April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault. Based on prevalence data from 2000 to 2018 across 161 countries, the World Health Organization estimated that 1 in 3 women throughout the world are survivors of sexual and/or physical violence. Insiya Raja interviewed Somaya Tarek, a brave Egyptian woman who exemplifies the struggles women continue to face, not only in experiencing sexual assault but also in speaking out about it.
On October 25, 2015, Somaya Tarek was publicly harassed in a mall in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis After Somaya threatened to call security, the man turned around and slapped her in the face twice. The entire incident was captured on closed-circuit television, and the security video from the mall was leaked. When she went to the police, the officers laughed at her, joking about the incident. No investigation followed and the man was not charged by the police.
This did not deter Somaya, who made the rare decision of personally speaking out in Egyptian media about the incident. She posted the video on her Facebook that night, which had over 400,000 views by the next morning. As her case began to garner national attention, talk show hosts invited her to speak. She agreed to an interview with Reham Saeed, a famous TV talk show host, which aired on the private network Al-Nahar. Reham had invited Somaya, telling her that she needed to be “honoured for her courage.” She went to the interview, and before she entered, a man from the production team told her she was not allowed to take her phone on stage and must leave it with him.
When they went on camera, Saeed told Somaya, “I’m not bringing you here to make you a hero. Do you think you were dressed appropriately?” Any expectations that the presenter would treat Somaya with empathy and trust were quickly dashed. Saeed questioned her aggressively, blaming Somaya for provoking harassment by wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and even accusing her of being the one to catcall her assailant. Somaya asked for the termination of the interview and the return of her phone; instead, she was handed a paper to sign. After four hours, when she got angry and threatened to call the police, they finally returned her phone and let her go.
One hour after this dramatic incident, Saeed’s show aired on TV, showing private pictures of Somaya, including in a bathing suit, which had been stolen from her cellphone. Somaya was accused of being indecent, and Saaed argued that if a woman dressed provocatively, it is no surprise she would get harassed. Saeed concluded with the remarks: Just as there are harassers in the streets, some girls have really gone beyond the limits. You won’t like this, but this is the truth. Keep your girls in check and nothing will happen to them.
Saeed’s crass accusations and misogynistic behaviour sparked outrage amongst women’s rights advocates, who launched a social media campaign calling for the suspension of the show. Bowing to pressure from the activists, Al Nahar’s management suspended Saeed’s show for several months.
After a whole year, the court finally sentenced the harasser, identified as Hany A., 28-years old, to one month in prison and a fine of 100 Egyptian pounds–about $6 U.S.. After he appealed his sentence, his jail-time was reduced to two weeks. In 2015, under the Egyptian penal code, the minimum punishment for sexual harassment and assault was six months in prison or a fine of 3,000 Egyptian pounds. However, the court said the video was not enough proof to establish that. The court also told Somaya’s lawyers that Hany was handed the minimum possible sentence because of the media fuss Somaya had created, and that they did not like media interference in a trial.
The culture of victim blaming and shaming was pervasive, and Somaya came to be known as the “Mall girl” in the media, with a hashtag even arising from the moniker, فتاة_المول#. However, after Somaya first spoke out, she also received hundreds of messages from girls all over Egypt who said that they had faced similar harassment but had been too afraid to speak out. They told her they were waiting for someone else to make the first move. In 2017, a global movement would shake the world, as women inspired by the #MeToo movement in 2017 would speak out. However, it is in this year that Somaya would suffer the consequences of her speaking out.
Two years to the day of her assault, as if marking the anniversary of his first crime, Hany, a released assailant, attacked Somaya again. But this time, he tried to kill her. After slashing her face with a box-cutter–causing a 20mm gash from behind her ear to her cheek–he left her bleeding on the pavement in the Korba district of Heliopolis. It was 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon in a busy Cairo street, but Somaya could not find anyone willing to help her. She ran by herself to three different hospitals, but all of them refused to treat her. Finally, at the fourth hospital which was private, she was taken in.
It took 50 stitches to close the wound across the side of her face. It appears this attack was not only meant to disfigure Somaya, but to kill her. Somaya re-appeared on several other TV shows, and publicly accused him of attacking her with a knife, with the large gash on her face still an unhealed wound.
The police arrested Hany a second time, and investigators said that he confessed to the attack. Under Egyptian law, the minimum sentence for attempted murder is seven years. Hany was sentenced to eight months in prison.
The second attack was Hany’s revenge for Somaya going public with the case in 2015. However, the attacks against Somaya did not end there. The public nature of the case caused scrutiny amongst the broader population of Egypt. In Somaya’s experience, 90% of the comments on the forums she had posted on after getting out of the hospital, were critical of her. Amid all the victim-blaming, the cruellest comment that Somaya saw constantly was that she got what she deserved.
Two months after the incident, after she had been told that more than 70% of her scar was permanent, she went online on Facebook to express the desire to take her own life in front of 60,000 viewers. However, in comment after comment, people continued to shame her, often encouraging her to go through with suicide.
Hany was released in 2018, after which he began stalking and threatening Somaya. He showed up at her house, at her work, and at her family’s homes. Every time she would find a new job, he would be waiting for her outside. A man called her, claiming to be Hany’s brother, and said that they would “take her mother” if she did not go to the police and said that she had identified the wrong person.
While Hany was free, Somaya was constantly under threat. Fearing for her safety, she moved ten times in just two years. She complained to the police, but nothing was done to rearrest the man. She tried many times to flee Egypt, and finally got out in December 2021 after she was able to obtain a visa to Spain.
Somaya is currently living in Spain. Her lawyer has filed her asylum application under Spain’s gender violence category. Even though the application process is taking time, Somaya says that she finally feels safe and is grateful to be able to take a walk on the street without overwhelming fear.
The Broader Situation in Egypt
In 2013, a research study conducted by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) revealed that over 99.3% of Egyptian girls and women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. A member of Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW) said in 2016 that this widely circulated statistic is “exaggerated,” that sexual harassment has started to “recede,” and that the numbers incorrectly suggest that “all women on the street are harassed.” The NCW, the only “national independent women machinery in Egypt,” was established by a Presidential decree in 2000; the members of the council are appointed by the President of Egypt himself.
Recently, the Freedom Initiative (NGO) released a report entitled No One is Safe which found that Egypt employs abuse in detention as a method to coerce, punish, and bring a population under the control of the state. According to Allison McManus, Research Director at the Freedom Initiative:
Sisi will declare “the year of the woman” and the new National Strategy on Human Rights will claim it prioritizes gender-based violence and sexual harassment, but the Egyptian state fails to protect women like Somaya who do not conform to strict gender laws. This is because the state sees the mandate of women’s empowerment through its claim to “guard morality” in a way that is narrowly heteronormative and patriarchal.
In 2011, officers in the Egyptian army subjected women to “virginity tests” in Tahrir Square, a practice that continued to be carried out against female political detainees under President Sisi. Mainstream and local media coverage of violence against women in Egypt has contributed to the culture of victim-blaming. In December 2011, a woman who was dragged and beaten by soldiers became known as the ‘blue-bra girl’ after her abaya was pulled over her head during the assault. The media demonized her and accused her of provoking the attack, with commentators asking why she would wear such a provocative bra, or why she did not wear more layers of clothes under her abaya. However, the pervasive violence carried out systematically by both state and society has come under increasing criticism on social media in recent years.
Women human rights defenders in Egypt have faced persecution. Last year, two TikTok influencers, Mowwada al-Adham and Hanin Hossam, 22 and 20 years old respectively, were arrested for posting content on social media. Hossam was accused of human trafficking after inviting her followers to join the social media platform Likee, and the court sentenced her to ten years in prison. A 2018 cybercrime law has been used to punish women for expressing their opinion online, violating “family values” and undermining “public morals,” with imprisonment of up to five years in some cases. Recently, Egypt’s highest court upheld a prison sentence against Amal Fathy, a well-known activist, who had spoken out against sexual harassment on Facebook. Egypt has also placed travel bans on women who have been active and vocal advocates and activists, and frozen the assets of women’s rights organizations such as Nazra for Feminist Studies and the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance.
The situation of women is not unique to Egypt, and initiatives like SAAM remain extremely important in the world today. A special thanks to Somaya for telling her story and continuing to inspire women everywhere.