Who Is to Blame for the Death of Habiba el Shamaa?

At the core of this violence in Egypt and throughout the region is the common belief that the home is a woman’s only legitimate space.

Habiba el Shamaa was a victim of attempted kidnapping and harassment. (Screenshot)

On April 15, 2024, the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced an Uber driver to 15 years in prison with hard labor for attempted kidnapping, driving under the influence of drugs and document forgery. The victim, 24-year-old Habiba el Shamaa, died on March 14 after 21 days in a coma following critical injuries she sustained when jumping out of the moving vehicle.

It all began at 6:50 p.m. on Feb. 21, when el Shamaa, an entrepreneur and a recent graduate of The British University in Egypt, called an Uber car from her home in New Cairo’s affluent neighborhood, Madinaty, to another upscale area of the city, the Fifth Settlement, where her friends were waiting for her. Thirty minutes later, el Shamaa’s mother, Dina Ismail, received a call informing her that her daughter had been in an accident.

The witness who took el Shamaa to the hospital informed authorities that before she lost consciousness, the victim told him that the Uber driver attempted to abduct her.

The incident triggered public outrage, much of which was directed at Uber. Egypt has the most licensed Uber drivers in North Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, the company dominates by far the ride-sharing market not only in Egypt but also in the rest of the region, especially since it acquired its Dubai-based competitor Careem for $3.1 billion in 2020.

#stopusinguber was trending on social media in Egypt following el Shamaa’s hospitalization. Amal Salama, a member of the Human Rights Committee in Egypt’s House of Representatives, proposed temporarily suspending rideshare applications including Uber. Top 50 Women, an Egyptian platform for women in the Middle East and North Africa, recommended the suspension of Uber’s license to operate in Egypt until completion of the investigation into el Shamaa’s death. el Shamaa’s family lawyer filed a complaint accusing Uber of negligence and hiring a driver who used drugs. As the lawyer explained in an interview, el Shamaa booked the ride through Uber, not the driver.

To be sure, critiques of Uber were warranted. Police investigations revealed that the Uber driver responsible for el Shamaa’s death had received 18 complaints, most of which were from women accusing him of assault, sexual harassment and endangerment. One woman alleged that he terminated the ride and dropped her in the middle of the road. Ismail insisted that her daughter would not have jumped from a fast-moving vehicle were she not convinced that she was in imminent danger. During the trial, the Uber legal representative explained that the driver created an account using forged documents after the company had suspended his license.

While most of the focus was placed on Uber, misogyny was not mentioned. Indeed, it has become global trend to blame technology for society’s problems—so much so that one begins to think that it is technology that has originated the issue. Yes, Uber is partly to blame for the death of el Shamaa, but the larger misogynistic context that has normalized violence against women in the region should not be ignored.

Harassment and violence function as punishment and deterrent for those who defy or consider defying the patriarchal social order. 

Despite many reforms in the past 25 years, misogyny is still entrenched in Egyptian society, preceding Uber’s launch in the country in 2014.

  • A 2008 study found that 83 percent of Egyptian women report having been sexually harassed, and nearly half said the abuse occurred daily.
  • According to a 2013 United Nations study, 82.6 percent of women polled did not feel safe in the street, and 78.7 percent said they did not feel safe in a taxi.
  • A 2017 Reuters survey ranked Cairo as the world’s most dangerous megacity for women.

Most of the daily violence occurs in public transport or in taxis: A study by the Tadwein Center for Gender Studies found that in Egypt, 96 percent of women are sexually harassed in conventional public transportation.

At the core of this violence in Egypt and throughout the region is the common belief that the home is a woman’s only legitimate space. Therefore, in many of these cases, harassment and violence function as punishment and deterrent for those who defy or consider defying the patriarchal social order. 

Uber’s success in Egypt and the rest of North Africa and the Middle East, especially among women who constitute a considerable customer base (prior to lifting the ban on driving, more than 80 percent of riders in Saudi Arabia were women), is in part the result of said patriarchal order: Women turn to ridesharing services despite the higher cost because they offer a relatively safer option and more secure mobility than conventional public transportation.

To be sure, there are ways for Uber to improve its services and provide more safety for women. A few days following el Shamaa’s death, Egyptian member of Parliament Ahmed Badawi, parliamentary head of the Communications and Information Technology Committee, confirmed that Uber will integrate an SOS button to enable passengers to request help in case of emergency.

It can also improve access. The application can make the “cash” payment option available in more areas of North Africa and the Middle East, especially since the region has the largest gender gap globally in bank account ownership. Uber and other ride-hailing services could also provide more lower-cost models, such as ride-sharing options, and better coverage outside cities’ upscale neighborhoods.

A woman has the right to a joyful gathering with friends on a spring evening and the right to return home safe and alive.

Ultimately, Uber is a company primarily driven by profit. As long as serving women in the region is profitable, they will continue to improve. Violence against women, however, will not stop. On May 13, 2024, one month after the death of el Shamaa, another Uber driver was arrested for harassing and injuring a woman rider in New Cairo’s Fifth Settlement area.

Criticizing technology and raising the bar on expectations from service providers is crucial for making them a better ally in advancing gender equality in the region. However, it would be dangerous to allow dissatisfaction with technology to distract from a much-needed critique. Gender-based violence in public spaces will continue as long as men and women in the region do not accept the fact that women and girls are entitled to equal citizenship with no more responsibilities and no fewer rights, including the right to be in public space. Men and women in the region must recognize that a woman has the right to a joyful gathering with friends on a spring evening and the right to return home safe and alive.

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Ibtissam Bouachrine, Ph.D., is a professor at Smith College and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. She is the author of Women and Islam (2014) and Anthem of Misogyny (2022). You can follow Dr. Bouachrine on X: @ibouachr.