Shock and grief grip Egyptian city following murder of university student

Gruesome killing of 21-year-old Nayera Ashraf at the hands of suitor she rejected has rekindled debate about abuse of women in Egypt

Nayera Ashraf.
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Residents of the Egyptian city of Mansoura were rocked this week by the gruesome murder of a university student whose throat was slit on a busy street in front of hundreds of witnesses.

A video of the woman's murder on Monday morning was widely circulated on social media, triggering a nationwide outcry.

Following investigations ordered by the country’s prosecutor general, it was revealed that the murdered student, Nayera Ashraf, 21, had rebuffed repeated romantic advances from her killer.

The killer, in a confession given to prosecutors, said he had proposed marriage to Ashraf and her refusal led him to kill her.

The murder has also rekindled debate over the abuses suffered by women in the Arab world’s most populous nation, where a series of sexual assault cases has taken centre stage over the past couple of years in what many are calling Egypt’s #MeToo moment.

“I arrived at the spot where she was murdered moments after she had fallen on the floor. I was running to cross the street when he slit her throat twice,” Rowan Ayman, 21, a student at Mansoura University arts faculty and a close friend of Ashraf’s, told The National.

“She had already been stabbed multiple times in her chest and neck before he slit her throat. The amount of blood was too much to handle and I just fainted looking at the whole thing.”

A man lays down a flower at the memorial of Egyptian university student Nayera Ashraf, who was murdered in a gruesome incident captured on video and widely circulated on social media. Kamal Tabikha / The National

Following Ashraf’s murder, several women residents of Mansoura told The National that they have been afraid to leave their homes unchaperoned.

Outside the university's Toshka gate, near where the murder took place, a group of men waited in the scorching heat to escort women students back to their homes.

Nearby, a memorial for Ashraf was set up on the spot where traces of her blood could still be seen on the pavement.

“We held a vigil for her after the funeral. All her friends and colleagues attended it and left mementos and photos of her,” Ms Ayman said. “She was a prominent member of the student union and she was really well liked.”

On Thursday afternoon, mourners put up a large poster in her memory over the spot where she was killed.

In the photo on the poster, Ashraf is wearing a veil, though she was not veiled when she was alive — something that has angered many of her close friends.

A memorial outside Egypt's Mansoura University where Nayera Ashraf was brutally murdered by a man whom she had rejected a number of times. Kamal Tabikha / The National

“It is insulting to put a veil on her in the photo,” a 20-year-old student at Mansoura University told The National.

It’s like they were posthumously covering her up, which to me and a lot of people here sends the message that the way she dressed and her uncovered hair somehow played a part in her murder.”

The student asked to remain anonymous for fear that her opinion on the veil could cause backlash from her family and friends.

One of Egypt's conservative commentators, Mabrouk Attia, a TV presenter and professor of Islamic law at Al Azhar University, said in a widely denounced video that the way Ashraf dressed might have played a part in her murder. He urged women to cover up to save their lives.

The National Council for Women and its head, prominent feminist activist Maya Morsi, filed a lawsuit against Attia for his comments.

“The blood of the Mansoura student and others like her is on the hands of every cleric who went out and spoke about girls' clothes and how that they are somehow to blame for horrific incidents such as this,” Ms Morsi said in a statement.

Attia's opinion was also denounced by prominent women’s rights lawyer Nehad Abou El Qomsan, who posted a widely circulated Instagram live video in which she lauded the speed with which Ashraf's murderer was apprehended.

Ms Abou El Qomsan highlighted in her video how widespread incidents such as this are in Egypt and how more measures need to be taken to protect women.

What was most shocking was the fact that the murderer — who has since been referred to a criminal court in what is being called the fastest trial in Egypt’s history, set to take place on June 26 — was one of the faculty of arts’ top students.

“He was a fourth year student, one of the best in the whole university and also a troubled killer,” Ms Ayman said.

“It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around that. People always associate a college degree with civility or being polite or whatever, so I think a lot of people are shocked that this isn’t always the case.”

Residents who live or work on the street where the murder took place told The National that since Monday, mourners have been visiting Ashraf's memorial, with many breaking down in tears.

“I think the emotional state people are in is definitely because of how publicised the case got in the media,” said Abel Hegab, who witnessed the murder that happened a few metres from his shop.

“I mean, the loss of such a young woman is always a tragedy but things like this happen in Egypt and people don’t get so torn up.

“One man came here the day after and started ripping off his clothes in a state of hysteria. Everyone heard him screaming profanities at the killer who was in jail at the time and challenging him to try it again. It was like everyone lost their mind."

Many residents are calling Monday the blackest day in the city’s memory because, in addition to Ashraf's murder, a young man drove his car off a bridge and killed himself because his father refused to allow him to marry the woman he loved.

Furthermore, on the same day, a car accident in the city claimed the lives of three people, locals said.

As Sunday’s trial approaches, many of Ashraf's friends and family are concerned that her killer will not receive a death sentence, something they think he deserves.

A text chat between Ashraf and her killer shown to The National by Ms Ayman contained several death threats sent in the days leading up to her murder.

“I will separate your head from your body after what you did to me,” one message read, referring to her repeated rejections of his advances, which had been going on for months, leading Ashraf to stay home since the start of the spring term and only leave the house for exams, her friends said.

“This chat has not yet been shared with the authorities,” Ms Ayman said. “Her family, on the advice of their legal team, is keeping it under wraps until they see what strategy the killer’s lawyers take in their defence of him.

“What I and many people are worried about is that they prove that he was on drugs or that he wasn’t in a fit state of mind, which could definitely give him a more lenient sentence.”

Ashraf's friends referenced a similar incident last year in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia when a man beheaded another in the middle of a busy street.

“The Ismailia killer got the death sentence but then they reduced it to 15 years. I am worried this is what will happen to Nayera’s killer and that, in a decade or so, he will be out on the street killing again,” Ms Ayman said.

The way that Mansoura University reacted to Ashraf's murder has angered many of the city’s residents. The first statement issued by the university on Monday said that the murder did not take place inside the campus, which many people felt was an act of distancing itself from the case.

“They didn’t even offer condolences in the first notice they posted. That is not right. Two of your students’ lives are ruined and you respond in this way. That was truly disappointing,” Ms Ayman said.

Residents of the Egyptian city of Mansoura view a poster in memory of 21-year-old literature student Nayera Ashraf who was murdered outside the university gate on Monday, June 20. Kamal Tabikha / The National
Updated: June 24, 2022, 12:46 PM