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Mariam Mohamed's death reignites Egypt's digital #MeToo movement Open in fullscreen

Elizabeth Neoman

Mariam Mohamed's death reignites Egypt's digital #MeToo movement

Egyptians take to the streets in 2013 to protest sexual harassment against women. [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 November, 2020

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The death of a 24-year-old Egyptian woman in Cairo has served as another catalyst for the digital feminist movement in Egypt.
The recent death of Mariam Mohamed, a 24-year-old Egyptian woman, has spurred a viral wave of shock and outcry on social media. 

On 13 October, Mariam was walking home in the Maadi neighbourhood of Cairo when three men in a white microbus grabbed her handbag in an attempted robbery.

The assault caused her to lose her balance and get dragged underneath the moving car, which eventually caused her to hit a parked car that fatally injured her. Several media outlets also initially reported that the perpetrators had sexually or verbally harassed her. 

People quickly circulated the story on Twitter, demanding justice and accountability, with many using the hashtags ​#فتاة_المعادي (Maadi girl), ​#حق_مریم_فین (Where are Mariam's rights) and العدالة_لمریم#​ (Justice for Mariam). 

Many users saw the murder as a reflection of widespread sexual harassment and sexual violence in Egypt. Instagram accounts such as @catcallsofcairo and @therapewhistle also posted about the murder. 

But some people criticised the harassment framing of the case after the Egyptian Public Prosecution released a statement on 14 October, which did not mention that sexual harassment or assault had taken place. 

Activists and women's rights organisations have long spoken out against sexual assault, harassment, and gender-based violence in Egypt, mobilising significantly within the past decade

"People on Instagram - predominantly men - started accusing accounts of spreading fake news. This kind of discourse bled into Twitter. We saw a lot of Tweets that blamed the victim," Joey Shea,​ ​a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy​ ​who researches digital rights, information controls, and the impact of technology in the SWANA region, told The New Arab.

"Theft is still a form of harassment, and gender always plays a role. Even if not as overtly gendered, it is impossible to disentangle Mariam's gender from this." 

Sara, a 22-year-old student at the American University in Cairo, agreed. "This didn't happen in a vacuum, it's part of a long pattern of incidents," she said. "How often does a man get dragged on the ground by a car? Being harassed is basically an everyday occurrence for me and many girls I know." 

Egyptian activists and women's rights organisations have long spoken out against sexual assault, harassment, and gender-based violence in Egypt, mobilising significantly within the past decade.

During the mass sexual assaults of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, they formed coalitions, relaunched the Egyptian Feminist Union, and later established Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Assault (OpAntiSH), which trained volunteers to intervene in the Tahrir Square mob attacks and offered support to survivors.

Some people don't consider this #MeToo Movement to be as political as other campaigns, but any sort of narrative that isn't sanctioned by the state is incredibly difficult to amplify

However​​insufficient legal definitions of sexual harassment, violence and assault, and legal repercussions against accusers, continue to pose legal barriers to prosecution and discourage many survivors from coming forward. Advocates have pushed for more comprehensive laws on gender-based violence and sexual harassment in an ongoing struggle. 

But this past July, the fight against sexual harassment and sexual violence resurfaced after 22-year-old student Nadeen Ashraf launched an Instagram page with the handle @assaultpolice, exposing former AUC student Ahmed Bassem Zaki as a sexual predator. 

Read more: 'Educate, partner up!' Could Egypt's growing sexual harassment problem usher in a digital #MeToo?

Within a day, fifty people had messaged the page with anonymous testimonies that prompted Zaki's arrest and were used as evidence against him in the official trial. The account later exposed the Fairmont crime, an alleged gang rape that took place in the Fairmont Nile City Hotel in Cairo in 2014. 

Both events were major catalysts for a digital feminist movement that many have dubbed as Egypt's #MeToo movement, and have even led to legal reform, including a new law that protects the identity of accusers. 

Social media has made this a global movement and I think the momentum will allow us to make progress

Social media has been pivotal in fuelling the movement. Shea emphasised that without social media, "it would be quite difficult, in the current media atmosphere, for any non-state group to organize and bring awareness of any social, economic, or political issue. Some people don't consider this #MeToo Movement to be as political as other campaigns, but any sort of narrative that isn't sanctioned by the state is incredibly difficult to amplify." 

Instagram Post

Zeina, who founded the Instagram page @catcallsofcairo in 2019, explained that seeing more people publicly come forward on social media platforms has empowered many survivors.

The page provides a link where people can anonymously submit stories of public harassment and assault, and regularly hosts Instagram lives and posts infographics on topics like consent and privilege. 

"My main mission is to raise awareness, but more importantly to have a safe space for survivors to tell their stories - that helps a lot," she said. "Most of the people have not told their stories before because of the shame and social taboo. A lot of people have internalized a culture of victim-blaming." 

She hopes that Mariam's case will "wake people up to the reality," and put more pressure on the legal system to implement more stringent laws against sexual harassment, sexual violence, and gender-based violence. 

Some Twitter users, like Andrew, who posted a viral Tweet condemning the murder, feel that the Mariam Mohamed case will expand the conversation around sexual assault and harassment, especially gender-based violence that may not inherently be sexual in nature. 

"This has opened up larger conversations about gender, discrimination, and harmful cultural attitudes." As a male survivor of sexual assault, he said he hopes that the conversations on social media encourage men and non-binary folks to speak up about their own experiences.

He also hopes that more men engage with the movement to think critically about their privilege, practice consent, and become better allies. 

"Being angry communally is very cathartic," said Sara. "The outrage on social media makes me feel that at least there are people who care, and that we can do something. I have hope that it will happen in this generation." 

As more Instagram and Twitter pages like @catcallsofcairo, @assaultpolice, and @rapewhistle pop up throughout Egypt, amplifying cases like Mariam's and drawing attention to sexual harassment, violence, and gender-based violence, many hope that cultural and legal changes will follow. 

"This movement has made clear how we will get justice," said Zeina. "Social media has made this a global movement and I think the momentum will allow us to make progress." 

Elizabeth Neoman is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, where she majored in English and minored in human rights, focusing on the SWANA region.

She later researched domestic human rights violations and worked on communication strategies as an intern at ReThink Media through a joint program with the Arab American Institute. 

Follow her on Twitter: @elneoman

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