Students at the American University in Cairo surveyed 613 online users about their online experiences. 72.4% of the respondents said they feel that they have been harassed online before, while only 20.4% are aware of the laws on online harassment in Egypt.
I thought I was only fighting the battle on the streets; however, from the comfort of my own home, I was scrolling through my filtered messages on Facebook and felt as sexually violated as I would be on the streets
“As a female, every day I fight the big fight. I put on my big girl shoes, and clench my fists, prepared to walk down the streets in spite of every sexual harasser I will encounter,” Lima*, 23, said.
The 23-year-old described how practicing her day to day activities almost seem insurmountable, due to the prevalence of sexual harassers.
“I thought I was only fighting the battle on the streets; however, from the comfort of my own home, I was scrolling through my filtered messages on Facebook and felt as sexually violated as I would be on the streets,” Lima* declared.
UN Women released a paper in 2013 that revealed that 99.3 % of Egyptian girls and women have reported that they have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime.
Online sexual harassment is not a new phenomenon, but there’s not enough information about it, especially when it comes to unwanted sexualization online.
Project deShame defines online sexual harassment as “unwanted sexual conduct on any digital platform. It includes a wide range of behaviors that use technology to share digital content on a variety of different platforms.”
The Europe based project also defines four forms of sexual harassment online, the most common of which is unwanted sexualization.
Unwanted sexualization includes receiving unwelcome sexual requests, comments, and content. This can materialize in many different forms such as sexualized comments, sending someone sexual content, unwelcome sexual advances, jokes of a sexual nature, altering someone’s images to make them sexual, and pressurizing someone to partake in sexual conduct.
“Usually, if a girl is in a toxic relationship, after the breakup, there is a flood of unwanted sexualized content that threatens her,” Amal Badeeb, Senior Counselor at the Center for Student Well Being at the American University in Cairo (AUC) stated.
Aya, 22, once went out with a guy she met at college, and when she didn’t want to continue dating, he started spreading rumors about her around campus.
“I had many guys call me ugly and a conceited b*tch when I rejected them. So yeah, it honestly sucks being a girl. Moreover, every time I or anyone I know was exposed to harassment, we always ended up being the ones to blame. It’s either we’re exaggerating or worse – asking for it.” she added.
17-year-old Sara was sexually harassed online, not by a random stranger – but her own best friend’s best friend.
“I was 14 [at the time], we were talking like any two friends on WhatsApp. It was nothing inappropriate until he suddenly asked me for nudes saying that I have a really hot body and that he wanted to see how hot I was naked.” Sara said.
Nudes are images or videos of explicit nature often shared through private messages online.
Sara added that she never gave him the impression that she’s the kind of person who would send nudes since she comes from a conservative background. That being said, until our current day, Sara is still struggling to talk to or trust men again because of that incident.
A lot of harassers resort to manipulative methods to clear their image and build trust with their potential victims, they act very ‘nice’ and respectful to impress girls and convince them that they have good intentions. Soon enough, they apply different forms of pressure to receive sexual favors. Then, they end up verbally abusing or blaming their victim’s behavior once rejected, as though they are entitled to sexual exchanges because they were nice. This tactic has now come to be a popularized term known as the ‘Nice Guy Syndrome.’
According to Geekfeminism, Nice Guy Syndrome is a term used to describe men who view themselves as prototypical ‘nice guys,’ but whose ‘nice deeds’ are in reality only motivated by attempts to passively please women into a relationship and/or sex.
“Being a social person, I get a lot of guys coming up to me, asking me out and even being bluntly sexual. When I shut them down, their response is always something along the lines of ‘Oh, I thought you wanted this. You were laughing at my jokes and called me nice.’” Aya added.
Online sexual harassment, especially from strangers, leaves serious psychological harm, such as paranoia.
It often fuels the idea of mistrust, anxiety, and a distributed idea of men, and what is disturbing the most, is that some girls normalize this idea,” Badeeb said.
Badeeb added that the long term psychological effects can worsen if there is no evidence of a healthy support system, such as friends and family, although she stated that it is a case by case basis.
“There’s this cafe where I used to regularly go. One time, a random person started sending me messages on Instagram, telling me that he always sees me there and that he wants us to be friends.” Habiba, 18, said.
At first, the 18-year-old didn’t put much thought into the situation and took it as a joke – thinking it wasn’t a big deal. And she never responded to the stranger, until things got scary.
“One day, he sent me a message saying that he’s in front of me and that I better respond to him. And when I got up and left, he followed me home and kept on threatening me, begging for a response or else. Ever since then, I blocked him and never went to that cafe again.” Habiba added.
Farah, 20, was around 16 years old when a random person got a hold of her phone number and started claiming that he has some nudes of her waiting to be shared on social media if she doesn’t send him ‘new’ ones with the proposed positions.
“I was totally panicking. I naively responded and persuaded him not to, even though I was aware that I didn’t know him and that he has nothing on me” she said.
The 20-year-old also mentioned that she won’t ever be able to forget how her mother reacted to the situation as she blamed her for responding from the very beginning, rather than comfort her.
“I felt attacked and falsely exposed for something I didn’t even do. I felt that I was just being punished for being a girl in this sick society, traditionally born and raised with the thought of staying silent no matter what,” she added.
Older and wiser, Farah mentioned that this incident made her grow some thick skin in the face of similar situations. And that if something like that ever happens to her again, she’ll either resort to punishing them under the name of the law or exposing the harassers on social media to give them a bit of a taste from their own medicine.
Sexual harassment, in all its various forms, doesn’t know a specific age range. Although teenagers and young adults are the most common victims, women in their late 40s and 50s could be the target as well.
“I often stumble upon very strange messages in my Facebook ‘others’ inbox. And apart from all those which contain phrases like ‘you’re so pretty, let’s be friends or maybe more’, to this day, I still get messages from men who send me pictures of their private body parts.” Maha Fathy, 47, said.
Fathy explained that even though such graphic and sexual messages shocks her to her core and makes her feel very uncomfortable and assaulted, she thinks that it’s out of her hands – considering there’s nothing to do about it and that she just has to brush it off.
“I think the issue is globally prevalent. What might be different are the reactions to it: Are there laws that you could use to try and stop it? Are there enforcements to law? Do people take you seriously if you say you are a survivor or a victim? do they believe you?” Helen Rizzo, associate professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology, Egyptology, and Anthropology said.
I felt attacked and falsely exposed for something I didn’t even do. I felt that I was just being punished for being a girl in this sick society, traditionally born and raised with the thought of staying silent no matter what.
Gasser El-Shazly, Lawyer at the Supreme Administrative Court and the Court of Cassation has confirmed that there’s no specific article in the Egyptian law that directly criminalizes online harassment; whether it is included in the Egyptian Penal Code or texts criminalizing harassment in general in the Egyptian public law.
However, he added that Article 306 bis (a) of the amended Egyptian Penal Code states: “Whoever is exposed to others in a public or private place or is forcibly bringing on sexual or pornographic matters, suggestions, or hints; whether by reference, words, actions or by any other means – including wired or wireless communications, shall be punished with imprisonment for a period of no less than six months and a fine of no less than three thousand pounds, and no more than five thousand pounds – or by either of these two penalties.”
Egypt introduced laws against sexual harassment in 2014. These laws were introduced in a decree issued by interim president Adly Mansour.
“From a lawyer’s point of view, any woman who falls victim to sexual harassment, in general, should immediately report the case and take legal action by visiting the nearest police station in order to try and catch the accused. When women fail to report such cases out of shame, it only helps harassers get away with it,” said El-Shazly.
In order to get some real and raw information on how online sexual harassment is dealt with under the Egyptian Law, we paid a visit to the Cybercrime and Data Networks Unit, also known as the Internet Investigative Authorities (IIA) – located in El-Abbasiya, Nasr City.
It’s worth mentioning that their official headquarters is located inside The Ministry of Interior in the 1st Settlement, but since it’s not easily accessible to citizens, the police station in Abbasiya was created to better serve the people.
“I receive over 150 complaints or proclamations on a daily basis; from fraud [fake accounts, for instance], to sexual blackmails, harassments, threats and more.” a source at the IIA said.
The IIA source confirmed that this number tops the daily average of any other type of cases or complaints filed in different police stations. Moreover, he revealed that those cases are not always only filed by women, but men as well.
“We don’t call those cases online sexual harassment. Here, they fall under ‘indecent assault incidents’ – and they’re often disguised in various forms; such as pornographic movies and pictures [containing body parts] as well as sexual hints and remarks. For example, if someone receives a message that says ‘I wanna sleep with you’, it still falls under this category and is penalized under the law.” he added.
He also mentioned that only qualified police officers handle such cases from A to Z, adding to that the fact that details are not to be disclosed and cases are to be kept private – including the stories told by the victims within the walls of the station. And according to the law, only the officer responsible for the case can access its details and information.
The qualified officers who get assigned the case are often specialist technicians who know how to easily reach the accused harasser through the internet account which they used to commit the misconduct.
If the cases are filed in here [The IIA Station], they take no longer than two weeks for them to be done and solved. However, when they’re filed in other stations, they could take longer, as they have to send the details to us first. The accusers can easily track the follow-ups of their case through our 108 hotline
Apart from the online sexual harassment cases – known as indecent assault incidents, the amended Egyptian law also lists ‘internet stalkers’ under a different category referred to as ‘Misuse of Means of Communication’. This also falls under ‘Breach of Privacy’ and ‘Disturbance’.
Cyberstalking is an extension of the physical form of stalking, where the electronic mediums and digital platforms are used to pursue, harass, or contact another person in an unsolicited fashion.
According to the IIA source, Internet stalkers – under the Egyptian Law – as mentioned above, are the people who keep messaging someone nonstop without this person’s approval or consent, and they don’t necessarily have to have sent inappropriate content in order for the act to be treated as misconduct. Which is why they’re dealt with differently than those who commit indecent assaults.
The Internet Surveillance Authorities have multiple stations around Egypt other than the one in Abbasiya. The Stations are located in Assiut, Sohag, El-Menya, El-Monofeya, Tanta, and Damietta.
Should anyone wish to file a case, visiting the nearest police station is the thing to do. Even if it’s not specialized in those affairs because they’re immediately sent over [by the prosecutor’s office] to the Internet Investigative Authorities so that they can begin their technical work.
However, if the received documents lack the information needed by the authorities, most importantly, the evidence and link to the accused’s account, as previously stated; chances are – the case will be disregarded. This is why the IIA source explained that it’s better to file the case straight from their department in order to avoid this loop.
“If the cases are filed here, they take no longer than two weeks for them to be done and solved. However, when they’re filed in other stations, they could take longer, as they have to send the details to us first. The accusers can easily track the follow-ups of their case through our 108 hotline.” he added.
The source said that, under normal circumstances, cases take their normal cycle of being filed, investigated, reported, transmitted to the prosecutor’s office, getting a lawsuit number then moving to trial.
Nevertheless, in criminal cases [which include death threats…etc], an arrest warrant is issued and police officers and the law-enforcement department go on the hunt to catch the accused immediately.
* Some girls preferred to only have their first name disclosed
** For more information on the project, visit https://sexualharassmentonline.weebly.com
*** Project in partnership with Farah Rafik and Aya Aboshady