Facebook as an Instrument of Women Empowerment in Patriarchal Egypt

The last decade, particularly after the Egyptian revolution in 2011 that has been started from Facebook, a spark of courage has been fired up within Egyptian women, and luckily, unlike other sparks that vanished into thin air since then, this spark is still on. Egyptian women continued using Facebook as a free public sphere to combat violence and inequality.

Although the path is still long, some positive social and political changes can be seen; especially when it comes to two of the most prevalent and harmful norms that violates the bodily autonomy of women, sexual harassment and female genital mutation.  

A United Nations Women report found that over 99% of Egyptian women have suffered sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime. According to the national 2014 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), 92 percent of Egyptian married women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM , 72 percent of whom by doctors.

Deep rooted patriarchal beliefs are engrained in the Egyptian culture. The actual causes are complicated and often controversial, but some studies connect this to a broader structure of political and economic injustice.

As with any severe patriarchal system, in Egypt women are looked upon as inferior beings compared to men. According to a study by Promundo and UN Women, only one in four men in the Arab world and the Middle East believes in gender equality and equal opportunities for men and women.

Women who argue for their rights usually be accused to be corrupted by Western beliefs and face harmful consequences. These western beliefs are usually not considered organic nor matching with the Islamic conservative culture. Accordingly, women who speak against any violence are usually blamed and shamed into silence and led to believe that violence in justified.

However, lately a huge change is noticeable. They have become less fearful and more vocal about their rights. Using Facebook, they share their traumatic experiences, raise awareness, and call for help when needed. Most importantly, instead of being scared to be shamed and blamed, they now shame and expose harassers.

A recent and famous example for this is the case of the predator Ahmed Bassam  Zaki, 22 years old student, who was accused of sexual crimes by over 50 women in 2020. Zaki used to blackmail his victims by threatening to release compromising material of them in order to blackmail them into sexual act. The process of exposing Zaki started when a colleague of him posted a warning of him on Facebook. This post was an encouraging push for many of his victims to speak up. Thousands of posts and hashtags were followed calling for justice for the victims and prosecuting the predator. Zaki was then sentenced to 8 years of prison last April.

Another recent incident is a case widely known as Maadi Harasser case where a man was caught by a surveillance camera of an entrance of a private property sexually abusing a child. During the incident, a woman saw the harasser through that camera and immediately came out to the entrance where she confronted him and saved the little girl. Later, she posted that video on her personal Facebook page. The video went viral, and later the sexual harasser, Mohamed Goudet, was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of prison.

A further incident that left a huge impact is the death of 12 years old, Nada Abdul Maksud, in 2020 while undergoing FGM. This resulted in an outrage on Facebook calling to end this deadly practice.

These cases are just a few of many more cases that were highlighted by Facebook. Role of Facebook here is how it redistributed the power. Oppressing the voices and controlling the information is not as easy as it was before the existence of social media. Pressuring the government to act through Facebook takes a form of thousands of posts, hashtags and comments which will turn a specific topic or an incident to a public opinion case which has occurred in the previously mentioned cases. Although that pressure doesn’t always succeed to achieve its goal, some positive law reforms are achieved.

In August 2020, a law was passed to protect the identities of women who report sexual abuse.

In January 2021, the Egyptian parliament approved a draft law amending the Egyptian penal code to strengthen penalties against the crime of female genital mutilation (FGM).

In July 2021, the Egyptian parliament approved harsher penalties for sexual harassment and related crimes. The penalty for sexual harassment was increased from a minimum of one year in prison to a minimum of five years, or a penalty of up to 300,000 Egyptian pounds ($19,100), up from 20,000 pounds.

However, the government should take further steps to guarantee safety for women who decided to report their abusers. This could be done by facilitating the process of reporting any kind of gender-based violence and ensuring to enforce the law equally regardless of the women’s socioeconomic status.

One can't cure a symptom without at least acknowledging the disease. Lately, a noticeable acknowledgment of the disease can be recognized. Facebook has given everyone a platform that is immediate and accessible which helped unleashing the potential for Egyptian women to push back against patriarchy. These collective feminist voices are currently creating highly political, revolutionary, and unapologetic feminist narratives that are reaching the whole Middle East and North Africa region. They are in the process of reshaping the public opinion which will eventually result in a collective social action. Patriarchy which once was constructed and can be deconstructed.

Guest author

Yossra Ismail from Egypt

Contributions by external authors do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors.

January 2022