At the end of June last year, Sabah Khodir was standing in the frozen food section of a supermarket in a town she does not want to name for security reasons, and was crying. She thought she had put a woman in danger. She was also sure that she would be to blame if victims of sexual violence in Egypt never again dared to talk openly about their experiences. One day earlier, the 29-year-old Egyptian, who had been living in the USA for several years, had decided to make public the actions of a young man named Ahmed Bassam Zaki. Khodir, a women's rights activist, had learned that Zaki had been sexually harassing, abusing and raping young women. Khodir spoke to several of the victims and eventually posted a photo of the man alongside a woman's testimony on Instagram, asking other victims to come forward. The reaction was prompt: the student, who came from a wealthy family, sued Khodir and the woman whose story she had shared. In the supermarket she took the call: A desperate plea, to delete the post as soon as possible.
Khodir removed the post, but it had already gone viral. An anonymous Instagram account called “Assault Police” was collecting the stories of other victims. Within four days more than 500 women came forward with allegations against Zaki. Some sent voice messages and chats in which he had threatened to share intimate photos or details of sex with them. In early July, the 21-year-old was arrested, but the movement did not end there. On the contrary, more and more new cases of sexualised violence were made public in Egypt. A social debate had begun.
“Society does not understand why people want to come forward as a rape victim, why you would want to taint both your reputation and that of your family”
According to a study by the United Nations, 99 percent of women in Egypt have been sexually harassed. In public, however, hardly any one talks about it out of fear of being stigmatised. Time and again women in Egypt are blamed: They are accused of having provoked the assaults, through wearing inappropriate clothing or sending the wrong signals. Women organise themselves online rather than going to the go to the police.
Sabah Khodir advises female witnesses and networks with lawyers and psychologists. Like Egyptians in the diaspora, she follows the debate on social media but, unlike activists living in the country, she is less afraid of state reprisals. She shrugs off threatening messages in which she is called a bitch and a liar. “These men lost their power a long time ago when they said things like that to me on the street,” she says on the phone.
And the pressure on women like Khodir and victims of sexual violence is intense, explains Hind Zaki, an Egyptian feminist at the University of Connecticut who focuses on feminism in West Asia and North Africa: Rape is a scandal that damages a woman for life. “Society does not understand why people want to come forward as a rape victim, why you would want to taint both your reputation and that of your family,” says Hind Zaki. Especially when it's “only” sexual harassment, many think it is better not to make a big make a big deal out of it.
“Every single person involved tried to dissuade us, starting with the passers-by and police officers on the scene”
Hind Zaki knows what she is talking about. In 2008, she was in Cairo when a man attacked her best friend from a passing car. The two women wanted to report the the driver, but it was not easy. “Every single person involved tried to dissuade us, starting with the passers-by and police officers on the scene,” Hind Zaki says. Finally they dragged the attacker to the police station themselves, where other officers refused to take up the case. When her friend's father arrived, police officers tried to dissuade him as well. “They said he looked like a respectable man and that he certainly would not want a scandal for his daughter,” Hind Zaki said. Nevertheless, the women were successful: the case resulted in the first ever conviction for sexual harassment in Egyptian history.
To say it all started with an Instagram post in 2020 would be an oversimplification. “It is often portrayed as the MeToo movement finally arriving in Egypt,” says Hind Zaki. However, in reality, the movement has been simmering for years. The Egyptian revolution, when women participated en masse in the demonstrations, gave rise to new initiatives for women's rights. “What is happening now is the result of the mobilisation of that time,” Hind Zaki says, adding that this won't be the last wave.
“The state distinguishes between 'respectable women' and 'immoral' women, which it does not view as worthy of protection”
But like every wave, this one has its ups and downs. In the beginning, the women of the “Assault Police” had great success. The National Council of Women assured support for all witnesses, and more and more women went the police to testify. Hosts of popular talk shows were suddenly debating sexual violence, a bill to protect victims made it into parliament, and the Al-Azhar Mosque, the highest religious authority in the country, criticised the widespread practice of blaming sexual assault victims. The issue had made it into the mainstream.
But then, three women reported a gang rape to Sabah Khodir at a party at Cairo's five-star Fairmont Hotel in 2014. The men involved had filmed the act and circulated the footage. While public opinion had supported victims of Ahmed Bassam after he was accused on Instagram, the opposite happened in this case: Witnesses to the crime in the hotel were arrested and some of them are still in custody today. In a media smear campaign, the incidents were portrayed as a sex party, the victim and the witnesses were labelled as perverts and intimate photos of them were published.
“The state distinguishes between 'respectable women' and 'immoral' women, which it does not view as worthy of protection,” Hind Zaki explains. While many of victims of Ahmed Bassam Zaki's assaults hailed from privileged families and had attended expensive public schools with him, the victim of the Fairmont incident had been partying and drinking. “Women are supposed to behave in a certain way. If they don't, they become targets,” says Hind Zaki. Nevertheless, she remains optimistic: “The extent to which sexualised violence is being debated right now in Egypt is gigantic,” she says. “The fact that the Fairmont case will not be swept under the carpet in this conservative country shows that something is really changing.”
Translated by Jess Smee