On June 20, in broad daylight, Nayera Ashraf was standing outside Mansoura University in Egypt, where she was a student, after disembarking from a bus that had brought her from another city. A male student walked up to her, and proceeded to stab her several times – she died that same day.
Her supposed “provocation”, according to the murderer, was quite simple: Ashraf had refused his advances and rejected his proposal of marriage. The killer has been arrested, and faces prosecution – a prosecution that seems to be rather straightforward, considering he admitted his guilt, and that there are multiple eye witnesses and recordings from surveillance cameras at the scene.
But the case is not just as simple as one single individual behaving like a barbarian. Unfortunately, the situation is much wider than that – and raises the question of gender-based violence, which is an issue that not only Egyptians, but people all around the world, need to recognise with far more urgency.
In 2020, Egyptian singer Tameem Youness released a song called Salmonella, which he claimed was meant to be a satirical look at how some men react when faced with rejection from a woman. The video that went along with the song, however, clearly showed that such men might resort to violence as a result, and it did not appear to clearly denounce such violence. Youness’s song was condemned by many in Egyptian society, with the outrage leading him to remove it from circulation, although he insisted that he was not inciting violence against women.
When images of violence are normalised, incidents of violence become more likely; when rhetoric about violence is normalised, incidents of violence become more likely. Youness’s song was only one of many instances in which societal expressions of violence against women have become normalised. Thankfully, in Youness’s case, there was immense pushback – but the damage was done.
One cannot draw a straight line between a song like this and the murder of Ashraf two years later; but it is also impossible to draw a sharp distinction between such normalisation and violence itself. More than that, as Nehad Abo El Komsan, a human rights lawyer in Egypt argued, “as long as we do not take the complaints of young women seriously, and as long as we say that those fighting for women’s rights are ‘emboldening girls and causing trouble’, this will be the result.”
It is not simply how we treat the attempted normalisation of such imagery, such as Youness’ song; it is also how we treat those who push back against enforcement of the rights of women. The latter should not simply be tolerated, but should be championed, publicly so.
It would be foolhardy to argue that Egypt is singularly unique in this problem, however, as seems to be tempting in some quarters. According to data released by UN Women last year, 97 per cent of Britain’s young women reported they had been sexually harassed, with 70 per cent of women across age groups saying they had been sexually harassed in public. The UN further notes that almost nine in 10 women in some cities around the world feel unsafe in public spaces.
Moreover, the systems in place to reduce or combat that kind of violence or harassment quite simply are not working. That same study from the UK showed that 45 per cent women didn’t feel that reporting their harassment to the authorities would help them – and thus only a few even bothered. That is not their fault; it is the result, plainly, of experience.
Some will, regrettably, try to cloud the issue by “explaining” sexual harassment or gender-based violence by changing the subject to how women dress, or how difficult it is for young men to find fulfilment in their lives in difficult economic or political circumstances. This is appalling – and a trap. The point of such discourse is to misdirect responsibility, and also to set up mistaken frames. Ashraf could have been dressed in a phone-box costume from Dr Who; she would still have been targeted by her assailant. Women who complain about sexual harassment the world over are dressed in a huge variety of ways; their dress is not the point. Rather, it’s an excuse that is used to justify unjustifiable treatment.
We see similar discourses emerging about the sorry state for young men, also worldwide, and how this explains their regrettable behaviour. It is the same kind of nonsensical victim blaming that tries to “explain” the normalisation of the far-right, by blaming people of colour for the growing popular nature of such extremism.
But the reality is the same in all these cases: that appalling attitudes become mainstreamed when those in positions of authority, societal and otherwise, fail to take a stance that is clear, direct, and uncompromising. That applies to extremism of all types – including this deadly type of misogyny.