Over the past few months, hundreds of Egypt’s women have flooded social media with accusations of sexual harassment and assault under the #MeToo hashtag, adding their voices to a growing international movement demanding accountability and change.
Egypt’s growing #MeToo movement, albeit recent, is quickly beginning to garner results. Online allegations from women across the country have drawn attention from supporters around the world and are already beginning to spur legislative change.
The start of a movement
This all started back in July 2020, when American University of Cairo student Nadeen Ashraf created an anonymous Instagram account under the handle @assaultpolice to expose a classmate several on campus had accused of sexual harassment, blackmail, and rape.
The new page posted a picture of the alleged predator, Ahmed Bassam Zaki, along with a list of misdeeds and accusations. Within hours, over 30 other AUC students had reached out to the account confirming they too had been targeted by Zaki.
After years of alleged abuse, within three days of the page’s inception, Zaki was behind bars. Within a week, @assaultpolice had over 70,000 followers.
Egypt’s very own #MeToo movement was born.
After the near immediate success of @assaultpolice’s initial accusations, the page was transformed into a general resource board, sharing resources in both Arabic and English and raising awareness about sexual violence in Egypt.
Today, the account has nearly 250,000 followers and is committed to “fighting sexual violence in all its forms.”
Nadeen Ashraf remains one of the main faces of Egypt’s growing #MeToo movement, but has transitioned her focus away from exposing perpetrators of sexual violence. She now spends her time educating women about sexual assault and consent in ways that are often taboo in Egyptian society.
She told the New York Times, “You use the word consent all the time in English, but I’ve never heard its Arabic equivalent — taraadi. So we try to translate these concepts, break them down, explain.”
Calling for change
A United Nations report found that over 99% of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment. Some 96.5% report that their harassment has gone beyond words; that aggressors have physically laid hands on them.
As activists build upon momentum, Egypt’s budding #MeToo movement is growing much larger than an isolated Instagram page. Emboldened by the success of @assaultpolice and the AUC students behind it, thousands of Egyptian women are taking to Instagram and Twitter to speak out about violent experiences.
The growing social media phenomenon quickly garnered the attention of some of Egypt’s most prolific stars.
Egyptian movie star Rania Youssef expressed her support for the women speaking out on her Instagram page, writing, “Yes, I was harassed, a crime that has been committed against every woman for many years, as if a ghost is chasing us everywhere.”
Actress and model Salma Abu-Deif chimed in, “Please speak up, speak up, speak up. I want to feel safe in my own skin.”
It was not long before the impact of Egypt’s growing #MeToo movement stretched to the halls of Parliament.
In August of 2020, Egypt approved a new law to protect the identities and anonymity of women and girls who come forward to report sexual harassment or abuse.
Experts say that, especially in a culture that often blames women for sexual violence they suffer at the hands of men, anonymity will help embolden women to advocate for themselves without fear of personal retribution.
Islam and #MeToo
However, in a country like Egypt, where around 90% of the population is estimated to be Muslim, often the greatest change does not come from political leaders, but religious figures.
Later that month, the Al-Azhar Mosque, the greatest religious authority for Sunni Muslims in Egypt, released a statement proclaiming sexual harrassment haram (forbidden) and confirming that a woman’s choice of clothing is never a valid excuse for sexual assault.
This may not seem radical, but a 2017 study reported that three quarters of Egyptian men considered “provocative” clothing a “legitimate reason for harassment.” Statements from religious leadership have the potential to catalyze serious change in a pious country like Egypt.
However, the work has just begun. The women behind #MeToo Egypt confirm that they are working to change much more than a couple laws, but an entire culture that holds victims liable to begin with.
Tunisian-Egyptian actress and outspoken #MeToo supporter Hend Sabry wrote on her Instagram page, “Harassment and rape are shameful for those who commit it, not the victim.”
The future of #MeToo in Egypt
Egypt’s brand of #MeToo has served as a litmus test for the global movement in many ways. Egypt was one of the first major Muslim-majority countries where the viral trend caught fire. Additionally, it is one of only five countries in Africa where the hashtag has trended.
At every junction, Egypt’s brand of #MeToo has had to fight against unique brands of social conservatism and taboo in spreading its message.
However, now they’re up against a different challenge. How can an online movement thrive in a nation where just over half the population has internet access?
Approximately 54% of Egyptians are connected to the internet, but that figure drops to a mere 19.1% in the country’s most rural regions. A social media trend like #MeToo has little impact in Egypt’s poorest areas, where most women don’t have access to a cell phone, let alone a presence on platforms like Instagram or Twitter.
Per a National Council for Women study, rural women are far more likely to experience sexual violence than their urban counterparts.
Many activists and #MeToo proponents are considering how to best penetrate Egypt’s rural areas, those arguably in greatest need of intervention.
For some, that means adapting the dialogue to a format more accessible and familiar for women offline.
Randa Fakhr El-Deen, executive director of the Union on Harmful Practices Against Women and Children, suggests organizing offline #MeToo workshops for women in rural areas to share their stories. Further, she advocates for training more young rural women on identifying and addressing sexual violence.
Another innovative campaign targets sexual harassment on public transport. After a UN survey found that 70% of Egyptian women felt unsafe riding public transport, the government plastered anti-violence billboards in tram stations across Cairo and established a hotline to report assault on the train.