As police detain Ahmed Bassam Zaki, a man accused of raping, sexually harassing, and/or assaulting more than 100 women, Vogue.me investigates how, in Egypt, rape, sexual harassment, and assault have become a weapon against women.
“The price of being a woman here is that you are always on your guard,” explains women’s rights activist and Cairo resident Soraya Bahgat. She says Egypt’s capital is generally safe, but that sexual harassment can happen anytime, anywhere. “I always lock my car, I always look behind me. I have grown up with this. If I’m walking along the pavement and two men are walking towards me, I’m always assessing how I can be far enough away so they can’t extend their arms and grab at me. I’m always aware the whole time, and it’s very exhausting.”
In 2017, Cairo was voted the most dangerous megacity for women by Thomson Reuters Foundation and in 2013, the UN reported that 99.3% of women surveyed in the city have experienced sexual harassment, spanning from unwanted advances to rape. The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights dubbed the nation’s systemic sexual exploitation a “social cancer.”
The world read in sorrow and shock as reports outlined mass sexual assaults on female protesters in 2005 at Tahrir Square demonstrations and similar political gatherings thereafter. Women have repeatedly been stripped naked, beaten, and gang-raped while exercising their rights to protest. In 2011, among people singing, dancing, and celebrating after President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, witnesses recounted the screams of women, including those of international journalists, who endured sexual violations by dozens of perpetrators. Some claim that the presence of women protesting in Tahrir Square for social justice angers groups of men and undermines Egypt’s patriarchal control and state values. More than 150 cases of sexual assault have taken place in Tahrir Square in an attempt to silence and control women.
Women’s rights groups have repeatedly criticized the Egyptian government for failing to do enough to address the repeated sexual attacks on women. This week, Egypt’s rape culture is in the spotlight once again. Alleged sex-offender Ahmed Bassam Zaki, an Egyptian man in his twenties, was recently detained while investigations take place into claims that he raped and sexually harassed a number of women. More than 100 women have come forward online, accusing him of sexual assault. The Instagram account @assaultpolice encouraged victims to come forward and share their story. Activist Sabah Khodir, lawyers, and the National Council of Women (NCW) are also building a case against Zaki, and urging victims to come forward this week (contact them safely and anonymously via Twitter) to ensure his conviction.
Many perpetrators use manipulation and shaming tactics, explains Bahgat. “Zaki is alleged to have threatened to tell the girls’ parents that they had engaged in sexual relations with him, even if they hadn’t. He’s allegedly played on the fact that they would be too ashamed to speak up. And he allegedly understood that it’s too hard for them to seek justice. He is accused of preying on these women for repeat offenses”.
Bahgat has endured near constant sexual harassment in her home country. “I am a female who grew up in Egypt in an age plagued with rampant sexual harassment; being touched and grabbed, being constantly cat-called,” she says. Bahgat decided to make it her mission to stop this abuse in 2011. First she set up Tahrir Bodyguard, a group that would support women exercising their right to protest, with protection from being raped. The group was made up of volunteers whose purpose was to prevent and stop assaults and rescue victims during protests. Her volunteers would patrol the square during mass demonstrations and halt the attacks, often getting injured in the process.
Former CBS journalist Lara Logan was one of the victims at Tahrir Square in 2011. “I thought I am going to die here. My next thought was I can’t believe I just let them kill me,” she said in a 60 Minutes interview two months after the attack. She believed it would be “a torturous death that’s going to go on forever and ever and ever.” She spoke again recently on the events, maintaining that people should know the truth. “People were celebrating. It seemed a pro-American crowd. Suddenly, our translator turned to me with a look of sheer terror and said, ‘Run, run!’ she said to Newsweek. “I fought the assault as best I could for 15 minutes, but they tore all my clothes off and raped me with their hands, with flagpoles and with sticks.”
Logan is one of the victims telling her story, adding to the public pressure that will hopefully provoke change in Egypt, and bring an end to the social acceptability and forgiving of sexual harassment and assault, while allowing women a safe space to open up about their ordeals.
Sadly, the response to harassment and sexual assault is often the same, explains Bahgat. “They say, ‘It’s because our culture is very conservative and women do not engage in pre-marital sex.’ They ask, ‘What was she wearing?’ They say, ‘Girls need to cover up and they can not provoke these young men who have been deprived of a sexual outlet.'”
“There are still many cases where women have been turned away from filing a police report on sexual assault”
For years, girls have been too scared, embarrassed, humiliated, and shamed to report these crimes in Egypt. Until 1999, when it was repealed, there was a marry-your-rapist-law in Egypt, which allowed a man who committed rape to avoid penalty if he married the victim. This was also thought to help the woman, who would be socially shamed after admitting to the crime and therefore unfit to be a bride. Currently, those convicted of rape could serve life in prison or receive the death penalty. The death penalty is enforced when the victim is under 18. Meanwhile, for sexual harassment or a lewd act on a public road, offenders could face a prison term of at least three months and a fine. However, activists say perpetrators are rarely convicted and rape remains one of the most common crimes in Egypt, with official figures far lower than actual cases.
“There are still many cases where women have been turned away from filing a police report on sexual assault, because they’ve been told to do so. Many are told it’s going to be on their record, people are going to know, down the line this is going to hurt them and come after them,” says Bahgat. And other times, say activists, the police simply have other priorities, and don’t want to spend time on cases that rarely result in convictions.
One way to fight these injustices is to take collective action
The Egyptian Public Prosecution has promised women a safe space when testifying in the Zaki case. “They have been saying the room will just have the judge and lawyer, and that witnesses can be anonymous. The prosecutors say that you don’t have to present the evidence, that’s their job, and urge women to just come and tell their story,” explains Bahgat. But there is still much work to be done.
In May, 17-year-old Menna Abdel Aziz recounted being raped by one of her friends on a live social media video. She was arrested and accused of “inciting debauchery and violating family values.” With new evidence coming to light, the perpetrators have since been arrested, but the charges still stand against Aziz.
One way to fight these injustices is to take collective action, say women’s rights advocates. Social media is making a difference and giving women a voice, calling out perpetrators and highlighting the problems so deeply ingrained in society. High-profile people are standing up and supporting victims in the fight against sexual harassment and violence, and shifting the social shame to the offenders.
A broader view on the painful sexual assault case that is preoccupying the public opinion, I can guarantee that all Arab women – with the exception of few lucky ones- have experienced some sort of harassment and were too afraid to expose their predators.
— Hend Sabry – هند صبري (@HendSabry) July 4, 2020
“I am very proud of this new generation of young girls who speak up,” said actor and lawyer Hend Sabri on Twitter at the weekend. “Harassment and rape are shameful for those who commit it, not the victim.”
“There is so much anger inside of me. Feeling unsafe, feeling harassed. Please speak up speak up speak up,” said actor Salma Abu Deif on Instagram.
“People are fighting back, they are speaking up and saying this happened to me and it’s not ok,” said Tara Emad.
Some say this could be the start of the Arab #MeToo movement. But one thing is for sure, “social media is bringing this to the forefront, we have the tools to talk, and anonymously if we want,” says Bahgat. “Our mobile phones are like mace – empowering us against sexual harassment and violence. They cannot deny us our phones or stop us from doing it.”