the account explained.

Social media users are calling on the prosecutor-general to press charges against the alleged rapists, and ban them from leaving the country, after an Instagram account that first started disseminating information about the rapists and the incident, known as Assault Police, opened. The account was closed after some people claimed its managers had received death threats and their identities and home addresses were revealed.

Egyptians linked the gang rape incident with public sex offenders getting away after not being charged. Angry users launched a website named Support Egyptian Women, condemning violence against Egyptian women ranging from verbal harassment in the streets to the alleged gang rape incident.  

Several local and international media outlets on the abuse of women include links to social media accounts tackling the rape incident, sexual harassment, providing local legal-council advice as well as providing a psychological support group for the survivors. Several accounts condemned the sexual harassment atmosphere in Egypt.

The power of social media in dealing with the victims of sexual assault surfaced prominently in the US in October 2017 when The New York Times and The New Yorker reported that a number of women had accused Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein of committing non-consensual sexual acts, that some claimed included rape, for at least 30 years. Women created the hashtag that surfaced then, #MeToo, to uncover criminal sexual acts.

As Egypt enters a second #MeToo movement, Egyptians are now calling on the authorities to arrest alleged rapists and harassers on the loose.

Wellness Counsellor Yasmine Madkour told Al-Ahram Weekly that usually people start blaming the victims of sexual assault because it seems easier than to oppose harassment. “It’s a culture. Eyewitnesses of sexual harassment will blame what the victim was wearing while taking the side of the offender,” Madkour says. “They will act as if the offenders are not responsible for their actions and that the women’s attire was provocative enough.”

Madkour says some eyewitnesses are too scared to take any action because they don’t know what an offender might do to them if they intervene. “Offenders are usually aggressive and unpredictable. People don’t want to get harmed or get involved with them,” Madkour said in explaining how some people think.

According to Egyptian law, Article 306 A, the harasser should be punished by prison for not less than six months and/or fined not less than LE3,000 and not more than LE5,000, for making forward actions, insinuations or hints that are sexual or pornographic whether by signals, words or action and by any means including wired and wireless communication methods.

Engi Badr, 29, told the Weekly she is verbally harassed almost every time she walks on the street, while a few times she was physically sexually assaulted. The first time was in her secondary school years when she said she was harassed by a taxi driver. “I was too young to understand. I took a taxi to drive me home from school, then the driver put his hand on my leg,” Badr says. She said that even though she was too young to understand what was happening, she panicked and was traumatised and did not tell anybody what happened, not even her family.

Badr said she experienced more harassment, this time at 22, when taking the underground metro. “The subway was so crowded I couldn’t even see the floor. I was sexually molested in every way possible by many people,” Badr says.

“I was climbing the subway stairs, when I felt someone putting his hand on my back for a long time. I grabbed his hand, then started hitting him hard,” Badr said, adding that the crowd helped the offender escape. Badr said bystanders noticed there was something wrong so they started asking her what was happening but Badr said nothing.

Badr is not the only one speaking out on the incidents she experienced. Mahinour Said, 31, told the Weekly that her clothes had caused her trouble and people were staring at her. Another time, “two days ago, I was providing aid for less fortunate people in my neighbourhood. There was a man who tried to approach me several times. I had to run away,” Said says, adding that at that point the man started using foul language.

Said stated that this was not the first time she was sexually threatened. She recalled an incident during a summer trip as a university sophomore when she, at age 19, was being bullied by a young man who was following her in his car. “I was too young and in fear, but suddenly, a Bedouin who saw the incident blocked him with his own car,” Said says.  

Both Badr and Said blame families for not taking responsibility to teach boys how to deal with women respectfully. They said these were not the only incidents they faced, adding they had met offenders of different ages, with some as young as 12, and elderly men who would pull over next to their cars and start offering them money.

Said also says that speaking on social media might not be effective, but “it’s the only thing we can do to limit this social phenomenon, especially after the Egyptian prosecution page on Facebook started taking action when responding to #MeToo and ABZ’s case.”

The Egyptian National Council for Women started to raise awareness concerning women’s safety and rights using Facebook. The manager of the council’s complaints office, Amal Abdel-Moneim, told the Weekly that the complaints office is available through its hotline to support women who are threatened or assaulted nationwide.

Abdel-Moneim said the office supports victims by providing legal counselling and filing lawsuits on their behalf. “While trying to provide legal support for the victims, we noticed a significant decline in sexual harassment incidents on the streets.”

She said the reason for the decline goes back to the strict laws applied against offenders that eventually started forcing them to back off or at least consider the consequences of their actions.

“There are persistent attempts to raise the awareness of women reaching out to the complaints office and the laws restricting harassment,” Abdel-Moneim said, adding that the complaints office receives many calls from women in governorates on its hotline. They lend them support in their cases which range from sexual assault to family violence as well as providing a lawyer for many others.

Sociology professor at Ain Shams University Soraya Abdel-Gawad told the Weekly that sexual harassment is part of the Egyptian patriarchy in the community, calling on the government to take some serious measures to counter “the intruding ideologies of patriarchy and extremism in the community.

“If we go back to the mid-20th century, women were wearing more revealing clothes, yet no one would dare comment on them,” Abdel-Gawad noted. “Today we have fully veiled women facing all sorts of harassment.”

Abdel-Gawad also referred to the legal and social bias against women, saying they were never present in Egyptian society in the past. Replying to a victim condemning parents for not raising their children properly when dealing with women, Abdel-Gawad said “families were not tackling such topics before. Children were raised properly and they knew they couldn’t do this to women.

“I see that it’s the government’s responsibility to eliminate the flowing extremist ideologies through good education and empowering the real Egyptian culture,” Abdel-Gawad says, adding that empowering culture through education and the law with strict penalties for sex offenders “is capable of eliminating this phenomenon within 10 years.”

Abdel-Gawad also said there must be regulations for the relationship between men and women in the community, criticising men for being allowed to control every aspect of a woman’s life, starting from clothes to their professions, especially professions which restrict women from venturing into them, under what Abdel-Gawad described as “safety” regulations.  

A 2013 United Nations for Women study on sexual harassment of Egyptian women shows 99.3 per cent have been exposed to some kind of harassment. Over 82 per cent said they don’t feel safe on the streets, and 86.5 per cent said they do not feel safe in public transportation.

While Egyptian society is mobilising to confront sexual harassment against women on social media, many women say there are few attempts to safeguard females on the streets.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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