MENA women shake region out of sexual harassment silence

#MeToo in MENA: The women shaking the region out of its silence on sexual harassment
5 min read
09 March, 2021
Women from Morocco, to Egypt, Iran and Kuwait took their countries by storm in the past year through social media to break the silence on sexual assault and harassment.
Demonstrators attend a rally for International Women's Day in Iraq [Getty]
Women across the Middle East have recently been pushing forward with many #MeToo movements online, shaking the region and letting the world know, they will no longer be silent to abuse. 

Last year in March, Moroccan women headed a #MeToo movement in what was referred to as the Masaktach (I will not be silent) campaign.

A collective was launched on Twitter and Facebook, providing a platform for women who have been sexually abused to share testimonies anonymously.

Months later over the summer, women in Egypt and Iran revived their #MeToo movements to bring perpetrators of what became high-profile cases, to justice.

In Egypt, the movement was sparked after women came forward with details of sexual abuse they faced at the hands of a 22-year old student, Ahmed Bassam Zaki. Not long after, an allegation of a gang rape that took place at the five-star Fairmont Nile City hotel in Cairo in 2014 caused the movement to erupt once again.

Iranian women in early August joined their counterparts in the region and broke their silence on more than 130 men, accusing them of sexual misconduct. Women in Iran began sharing their stories on social media, speaking out against several public figures including a prominent artist, Aydin Aghdashloo. 

In the case of Egypt, towards the end of the year, the death of Mariam Mohamed, a 24-year-old Egyptian woman, pushed the movement to re-emerge. 

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As we headed into the new year, women in Kuwait became the latest example of the many women in the region spearheading movements to tackle sexual harassment. Kuwaiti fashion blogger, Ascia Al Faraj, uploaded an explosive video addressing the issue of harassment in the country.

What started as a video, led into a nation-wide digital movement, as women came forward with testimonies about being harassed or assaulted on the Instagram account "Lan Asket", Arabic for "I will not be silent". 

The #MeToo movements that emerged in Iran and Egypt in particular, both "forced societal reckoning, and led to the introduction of legal reforms and even the arrest and prosecution of suspected rapists," Sara Hashash, Middle East and North Africa Media Manager at Amnesty International tells The New Arab.

In societies where patriarchal structures are entrenched by law, and sexual violence is taboo, women in the region pushed critical discussions into the public domain, as the region continues their enduring battle against gender-based violence. 

The New Arab speaks to Rothna Begum, a senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, on what lies ahead in the long road to tackle gender-based violence.  

"The problem in Egypt is that you have Egyptian authorities who try to present themselves as being a winner. But in fact, under Sisi's administration we've seen this environment becoming worse for women in a number of ways," Begum tells The New Arab. 

"For instance the attacks on civil society are making the space for women to protect or support other women much weaker."

As the allegations of the Fairmount incident was going viral, Egyptian authorities insisted prosecution will take place against perpetrators. Egyptian officials, however, not only arrested suspects but detained witnesses, with some still being held in prison.

Begum describes this as a "dichotomy of a messaging, saying that they take sexual harassment seriously but at the same time, they want to undermine a very high-profile case and I will go after the very witnesses who came forward."

During the pandemic in the summer, Egyptian authorities began arresting a string of women and girls who had large platforms on the social media app Tik Tok, charging them for "immoral behaviour."

During the pandemic in the summer, Egyptian authorities began arresting a string of women and girls who had large platforms on the social media app Tik Tok, charging them for 'immoral behaviour'

Begum described the crack down as "going after women from lower socioeconomic classes" meanwhile depicting the government as "anything but a defender of women's rights. They are the ones going after and attacking women if anything."

What has changed since the #MeToo movement in Iran, is the recent approval of a 58-article bill to protect women in the country against domestic violence and other forms of violence.

The bill has been welcomed as a sign on the government's behalf putting forward protective mechanisms for women. On the other hand, the bill has its shortcomings, particularly as it does not criminalise marital rape and child marriages. 

Begum says Iran's death penalty as a punishment for rape also remains a problem since it deters women from coming forward.

"Knowing that if they bring the case forward, they could potentially have someone executed and not many women want to do that," she says. 

The criminalisation of pre-marital sex, however, acts as a deterrent for some women, in not only Iran but other parts of the region, when it comes to reporting rape allegations. 

"Women who may be willing to still report the rape are in a problematic position where they could find themselves being accused of having an illicit relationship or having sex outside of marriage. And, this is not just the case in Iran. This is a case also in many parts of the Gulf region, where sex outside of marriage is criminalised.

"Once you criminalise something like that you put rape victims, and assault victims at risk of being prosecuted when they've come forward to report the rape. The reporting or rape itself, acts as an admission of sex taking place. And so, it acts as a confession in a sense and is used against them," Begum tells The New Arab. 

Women from the region remain constrained by discriminatory legal frameworks, and the social media campaigns they have led during the pandemic has highlighted just that. 

"Until MENA governments cease to promote a culture of victim-blaming, police women's bodies and behaviours, prosecute women for exercising their human rights and prioritise women's rights, violence will remain a daily reality for many women and girls across the region," Hashash says.

Maedeh Sharifi is an Iranian-Arab journalist and writer with an interest in international relations and the Middle East region. 

Twitter: @maedeh_sharifi