For women and girls in Egypt, rape has for some time been endemic – but victims are now fighting back like never before, writes Salma El-Wardany.
Every woman I know in Egypt has a story of sexual harassment, assault, or rape.
It has become part of regular life in a nation where for women picking an outfit is less about style and more about protection.
Over the years, a culture of patriarchy, religion, and conservatism has meant women often stay silent when sexual abuse happens because victim-blaming is all too common.
Presently, however, women and girls are finally breaking decades of silence, taking to social media to share their stories of the attack, empower one another and call for justice.
It started in July when claims were shared online against student Ahmed Bassam Zaki.
Nadeen Ashraf, a 22-year-old fellow student, set up the Instagram account Assault Police to share these allegations and received an outpouring of messages from women claiming that Ahmed Bassam Zaki had blackmailed, assaulted, harassed, and raped them.
Within days he was arrested and is being charged with of “sexually assaulting three girls under the age of 18 and threatening them, along with blackmailing a fourth girl”. He denies the charges.
The record currently has 200,000 followers.
Nadeen was overwhelmed with the reaction and speed of progress. She said, “within weeks there was a new law that was introduced in parliament to protect women’s identities when they’re in crimes of a sexual nature”.
The sexual assault of one specific activist, Sabah Khodir, was nerve racking to the point that it drove her to leave the nation and move to the US a year ago.
Still, Sabah has been instrumental in helping women coming forward, putting them in touch with lawyers and therapists, and is now seeing her efforts rewarded.
Earlier this year the highest religious authority in the land, Al-Azhar Mosque, released a statement in support of women, declaring that a woman’s clothing is never a justification for assault.
“Furthermore, during the first Friday prayers after the [Assault Police] movement, most mosques were asked to speak about being anti- sexual harassment,” Sabah says
It sparked a much-needed conversation around victim-blaming and religion.
Household names, celebrities, and influencers all came out in support of the cause and men joined the debate.
Acclaimed Egyptian adventurer Omar Samra was among those who spoke out on social media.
“I got so angry and frustrated with what was going on, it had reached a ludicrous level, I don’t think it will ever be made right until men take accountability for their actions and put others on the spot.”
Nonetheless, under the surface concerns remain.
Women’s rights defenders in the nation have been pushing for a better legal system for sexual violations for quite a long time, with very little success.
There are few prosecutions for rape, and sexual harassment was just made illegal in 2014 thanks to lobbying from feminists like prominent ladies’ rights campaigner Mozn Hassan.
Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, says that although the government seems to be on the side of women, there is pushback against women in the public sphere, including online.
“The authorities have gone out of their way to arrest women who are social media influencers posting on TikTok. Calling them out for inciting debauchery.”
Also, there are concerns surrounding a shocking case at a luxury Cairo hotel in in 2014, which surfaced because of this movement.
The incident involved nine men from powerful families in Egyptian society who allegedly raped a young woman, filmed the assault then circulated the video among friends.
While the Public Prosecution ordered the arrests of the accused men, they also arrested witnesses and people associated with the case, subjecting them to medical examinations and seizing their phones and laptops to extract personal information.
According to Rothna Begum, the government is “leaving women with the message that if you come forward to report rape or to act as a witness, you could find yourself at risk of arrest”.
The stakes are high for women in Egypt, which only makes this current movement all the more remarkable.
Despite a legal system that does not fully protect them, the shaming they may receive from families and the fact that so-called “honor killings” still happen, the women and girls of Egypt are speaking out more than ever.
Egyptian American feminist Mona Eltahawy says she is “tenaciously optimistic … that a feminist revolution is starting”, despite evidence that specialists are trying to silence and oppress women across the nation by arresting witnesses and TikTok girls.
“I look now at these young women and girls and queer individuals torpedoing through shame, and I am thrilled,” she says.
This news is originally posted on BBC