Women’s rights activists say silence of sexual assault victims remains main challenge

Nehal Samir
17 Min Read

“I cannot remember exactly what happened to me, I cried, shouted, asked for help but all of this was in vain, and the only thing that is still in my mind is that it took me decades to overcome this bad incident.” For victims of sexual assault and rape, these are some of the most common words and phrases they usually voice. 

Yet despite these feelings of being voiceless and unable to speak out, some brave young women are finding the courage to go public with their experiences, particularly when they see others doing so.

This urge to speak out, buoyed by the bravery of others, is exactly what has recently happened in Egypt.

In early July, social media exploded with posts accusing an Egyptian man in his early twenties of rape, sexual assault, and harassment. With hashtags and posts going viral on several social media platforms and many victims finding their voice to speak out, other young women were encouraged to share their stories. On 6 July, Egypt’s Public Prosecution ordered his pre-detention for four days.

Aml Abdel Moneim, Director of the National Council for Women’s (NCW) Complaints Office, told Daily News Egypt that, since the launch of the social media hashtag implicating perpetrator Ahmed Bassam Zaki, her office has seen a daily 60%-70% increase in the number of complaints of sexual harassment, rape, and sexual assault.

“The number of sexual harassment, assault, and rape complaints received by the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) has increased by 70% from the first day of the hashtag,” said Gawaher Eltaher, Lawyer and Director of the Access to Justice Programme at CEWLA.

However, Magda Adly, President of El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, told Daily News Egypt that there is still a disparity between what is happening on social media and what is going on off it.

“Maybe the communications either through social media or women’s right intuitions have hiked, but unfortunately, we are talking to ourselves as females and we are still afraid of filing an official complaint,” Adly said.

Magda Adly

With this in mind, it raises two main questions: Why do women who have experienced sexual assault take so long to speak out? Why are they afraid to file official complaints?

“There are global trends that mean the girls prefer silence following sexual harassment, including the fear of their families, the fear of scandal, the fear of facing the culprit, in addition to preferring not to narrate the details of the incident that has caused them pain,” Abdel Moneim added. 

Going into denial

“When I was 25 years old, a security guard in one of the prominent malls attacked me while I was in the toilet and put his hand on my private area and I was shocked,” said Nada Ahmed, a 30-year-old victim. “After that, I got post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and, in my mind, I was in denial that this had happened to me.”

After seeing the recent bravery of young women speaking out about their horrific experiences in Ahmed Bassam Zaki case, Nada said she felt encouraged to talk about her sexual assault story. 

Health and life coach Heba Zayed told Daily News Egypt that the mind can create defensive mechanisms against particularly traumatic experiences. As a result, it sometimes deletes the trauma and shuts down the painful experience, making women who fall victims to rape and sexual assault forget the incident for some time as if it has not happened at all. It can sometimes take decades for a new experience or observation to trigger the mind into remembering the incident again.   

Regarding the question of why girls have decided to speak out now, Zayed said that psychological impulses differ from one person to another. It could be that when someone starts talking, young women feel that they are not alone in their experiences. They may wish to help others, or they may feel that this is the most appropriate time to talk.

Heba Zayed

Sex taboo makes her words doubted

“I was sexually harassed by the sheikh who was teaching me and helping me memorise the Qur’an,” Hend Ali, a 25-year-old victim of sexual harassment, told Daily News Egypt.

She added that if she had told even her own family what had happened, no one would have believed her.

“Girls have been raised to believe that sex is taboo, so that when they are raped or sexually harassed, women began to doubt that they are victims,” Zayed said.

“Women are raised to believe that smiling [at strangers] is wrong, talking in public is wrong, and families would criticise most of their behaviours and allow most of these behaviours for men,” she added.

Zayed added that, as a result, younger girls are simply not taught that she has the right to file a complaint or to say that she has been sexually harassed. The first thing she does, automatically, due to the patriarchal society in which she has been brought up, is to doubt herself and believe that it is she is the one at fault.

Shame and blame

“If I have said that I would like to file a report against the harasser, the whole family would blame me, as he is the Sheikh and I am a child,” Hend Ali said.

Ali is not alone, Eltaher said, noting that most of the cases that CEWLA receives have refused to make an official complaint at the police station, as their parents believe that the females will be stigmatised if they do so.

Adly also explained that people still fear being stigmatised due to the patriarchal culture, which will always blame the victims of assault and harassment. This could either be for going public and announcing the harassment, or picking up on how she was dressed, or how she was talking – not because of anything the perpetrator may have done. Many victims also fear that word will spread besmirching her own reputation, despite her not being at fault.

“The culture still deals with the victim of sexual assault as if she is a prostitute, not a victim, no woman would choose to put herself in that situation just to retaliate except for a small minority,” Adly said.

Fear of entering a police station

“Two years ago, I was sexually harassed in a bus, and I decided to go to the police station and file an official complaint against the harasser,” one victim of sexual harassment, who requested anonymity, said. “First I told one of the officers that I want to file a charge against a harasser and that I know him, but the police man made fun of me and neglected my request.”

She continued that she was left feeling uncomfortable when narrating the details of the incident to the policemen.

Eltaher said that a lot of cases of sexual assault involving female victims that centre receives are also afraid of entering a police station.

Both Eltaher and Adly explained that the girls are also afraid of the officers’ attitudes and treatment of them whilst they are at the police station.

“Since 2014, there are supposed to have been anti-violence units for women, in which a female officer is assigned to listen to the victims of sexual assault while they file a complaint, but these units have unfortunately not been activated in all police stations in Egypt, and the female officers are not available 24 hours,” they said.

Adly noted, “Subsequently, what happens in the police stations is that the masculine, patriarchal culture dominates, and sometimes the girl is harassed again, my words are not individual but documented cases.”

Narrating the incident’s details

“I thought many times to talk of what happened, but I could not when I decided to talk as I was feeling that I am stressed and could not breathe,” another victim, who requested anonymity, said. “Just remembering only the details makes me cry again, and after telling the story to my family, I felt traumatised for many months until I recovered again.”

“In general it has not been an easy thing to narrate something painful again, or to narrate a moment or situation where you feel weak, people always have a fear to reveal their weak side to anyone,” Heba Zayed said.

Mohamed Samir

Difficulty of proof

Adly said that sometimes the difficulty of legally proving the incident makes the victims unwilling or extremely hesitant to file a complaint, due to their doubts regarding their rights.

“Except for rape, proving the crime of harassment and molestation is very difficult, as in these cases there are no material effects on the victim that could be analysed,” said Mohamed Samir, Spokesperson for the Administrative Prosecution Authority. “It is also difficult to find witnesses unless the accident happened in the street or was filmed, but most of the time it happens in a enclosed area where there will be no witnesses, unless it is a rape, in which case we could analyse the DNA..”

He added that if many others accused the same perpetrator of harassing them, with no interest relationship between them, the prosecution and the court could consider this as a proof or evidence for the crimes committed.

Adly said that girls sometimes cannot access justice, as sometimes the perpetrator may counter accuse the victim of a crime such as theft. This would end up in a legal entanglement, with a complaint of harassment against a complaint of theft, meaning the woman has to give up the case to save her reputation, and subsequently in that case the harasser also gives up the theft accusation. 

Absence of victim assistance and witness protection law Samir and Adly also mentioned that some women prefer not to file an official complain as there is no law for protecting information of witnesses and victims who file the complaints. In cases such as these, the culprit’s family may take the victim’s personal information to use in blackmail or extortion. Adly added that sometimes the threat reaches the extent of throwing acid in a woman’s face causing yet further physical and psychological trauma.

Does statute of limitations affect rights?

Regarding how much time passes after a crime is committed Samir said that it must first be legally classified. He explained that all forms of harassment as defined by the Egyptian Penal Code and its amendments do not include any touch to the female body.

He explained further that harassment includes using sexual erms, looks and stalking, as well as electronic or offline messages. However, when it moves to the stage of touching the female body, this enters into the felony of the molestation.

Harassment is a misdemeanour punishable by imprisonment of between three months and a maximum of two years. Meanwhile, molestation is a felony punishable by imprisonment starting from three years to a maximum of seven years, whilst rape is a felony, punishable by imprisonment of 25 years in jail and capital punishment.

“The harassment misdemeanour collapses if the victim has not filed an official complaint against the harasser within three years of the incident, while the molestation case lapses if an official complaint against the culprit is not filed within ten years,” Samir said.

Unified law needed

“We have to cultivate community awareness to turn the stigma to the offender instead of the victim,” Samir said, “We have also to make a list of predators like that in the US, which is a public list that includes names of those convicted and whom judicial rulings were issued against them, where the harasser’s name is removed from the list after three years, while during the three years the offender has to provide his status from this list in any new place of residence or any new job.”

Agreeing with Samir, Heba Zayed said that we must raise our children on equality and that female children have rights. Zayed added that children must also be raised with an awareness of what constitutes violations of sexual parts, and what they can do to counter crimes in this area.

Solving the problem of victims of sexual assault remaining silent requires a lot of procedures, including social and governmental. Most importantly, however, is the need to have a unified law for violence against women. 

More than 14 women rights institutions, including CEWLA and the El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, have in a joint press statement called for a unified law on violence against women.

This would devote a full chapter to updating and expanding the definitions of various forms of violence against women, including the concept of rape for both adults and minors. It would also cover stalking and define the prosecution of crimes carried out on social networks, in addition to defining new concepts of sexual crimes that provide greater protection for women and girls from extortion and sexual exploitation.

The unified law would see practical and effective intervention regarding the definition of stakeholders to facilitate the reporting mechanism, protecting witnesses and whistleblowers, and provide protection for personal data for all parties to crimes of sexual violence.

The draft law was adopted by Member of Parliament Nadia Henry, who has already obtained the signature of 66 deputies from parliament.

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