#MeToo: The Egyptian Version

Limor Lavie examines the stormy debate that developed on Egyptian networks after a young Egyptian woman, Mina Jubran, shared videos documenting what she considered an indecent proposal from a passerby.

Instagram picture showing media personality Sally Abdelsalam with Menna Jubaran  (on the left)
Instagram picture showing media personality Sally Abdelsalam with Menna Jubaran (at left)

“I support Mina Jubran” was one of the most prominent hashtags disseminated on Egyptian social networks during the 2018 Eid al-Adha holiday.  It refers to the story of a young Egyptian woman who published a video on her Facebook page, which depicted a man approaching her on a prestigious Cairo avenue, and inviting her to accompany him to a nearby café after, she claimed, he followed her in his car.[1] Jubran had uploaded another video documenting a different man approaching her with a similar offer in the same area a year earlier.[2] The videos were soon viewed several hundred thousand times, and were subject to a barrage of impassioned responses, including messages of support and identification, some from other women who uploaded additional videos documenting instances of sexual harassment that occurred during the holiday. As a result, there was a heated discussion of the phenomenon, which is considered one of the worst evils in Egyptian society.[3]

In 2009, the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR) estimated that 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women in Egypt had experienced sexual harassment.[4] The findings in a UN-funded report in 2013 were even more severe, stating that 99.3% of Egyptian women had been sexually harassed at least once in their lives.[5] A survey conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation (a global information distribution service operated by Reuters News Agency) in 2017 ranked Cairo as the most dangerous metropolis in the world for women, and determined that their situation was worsening since 2011.[6] The increase in the prevalence of harassment is attributed to the events of the Arab Spring in Egypt, and the chaos that prevailed in the country during the transitional period after the fall of Mubarak.

Over the years, various initiatives have been taken by civil society organizations to combat sexual harassment. Some focus on promoting relevant legislation and severe punishment, while others seek to encourage discourse, raise awareness, and promote social involvement around the topic. Among the attempts to raise awareness of the phenomenon using online networks was the #AnaKaman (#MeToo) campaign launched last year, as the Egyptian equivalent of the global campaign for sharing incidents of sexual violence on social networks. However, the Egyptian campaign was not very popular, and only 140 people joined the Facebook group,[7] apparently because they feared public exposure, which entails the risk being arrested by the authorities. For example, Egyptian activist Amal Fathi was arrested in May after criticizing the government’s incompetence in dealing with sexual harassment,[8] and was sentenced, in late September, to two years in prison for  “spreading false information.”[9]

In the discussion that developed on social networks following publication of Jubran's film, the voices of users who rejected her claims of sexual harassment, and blamed her for her fate were conspicuous. Some of the respondents appeared to defend the alleged harasser, accusing Jubran of trying to promote herself at his expense. Others attacked her clothing, which they considered provocative, and claimed that she thereby invited that kind of attention, while her claims against the boy were ridiculed. The slogan “Come for coffee?” became a meme, a humorous viral motif circulate on the Internet. The Dunkin’ Donuts chain even used it briefly to advertise their cafés, but the advertisement was quickly removed.[10]

In the wake of the attacks on Jubran, the hashtag “I Support Mina Jubran" was launched, and became particularly popular after media personality Sally Abdelsalam shared an image of herself with Jubran on Instagram, as a sign of solidarity.[11] Among the responses posted using the hashtag, was one from a user who calls herself “a strong woman” and countered claims that this was not a case of sexual harassment: “Shame on a society that supports a harasser and attacks the victim. He [the harasser] approached her crudely and asked her to accompany him to a café, as if it were acceptable for someone to approach the sister [of any man] and invite her to sit with him in a café.”[12] Another user tweeted: “I support Mina Jubran and the right of every woman to walk safely, even if she is not to my liking and I do think her clothes are attractive. I support her and [take a stand] against spreading the ridiculous notion that her [Jubran’s] appearance justifies this attitude toward her. I support her because she has not committed any crime that justifies her being slandered in this way.”[13]

The debate moved beyond the Internet and reached the Al-Azhar Institute, the most important religious university in Egypt, and which is a religious authority throughout the Sunni world more generally. At the end of August, in an unprecedented manner, Al-Azhar denounced sexual harassment in a post on its Facebook page: “Harassment is prohibited and completely indecent behavior.” It also stated that Al-Azhar had followed the recent discussion on social networks, including allegations that a young woman was a participant in or responsible for the crime because of her behavior and dress, and ruled that “harassment by implication, words or actions, is forbidden and perverted behavior, according to the Sharia [Islamic religious law].”[14] Within a few days, the post was viewed and shared by tens of thousands. While some reactions welcomed the statement, the bombardment of reactions from users who emphasized women’s responsibility for the phenomenon continued, claiming that that in order to stop harassment women should stop using makeup, dress modestly and go out on the street only when accompanied by a relative who would protect them. In response to the Al-Azhar announcement, Egyptian user Yasser Ali wrote: “If only you would publish a post instructing young women to be modest and not dress up, in addition to scolding the young men. It’s two sides of the same coin.”[15]

Before the storm surrounding Jubran’s videos subsided, another story of sexual harassment was revealed in early September. This time, the victim was May Elshamy, a reporter for the Egyptian newspaper al-Youm al-Sabi‎, who filed a complaint of sexual harassment against one of her superiors. Elshamy also filed a complaint against the presenter of a television program who broadcast the claims of her alleged harasser, and supported his statements by contending that the complaint is an attempt to take revenge on him for political reasons, without giving her, or anyone on her behalf, the possibility to present a counterargument. In this case too, the reactions in the Egyptian networks were divided between supporters of the alleged harasser, and supporters of the victim who introduced the hashtag, “I support May Elshamy.”[16]

Egypt has taken a number of important steps in the struggle against sexual harassment, but they are only partly effective. The most prominent of these was amending the Penal Code in 2004, to define – for the first time – sexual harassment as a crime. However, the definition itself is quite narrow and does not cover all types of harassment. The cases described above show a change in consciousness, a willingness to be exposed, complain, resist and struggle against this disturbing phenomenon and its societal legitimation, while also revealing entrenched perceptions that blame the woman. Al-Azhar’s intervention in the issue is an important landmark, but of limited influence. The success of the struggle requires further significant steps in the fields of legislation, enforcement, public relations and education in Egypt.

[1] Youtube.com, 16 August 2018. Last accessed 30 August 2018.

[2] Youtube.com, 14 August 2018. Last accessed 30 August 2018.

[3] Mary Totry, “Women and the Arab Spring: The Phenomenon of Sexual Harassment in Egypt,” in Onn Winckler and Elie Podeh (eds.) The Third Wave: Protest and Revolution in the Middle East (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2017), 319-334 [Hebrew].

[4] Nehad Abul Komsan. “Sexual Harassment in the Arab Region: Cultural Challenges and Legal Gaps.” In Findings from the Conference on “Sexual Harassment as Social Violence, and its Effect on Women. 2009. Last accessed 29 August 2018.

[5] Deeb, B. E. “Study on Ways and Methods to Eliminate Sexual Harassment in Egypt: Results.” Outcomes and Recommendations Summary.

[6] "Study on ways and methods to eliminate sexual harassment in Egypt." New York: UN Women (2013). Last accessed 29 August 2018.

[7] #AnaKaman, Facebook.com.  Last accessed 29 August 2018.

[8] Youtube.com, 14 August 2018.  Last accessed 29 August 2018.

[9] “Egypt: Woman human rights defender and sexual harassment survivor sentenced for speaking out”, Amnesty International, 29 September 2018. Last accessed 2 October 2018.

[10] Mohamed Khairat, “'Teegy Neshrab Coffee?' Egyptians Mock Sexual Harassment,” EGYPTIAN STREETS, 16 August 2018. Last accessed 4 September 2018.

[11] @Sally Abdelsalam, Facebook.com, 23 August 2018.  Last accessed 29 August 2018; @sallyabdalsalam, Instagram.com, 21 August 2018. Last accessed 5 September 2018

[12] @su5ryat_alqadar, Twitter.com, 29 August 2018. Last accessed 29 August 2018.

[13] @SodfaBa3dechi, Twitter.com, 21 August 2018. Last accessed 5 September 2018.

[14] @OfficialAzharEg, Facebook.com, 27 August 2018.  Last accessed 29 August 2018.

[15] Ibid.

[16]@May Elshamy, Facebook.com, 2 September 2018. Last accessed 4 September 2018.