Can social media help in the fight against sexual harassment in Egypt?
Egyptian women experience sexual harassment every day, but feminist initiatives on social media are helping to expose and shame the perpetrators
Sexual harassment is a feature of daily life for women in Cairo. The Egyptian capital is the most dangerous city in the world for women and, according to a 2013 study from the UN, sexual harassment affects 99% of Egyptian women. However, they’re fighting back. In recent years, there has been an increase in social media and feminist initiatives targeting men – both public figures and ordinary citizens – who sexually harass women.
A prominent example, which attracted widespread media attention, is top Egyptian footballer Amr Warda. In 2019, he was accused of sexual harassment by a Mexican model and others, and disqualifed from playing in that year’s African Cup of Nations. Warda apologised for the incident, but clarified in a television interview last December that he only made the apology in order to be able to continue playing.
A few days after the interview, a young Greek woman alleged on Instagram that he had harassed her too.
In February, the famous Eygptian rapper Shehab Elsayed said on Facebook that he considers women to be nothing more than sexual objects. Testimonials, photos and conversations followed from women accusing him of harassment. Some posted the details on their own Facebook accounts, others went to the press.
In response, Elsayed posted a video explaining that the post was addressed to a specific girl, and apologised if the language he used had upset anyone.
Production company Molotof Music tweeted that it will be removing his songs from YouTube and other platforms and that “there will be no future collaborations with Shehab”.
Celebrities are not the only target. College student Ahmad Bassam Zaki caught the press’s attention last year when the Instagram account ASSAULT POLICE published messages from women claiming he had assaulted and threatened them. The account uses survivors’ testimonials, most of them anonymous, to expose sexual predators. On 11 April, Zaki was sentenced to eight years in prison for sexual assault and blackmail of three underage girls.
Sexual harassment affects 99% of Egyptian women, according to a 2013 study from the UN
Media coverage and social media campaigns are important, because these might be the main reason that legal action is taken against predators and cases actually end up in court. Of course, sexual harassment is not restricted to social media, where the perpertrator can be exposed via screenshots and proof of conversations. Most of the time, it occurs in places where witnesses are rarely found.
For example, Hiba* was harassed on the street. Despite her legal knowledge, and her attempts to enforce her legal rights, the police refused to press charges against her harasser because other people on the street at the time denied the incident ever happened. Sexual harassment is so normalised in Egyptian society that many people feel it is just part of life, and should not be a criminal offence.
But sexual harassment is a crime under Egyptian law. Whether “physical, verbal, by direct insinuation, or through communication means”, it is a crime punishable by “imprisonment from six months to five years or payment of a fine of up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds” ($3,000).
However, despite the law, some people avoid accountability due to their social standing. For example, Faten could not press charges because her harasser was a cleric. In an interview with openDemocracy, she said: “I had no choice other than to keep silent. The Egyptian community will not tolerate talking about religious men. These harassers are above the law and not accountable. If the victim dares to say she was molested by a religious man, she will be crucified.”
Nonetheless, exposing perpetrators on social media is still a prominent strategy used by many women survivors and activists to fight sexual harassment.
Mona used to live in fear of being verbally harassed by men while going about her daily life, and never tried to confront the perpetrators. She said: “What’s happening today [on social media] makes it clear that talking about harassment and exposing harassers is the best way to deal with it.” She added that harassment was taken for granted, but social media awareness campaigns made her realise it should not be.
As for Asmaa, after repeated incidents on public transport, she went on social media to warn other girls. She said, “When I have to sit next to a man, I always put my bag in between us, to avoid any harassment attempt.”
Ruqaya Farid, a student and founder of A Feminist Voice, a support blog for women, explained:, “[Social media] plays a major role in confronting sexual harassment. People didn’t react against sexual harassers in the past as they do today.”
Safe spaces for survivors
Using social media to expose and shame perpetrators of sexual harassment has moved into other areas. These include online platforms and initiatives where women can express their fears and ask for support. For example, SpeakUp provides a safe space for survivors of sexual harassment to share their stories without being bullied, offers legal assistance to press charges against predators, and helps in finding much needed support from psychologists and therapists.
SpeakUp also aims to show that sexual harassers are not socially acceptable and to fight the tendency of victim blaming.
Jihad Hamdy, a female dentist and part of SpeakUp, says that publishing survivors’ stories plays a major role in discovering more survivors and encouraging them to take legal action. She added that SpeakUp also raises awareness on different types of harassment and how to avoid them.
She pointed out that people tend to believe that the sexual harasser is an unstoppable monster. But in most cases, they are just normal people from a variety of backgrounds: “They could be a husband, a father, a brother, a cousin, a sheikh, a priest or a close friend.”
She said: “We are here to support any person who faced any type of violence in his or her life, woman or man, old or young, religious or not. Sharing our pain is a part of the healing process. It is our pleasure to be part of this sacred journey.”
HarassMap is another volunteer-run initiative, which aims to fight the normalisation of sexual harassment in Egypt. The idea is to force society and institutions to deal with sexual harassment before it happens or react to it when it is happening. A collective stand against harassment can create social and legal consequences that criminalise and reduce harassment.
It collects sexual harassment reports via SMS, social media or its website and places them on a map – to document the problem and to alert women. It also provides free legal and psychological support to survivors.
Social media and feminist initiatives play a crucial role in exposing, shaming and holding sexual harassers to account, as well as raising awareness of the problem and offering psychological support to survivors. They may help decrease its prevalence within Egyptian society or even eradicate it altogether.
* The women mentioned preferred not to use their full names.
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