The Arab Spring popular uprising a decade ago proved how effectively young people can mobilize to fight for their freedom. But in Egypt, another message echoed through the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the sprawling plaza in downtown Cairo that became the symbol of its revolution: Women don’t belong here.
As hundreds of thousands of people packed into the square day after day, women were regularly touched, groped, and shoved around. At some point, swarms of men stripped a handful of women naked or down to their underwear, beat and raped them, and left them to fend for themselves. Most horrific of all, women who reported the abuse were questioned, ignored, or simply told not to go to the protests, the symptom of a patriarchal culture enforced by Muslim clerics and ordinary families alike.
While the vicious assaults in Tahrir Square don’t represent Egypt’s everyday reality, the scourge that’s central to the female experience looks something like this: A guy grazes a woman’s body with his crotch as he squeezes by her at the supermarket; an older man touches himself on a cramped bus as he gawks at a veiled mother clutching her toddler; a teenage boy catcalls a young girl as he runs past her in an alley. The behavior is so pervasive that it has seeped from the streets into schools and homes and workplaces.
Women and girls have the right to file reports with the police, but until very recently they were generally dismissed or shamed or even threatened to drop it. “Every day when you leave your house in Egypt, you are looking at yourself and you are thinking, How can I look less [like a] woman today? You’re just hoping that nobody touches you today,” said Sabah Khodir, an Egyptian writer and activist who relocated to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., last year, overwhelmed by the trauma that followed her own sexual assault. “The problem wasn’t the rules; it was the implementation.”
“You’re just hoping that nobody touches you today.”
A month ago, Khodir, 29, launched a digital movement of Egyptian women and girls who’d allegedly been harassed or assaulted by Ahmed Bassam Zaki, a 22-year-old college student from an elite, well-connected family, the type of family that in Egypt can make just about anything go away.
The stories about Zaki suggested a disturbing pattern of emotional manipulation: He would pressure girls to talk to him, meet up with him, send him personal photos, and hook up. If he didn’t get what he wanted or they tried to end things, they say he would stalk them, bully them, humiliate them, and threaten to expose them or spread rumors about them to their families and in their communities.
In Muslim-majority Egypt, a girl rarely learns about the birds and the bees from her parents; consent isn’t generally taught; and exploring sexuality is a no-no. So being slut-shamed risks destroying the family’s reputation, and in very extreme cases it could be the cause of the girl’s honor killing.
The gravity of this isn’t lost on these girls and women, but they realized that the indifference around sexual violence that they themselves began to adopt wasn’t sustainable. And the most powerful weapon at their disposal has become social media.
The Instagram account Assault Police was created to give women and girls a platform to anonymously publicize their encounters with Zaki. Within 12 hours, nearly 100 women and girls had reached out with screenshots of WhatsApp conversations, voice notes, and photos. The youngest was 13 at the time of her alleged assault.
“It was just an inevitable reaction to our society's denial of someone like Ahmed Bassam’s horrible actions, because for years the girls in his community have been trying, screaming, and speaking out. And they've always been silenced,” said the administrator of Assault Police, who asked to remain anonymous. She’s received threats of legal action, kidnapping, and death; as well as pornographic descriptions of what would happen to her if she continued to manage the account.
The dam has broken
But even in conservative Egypt, the volume of alleged survivors and the nature of their complaints were hard to ignore. Celebrities like comedian Bassem Youssef, actresses Tara Emad and Salma Abu Deif, and model Merhan Keller rushed to express their disgust over the allegations and urged Egyptians to work to change the culture that breeds this behavior. Prominent TV presenter Amr Adeeb made a surprising comment that no Egyptian man in his position has ever dared to: “No means no.”
Within a week, Zaki was expelled from the business school he was attending in Barcelona, where at least one girl had accused him of assault. Khodir and Assault Police began connecting some of his accusers with pro bono legal representation and free mental health services. So far, at least 13 have reported him to the authorities. On July 4, Zaki was arrested at his home in an upscale Cairo neighborhood. He was charged with harassing and assaulting multiple women and one minor. According to the Public Prosecution Office, he’s confessed only to harassing and threatening them.
Dr. Said Sadek, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, warns that unless Egypt makes drastic changes, the Zaki case might be a one-off used to quiet the young activists that cast a spotlight on his behavior.
“You have a highly Westernized generation that is affected by the #MeToo movement,” he said. “Because some of those people are from the upper class, the class that’s supposed to be the model, the government began to act.”
“Because some of those people are from the upper class, the class that’s supposed to be the model, the government began to act.”
Egypt was fairly secular during the 1950s and ’60s, but beginning in the ’70s, families that had spent time in the Gulf nations brought back with them a strict interpretation of Islam that enforced traditional gender roles. When they were challenged, Sadek said, men became emboldened to assert their power, at times using sexual harassment to force women to stay home.
So as women earned more freedom, they also took on the responsibility to keep themselves safe from harm. And that became the status quo, as predictable as the traffic in Cairo in that it exists at absolutely every hour.
Egypt’s top Islamic leadership, including Grand Mufti Shawki Allam and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, released a statement following the announcement of Zaki’s arrest and the investigation against him. “Silence or turning a blind eye to these crimes threatens the security of society and encourages violations.” It went on to address a major feature of victim-blaming in the country: “Women’s clothing, whatever it may be, is not an excuse for attacking her privacy, freedom, and dignity.”
It wasn’t until 2014, years after the horrific mob attacks on women in Tahrir Square, that the government actually criminalized sexual harassment. The punishment is up to five years in prison, while sexual assault carries a minimum sentence of seven years. Some legal analysts say it’s unlikely that Zaki will be found guilty of rape without physical evidence.
But Sadek says even tougher legislation is needed and that ridding Egypt of its patriarchal culture is paramount to altering behavior. “The religious establishment has a task to do; they have to clean up their act regarding women and emphasize equality, respect,” he said.
As the investigation into Zaki continues, nearly 500 other women have reported sexual violence to the government-run National Council for Women. Legislators have passed two amendments to the penal code that in theory guarantee that a female can safely report sexual violence without worrying about repercussions from her family or community; one protects her identity and the other allows her to file a report without the involvement of a guardian and with a lawyer present, should she choose.
“It’s now set a precedent,” Khodir said. “I’m demanding that we get what we deserve in this country, because without half of your nation being happy and all of us being so oppressed, this country is not going to progress. It's going to get worse.”
By July 28, the Assault Police account had over 171,000 followers and had received dozens of messages about other alleged harassers and assailants. “It's not just about [Zaki],” she says. “It's about what [Zaki] represents.” One of the latest posts called on people to corroborate stories that are circulating about a group of wealthy and powerful men who videotaped themselves gang-raping several women. What followed were attempts to hack the account and death threats to the administrator and her family. In a final post before deactivating both the Instagram and Twitter accounts, Assault Police said that she would back off the case now being referred to as the Fairmont Incident, a reference to the luxury hotel where one of the alleged assaults took place. I haven’t heard from her since.
Cover: Sketch of Ahmed Bassam Zaki, by Grace Shin