Second university student killing deepens concerns for women's safety in Egypt

Salma Bahgat's death on August 9 at the hands of a man whose marriage proposal she turned down bears a striking similarity to the death of Nayera Ashraf in June, who was killed for the same reason

Salma Bahgat, 20, was stabbed to death by a man after spurning his offer of marriage. Photo: @maitelsadany / Twitter
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The stabbing of university student Salma Bahgat, 22, in the Egyptian province of Sharqia on Tuesday at the hands of a male colleague whose advances she continually rejected is the latest in a series of violent crimes against women in the Arab world’s most populous nation.

Bahgat’s suspected killer, Islam Mohamed, was referred to a criminal court on Thursday night after extensive confessions he gave to prosecutors, in addition to 15 eyewitness accounts of the attack carried out at a residential building in the city of Zagazig.

He told prosecutors that he had been in a relationship with Bahgat when she decided to cut things off because his thoughts were too subversive (leaning towards atheism), and she feared that her religious family would not approve of his lifestyle or the many tattoos that cover his arms, torso and neck.

Mr Mohamed confessed that the murder was premeditated, a fact corroborated by a Facebook post he made days before the incident, in which he threatened to “shake God’s very throne” with what he intended to do to Bahgat after she rejected him.

Bahgat’s killing bore a disturbing resemblance to the June murder of university student Nayera Ashraf, 21, who had her throat slit on a busy street in the city of Mansoura by Mohamed Adel, a fellow student who has since been sentenced to death.

The incident has breathed new life into an ongoing national debate about women’s safety from violent crimes in Egypt, with many saying they do not feel safe leaving their homes.

"Being a woman in Egypt and on Egyptian Twitter is wild and kind of scary right now. Two cases of campus femicide in a month," Nadeen Madkour wrote on Twitter.

After Ashraf’s murder, thousands of social media users expressed sympathy for her killer, with former Al Azhar cleric Mabrouk Attia saying in a statement he has since retracted that Ashraf’s clothing played a part in her murder. He urged Egyptian families to teach their daughters modesty so they don’t provoke men into hurting them.

Similarly, after Bahgat was stabbed on Tuesday, commentators on social media reacted by advising women to not associate with men when they are at university, because it will only bring them trouble.

“A message to all female high school or university students. Don’t get to know any men or accept help from any men while in university. Don’t put your families at risk of shame if a boy decides to post a private photo of you or question your honour,” Ayman Awad wrote on Facebook.

Another user, Tawfiq El Sertawy, in a Facebook post said that “this is what happens when people conduct illicit relationships, you let your daughters date boys and then give us a headache when they get murdered”.

On the other hand, others noted some important differences between Bahgat and Ashraf, especially the fact that while Ashraf was fashionable, not veiled and had been pursuing a career as a model, Bahgat, a hijabi, was particularly pious, according to several friends.

“The girl who was murdered in Zagazig was veiled, a true believer and she was killed for the same reason as Naira Ashraf. I am interested to see what our hypocritical society is going to say about this,” wrote Twitter user DR Amin.

Furthermore, some commentators are noting a certain irony at play in the nation’s response to Bahgat’s murder, namely the fact that even though Mr Mohamed confessed to prosecutors that the victim’s family turned down his formal marriage request because of his tattoos and his lifestyle, a clear indication that her family holds religion in high regard, they are still being blamed for allowing their daughter to interact with men.

“It’s really astonishing the lengths that people will go to explain away men’s violence against women in Egypt. It just shows how deeply rooted this kind of thinking is. Have we forgotten that someone was murdered? Why is everyone making this about men and women co-mingling and inappropriate relationships?” Aya Gad, 27, a filmmaker, told The National.

Although Ashraf’s killer, Mohamed Adel, was given a death sentence on July 6, a volunteering lawyer submitted an appeal against the sentence on Wednesday to the Egypt’s Court of Cassation, claiming that “psychological pressures” were the reason he committed the murder.

Such efforts to defend Adel were said by women’s rights lawyer Nihad Aboul Komsan to be the result of foreign intervention from extremist Islamist groups seeking to disseminate a deeply conservative ideology in Egypt.

She said that if Adel is indeed executed, it will send a message that men will be held accountable for breaking the law, even if, in their minds, they were simply exercising their God-given supremacy over women.

“This will mark a shift in the nation’s ideology [whose effects] conservatives are concerned about,” Ms Gad said.

A large number of social media users support the death penalty for Bahgat’s killer, Islam Mohamed, describing it as the only effective deterrent to the country’s rampant gender-based violence problem.

On Thursday, almost two years after its issuance by a Cairo criminal court, the death penalty was carried out on two men who, in 2018, killed a young woman in the district of Maadi while attempting to rob her.

Updated: August 12, 2022, 12:40 PM