CAIRO: Egyptian lawmakers are pushing for a new law to protect the identity of women coming forward to report sexual abuse and assault as the nation’s MeToo movement picks up speed. An Egyptian parliamentarian committee has approved a draft law that would give survivors of sexual assault and harassment the automatic right to anonymity, with the law expected to go to vote at a general session of the parliament later this month.
The moves comes as hundreds of women have started to speak up on social media about sexual assault in Egypt, with the public prosecution and National Council for Women supporting the movement and offering legal and social protection. Spurred on by the growing MeToo movement, data entry specialist Bassant Abdel Wahab, 22, went public recently about being sexually abused by a human rights activist when she was 17 and reported him to the civil society group where he works.
The man has now been suspended from his job while his organisation investigates Abdel Wahab’s complaint along with those of other female colleagues who accused him of assault. “Sexual assault incidents that have been hidden for years are continuing to surface and in a raging way,” Wahab said. “It is like a tsunami that could change attitudes and laws on sexual assault against women.”
The frequency of such cases being reported in the conservative Muslim country began to rise after the 2011 revolution as reports of sexual assaults, harassment and rape in Cairo’s Tahrir Square made local and international headlines. But this year there has been a spike in reporting about cases of sexual assault since early July when an Instagram page revealed the case of a university student who is accused of sexually assaulting and blackmailing multiple women. Within five days of the case being disclosed, the National Council for Women said that it had received 400 complaints mainly about violence against women.
Lawmaker Magda Nasr said the new law to allow anonymity of sexual abuse survivors will be a game changer for women in Egypt as it will give greater protection to report such cases. “There is an apparent political will to protect women rights and attempt to reduce as much as possible violence against women,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Nasr said the latest wave of complaints came after an Instagram page in July accused a university student of sexually assaulting and blackmailing multiple women. The student was arrested and the case is being investigated by the authorities.
The same Instagram account also exposed a gang rape said to involve six men from wealthy and powerful families that prosecutors are now investigating. Since then Egyptian actresses have spoken up against how they were subjected to sexual assault. One actress, Rania Youssef – who faced charges in 2018 that were later dropped after wearing a see-through outfit to the film festival – published photos of those responsible on social media.
In other cases two other human rights activists were accused of sexual assault against female employees and a Coptic priest was defrocked on sexual assault allegations. “It is a moment where women can have more gains in their fight against sexual abuse,” said lawyer Entessar El-Saeed, executive director of Cairo Foundation for Development and Law. El-Saeed said several non-governmental organisations and parliamentarians were also pushing for a unified law on violence against women that would provide greater protection for women and girls from sexual assault and blackmail.
The bill toughens penalties against sexual abuse in all forms, criminalizes rape within marriage, and includes better reporting mechanisms, confidentiality guarantees, and protection for witnesses and survivors. “The bill has been in the parliament for two years and it is now the perfect time to approve it,” said El-Saeed, who is the head of one of seven NGOs that drafted the bill. A 2017 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll found Cairo to be the most dangerous megacity for women, and 99% of women in Egypt interviewed by the United Nations in 2013 reported sexual harassment.
An outcry over attacks on women near Tahrir Square during President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s inauguration celebrations in 2014 prompted a new law punishing sexual harassment with at least six months in jail. But women rights activists view the law as too weak. “The penalty needs to be toughened and there needs to be legal mechanisms that make it easier for women to report and get their rights,” El-Saeed said. – Reuters