Hundreds of women in Egypt are sharing stories of surviving sexual violence after a widespread #MeToo campaign on Instagram prompted the arrest of a man who had sexually assaulted, harassed and blackmailed many women.
The Instagram account Assault Police provided a platform for more than 100 accusers, some as young as 13, to share testimonies of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of a 21-year-old Egyptian college student, Ahmed Bassam Zaki, who was studying at one of Egypt’s most elite universities. The public prosecutor’s office said Zaki has confessed to blackmailing at least six women, threatening to release sensitive images of them to their families. Allegations against the student stretch back at least three years.
On July 4—just three days after the Instagram page went up—Cairo police arrested Zaki from his home in a gated community outside Cairo.
Activist and U.S.-based writer Sabah Khodir helps run the Instagram account. “We are demanding to be listened to… We are just using what we have, lending our voices to hopefully create some kind of change,” she stated.
“I Have Never in My Life Seen So Many Egyptian Women and Girls Speaking Out About Sexual Violence”
The quick and public arrest of Zaki represents a shift in the country’s treatment of cases of sexual assault.
“I have never in my life seen so many Egyptian women and girls speaking out about sexual violence and so unabashedly, unashamedly exposing sexual predators,” award-winning columnist and public speaker Mona Eltahawy told Ms.
In Egypt—as in many other countries—exposing instances of sexual violence is very rare due to the prominence of “victim blaming, the unlikelihood of getting justice, slut shaming and conservative attitudes,” in Eltahawy’s words: “This is especially the case in Egypt because all of the things I just said are basically on steroids. Finally the feminist revolution has begun.”
The revolution, many argue, will call for a fundamental cultural shift.
“We must shed our culture of victim blaming. We cannot keep telling girls, ‘It’s because you were walking wrong or were dressed inappropriately,'” said Tarek Elawady, an Egyptian lawyer who represented his daughter in a case of sexual harassment.
Activists say the case against Zaki shows how misogyny cuts across class divisions. Previously, sexual assault has previously been seen as only a problem of the poor urban youth. Yet, a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll from 2017 found Cairo to be the most dangerous megacity for women, and a 2013 United Nations study found 99 percent of women interviewed reported experiencing sexual harassment.
Instances of sexual harassment and assault have been common for women of diverse backgrounds in Egypt. However, the women at the center of this social media campaign—those who largely began the conversation condemning sexual violence in Egypt—came mostly from affluent, privileged backgrounds. The women breaking the silence often have the privileges of access to social media and literacy.
“Media in Egypt is very tightly controlled and censored by the military-backed regime that has banned all forms of protest and just about every form of dissent you can imagine,” Eltahawy said.
She mentioned one case of a woman who drew public and governmental attention to sexual violence by speaking up about it on one of the nation’s most watched TV talk shows—the head of which was a pro-regime figure. In doing so, the woman exposed a wider audience to survivor’s voices—“in a way that kind of entered your living room,” said Eltahawy.
Eltahawy stresses the importance of creating an inclusive movement:
“The beginning of the feminist revolution has to be about inclusivity; it has to cross the class barrier. It has to focus on patriarchy, and not just the criminal justice system. Our revolution must pay attention to all women: working class women, domestic workers, refugee women, disabled women, Muslim and Christian and athiest women, queer women, trans women.
“I would like, especially, to see the movement break class and regional barriers. I want it to be seen and heard outside of Cairo. By focusing on patriarchy we focus on something that is much more powerful, lasting and likely to ensure justice. We must reach beyond just the women who are able to go on Twitter and, like me, say, ‘Fuck the patriarchy.’”
Egypt’s public prosecution office and legal system is beginning to work to protect the identities of survivors, and is encouraging individuals to testify. Egyptian-American journalist Reem Abdellatif expressed a sense of pride in seeing women speak up:
“The fact that these girls are speaking out this loudly with this kind of momentum––I’ve never seen it before. And it’s not just this guy … he’s only a symbol for what we’ve been having to deal with for decades.”
Egyptian religious scholars are also encouraging survivors. Scholars at Al Azhar, the ancient center of Sunni Islamic scholarship, encouraged women to testify to instances of sexual assault: “In Eastern culture, some victims are afraid to speak out because they feel shame. We need to push them forward.”
Al Azhar’s statement challenges the dominant belief that women are to blame for sexual violences they experience.
A Long Way to Go
Nevertheless, Egypt has a long way to go. Sexual harassment was criminalized in 2014, but rape is notoriously difficult to convict. During the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak and the mass protests that followed, many women were harassed and assaulted, and the Egyptian military subjected at least 17 female revolutionaries to so-called “virginity tests.”
At the time, few believed survivors: “As courageous as those women were, the public at large chose the military and it’s very telling that the head of military intelligence at the time Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is the current president of Egypt,” Eltahawy told Ms.
“Much in the same way that we point to Donald Trump and say, ‘This is a sexual predator who has been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual assault,’ we point to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,” Eltahawy said.
After the assault at the celebration of his inauguration, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the woman in the hospital. The outcry following the assault prompted a new law stipulating that perpetrators must spend a minimum of six months in jail—a law for which the president pushed.
“This was hailed as a great moment. But I am insistent that we do not celebrate this fascist fuck as any kind of hero or savior for Egyptian women when it comes to sexual violence, because he himself approved the sexual assault of Egyptian women in the form of virginity tests,” said Eltahawy.
Egypt—like most countries in the world—is notoriously unjust when it comes to holding sexual predators accountable. Today, as Egypt’s feminist movement begins to take off, activists like Eltahawy urge Egyptians to challenge ingrained patriarchy.
“By targeting patriarchy we target Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, we target the state, we target the street, we target the home—which I call the trifecta of misogyny because all three of them together oppress women, all three of them together in their own various ways sexually assault women, and all three of them have subjected women’s bodies to all kinds of violations for decades now.”