The cost of coming forward: How women who experience sexual violence are violated twice over
Photograph: أنديل

“It’s like the gates of hell opened onto me. I could no longer trust myself or anyone else,” Laila* says, describing the consequences of revealing her experience of being sexually assaulted by a colleague at work. “I know that it will take a long time to recover, and that it won’t be easy. I have panic attacks thinking about people judging me.”

After she came forward with her story of being subject to sexual assault, her colleagues embarked on a smear campaign against her. As part of it, some of them — as well as relatives and people she formerly considered friends — have revealed personal secrets that she had entrusted them with.

“I never expected these people to attack me,” she tells Mada Masr.

These attacks were not limited to Laila alone. “My husband has also faced intimidation at work because he was supportive of me,” she adds. “It is as if there is a societal phobia.”

In recent months, a number of Egyptian women have come forward with stories of sexual violence. Most of them shared their stories on social media. Alongside the shows of support they have received, these women have also been met with vilification and abuse. Beyond public shaming, some have also lost friends, colleagues and even their jobs. The negative response also came in the form of being pressured by their families to retreat back into silence.

One of those women is Menna Gubran, who filmed a man making an unwanted advance toward her as she waited for a bus in Cairo’s upscale Fifth Settlement district in August.

When Gubran posted a video of the incident on social media, she encountered a wave of vicious harassment online, with people calling her a “prostitute” and accusing her of seeking attention. People used her personal photos and created fake accounts using her name on various social media networks in an effort to discredit her.

“It is as if there is a societal phobia.”

Gubran felt compelled to post another video defending herself from these attacks. The man involved in the incident, dubbed the “Fifth Settlement harasser,” had gained something of a public following and unexpected fame. Pictures of him with various celebrities soon surfaced online. He later made guest appearances on television programs, and a few companies announced their intention to use him in advertising campaigns.

“I have paid the price [of my own harassment] with my reputation,” Gubran said in a televised interview. She said she was shocked at the extent of the public outrage against her — particularly given that many of her detractors were women, and Egyptian women battle issues of sexual violence on a constant basis. She added that her family forced her to stay at home.

Shortly after the incident, she was fired from her job. In another interview, she said that the termination notice sent by her employer claimed that the reason for her dismissal was missing two consecutive days of work, but she knew that the real reason was the video she had posted.

In September, May al-Shamy, a journalist at privately owned Youm7 newspaper, revealed her experience of being sexually assaulted by one of her superiors at work. She filed a legal complaint with the Dokki Police Station, who referred the case to the prosecution, which initiated an investigation. After speaking up about the incident, Shamy faced relentless attacks.

Among her detractors in the media was Ahmed Moussa, a TV host famous for exposing the private lives of political opponents to the government. Moussa described Shamy and people voicing support for her as “Muslim Brotherhood members.” Shamy then issued another statement demanding that her case not be exploited for political purposes.

On October 2, Shamy said on Facebook that, upon returning from her annual leave, security prevented her from entering her workplace.

Activist Dalia al-Faghal also recently shared her story on Facebook, accusing a prominent Egyptian media figure who works for German media outlet Deutsche Welle of making unwanted sexual advances in 2016.

“This is what happens to survivors,” Faghal says.

In the post, Dalia stated that the man invited her to travel to Berlin to discuss a potential work opportunity. When she arrived in the city, she was surprised to learn that he was hosting her at his apartment, contrary to what they had agreed upon beforehand. Faghal said that he then made a number of unwanted advances while she was at his residence, prompting her to leave.

For reasons that are unclear, Faghal removed the man’s name from her post. Mada Masr chose to respect this decision and has refrained from publishing his name. Meanwhile, in mid-September, the German Press Agency reported that Deutsche Welle fired one of its employees following an investigation that found “credible” allegations of sexual harassment. Although Deutsche Welle did not name the former employee, several Egyptian media outlets and accounts from other women who came forward accused the same person initially mentioned in Faghal’s post of sexual misconduct.

Faghal mentioned in later posts that she had been attacked, insulted and humiliated for her sexuality, and that her personal photos were used to shame her. She tells Mada Masr that these attacks were “biased, and aimed to detract from the testimonies and sexual assaults of these women.”

“This is what happens to survivors,” Faghal says.

Both the man accused of harassing Shamy and the newspaper he works for have close ties to the state. After she went public, some labeled the journalist and her supporters as Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers, while her supporters used the man’s loyalty to the state to attack him. This led Shamy to ask her supporters to refrain from politicizing the issue.

Similarly, Faghal was accused of being “loyal to the state’s security apparatus” by people who are against the government because the offender, in her case, is a government critic.

“I gain nothing from accusing this man,” Faghal says. “He has a widespread but false reputation, and it is believed that he is one of the most prominent critics of the government. So many women refuse to doubt his intentions.”

“There is a selectivity in how cases are dealt with,” says Mozn Hassan, director of the Nazra Center for Feminist Studies, adding that even in communities of political dissent, support for the victims can be withdrawn or reserved if the offender is a member of these communities.

“This is similar to what the government does, where this sort of scandal cannot be about a member of the state or its institutions,” Hassan says. While she is opposed to any situation ending in imprisonment, there should be legal procedures for cases in which people insult or defame someone who has come forward about sexual violence.

Overall, she believes that smear campaigns against women who come forward with their stories are rooted in a patriarchal society that dismisses women who speak about the abuses they face.

Faghal, who currently lives in Europe and works in the field of digital technology, did not want to only come forward publicly. “There are more important things I need to take care of,” she says. She and her lawyers, along with other survivors, are currently reviewing legal measures that can be taken against the man she accused. However, similar to how the decision to come forward was difficult, the decision whether or not to press charges is also complicated.

In 2014, former President Adly Mansour issued a decree that made sexual harassment a criminal act, punishable by a minimum sentence of six months in prison and/or a fine of LE3,000–5,000. It does not discriminate between incidents that happen in public or in private spaces. As per this law, acts that involve sexual or pornographic implications and innuendos, regardless if they take place in the form of gestures, words, actions, or any other means of communication, are punishable.

Other articles of the law make the penalty harsher in cases of a repeat offender, when the crime is committed with the purpose of obtaining a sexual benefit, or if the offender is in a position of authority in a workplace, familial or academic capacity.

In September, the Qasr al-Nil Misdemeanors Court sentenced a man to two years in prison on sexual harassment charges, handed him a LE2,000 fine and three-month sentence for physical assault and a LE10,000 fine for verbal assault, while his brother was acquitted of the same charges. The two men were accused of assaulting Rosana Nageh and Gihad al-Rawy over the Eid al-Adha holiday.

Rawy had previously told Mada Masr that she and Nageh faced further violations while pressing charges at the police station and the prosecutor’s office, where they were treated as if they were at fault. They said they were held at the police station, where the defendants’ family members were permitted to see them. The family then tried to pressure them into withdrawing their complaints. They spent a further 10 hours in the prosecutor’s office after they were released from the station.

Rawy told Mada Masr at the time that she felt unable to advise women to file legal complaints about incidents of sexual harassment, due to this and two similar incidents, both of which had ended badly.

“Upon leaving the prosecutor’s office, I felt relieved. But later, I felt that the violence I experienced was twofold, both in the street and when dealing with the authorities,” Rawy said. She added that while she is happy with the court’s September ruling and feels she has regained her dignity after the incident, she still feels Egypt’s sexual harassment law is implemented subjectively. “Despite the law and several measures to confront violence against women, we are still in the same place.”

There is nothing in the law that protects survivors or witnesses, Hassan points out. For example, there was a case of a woman who was attacked in a Cairo mall and her assailant was sentenced to two years in prison in 2015. Upon his release, he went to her home and attacked her after obtaining her address from police records.

Ghadeer Ahmed, a feminist activist and researcher working on gender studies, speaks of women being shamed, losing their jobs and facing difficulties with their partners for telling their stories. She adds that the burden of proof in the law falls on women, counter to progressive calls to relieve survivors from these kinds of burdens.

“The harassment after coming forward is horrible, and the situation will keep happening until there is a fair law and a legal framework that protects women from the moment they report the incident,” Faghal says, adding that not only the authorities, but society by and large, tends to persecute those who come forward. “I hope that in the future people will take these allegations more seriously. No woman is going to talk about an incident of sexual harassment or assault that did not occur.”

In another post, Faghal wrote that “social media is currently the only medium where we can go to in order to be heard and find some moral support. We can be heard by every woman who is a victim of sexual assault, especially when the harasser exploits his image, influence, and fame to silence his victims.”

Despite the steep price of coming forward — the further harassment that follows and the difficulties of pursuing legal action — Ahmed believes that efforts to keep the issue alive on social media and the discussion around it have been positive.

“It helps raise awareness of the topic even if the progress made is minor and slow. This is especially true given that most of the women who share their experience are later proven to be telling the truth,” she says. “If the public sphere closes on us, we must open it again together and find mechanisms to interact and prove our existence.”

Discussions are now being held in public, and people who are engaging in or defending sexual harassment must now face consequences in public, Ahmed says.

For Hassan, it is hard to tell whether resorting to social media outlets, which represent a pseudo-alternative to a now-stifled public sphere, is positive or not. Leading the debate on sexual violence should not fall on the shoulders of survivors, she points out, but on those working on these issues. The women who experience sexual violence have already dealt with enough trauma, so it is unreasonable to demand that they come forward and face further abuse, she says.

She adds that no matter what actions survivors of sexual violence decide to take, those working on the issue should support them and create a safe space for them, even if this entails them sharing the burden of societal repression. Hassan mentions that in the wake of reported incidents, women’s rights activists who speak up in solidarity have been discredited by those who are also considered to be rights activists, who accuse them of facing morality-related charges, for example.

Ultimately, Hassan believes that sexual violence can still be fought through preventative measures and policies, both in public and private spheres, through sensible investigative procedures that protect both the accuser and those that are accused.

*Certain names have been changed to protect identities.

Hadeer El-Mahdawy 

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