Something extraordinary happened in Egypt over the past week. Starting on July 1, dozens of women began coming forward with allegations of rape, sexual assault and harassment against a young man, sharing evidence, details and messages that supported the accusation that he was a sexual predator. More than 50 have come forward, according to local media.
On social media, a hashtag labelling him the "motaharresh," a word that encompasses sexual harassment and assault, was trending in Egypt. The country's public prosecutor opened an investigation and the man was detained.
Rather than blaming the victims by alluding to their personal life or dress choice or implying that they were 'asking for it', a critical mass of public sentiment emerged in support of the women and girls.
The Egyptian public prosecutor urged any woman who had experienced abuse by the perpetrator to speak out. The National Council of Women and other public personalities, including celebrities, influencers and talk show hosts, expressed support for the accusers.
Al Azhar, the premier institution for Islamic learning, declared its support for victims of sexual assault, and said its scholars would publish a call urging women who suffered sexual abuse to come forward and for society to support them.
The institute’s newspaper has decided to dedicate its front page to the issue, with the headline: “Reassure your daughters.”
This is an incredible moment of reckoning that can have far-reaching consequences in the region. The coalescing of public, governmental and religious backing for the victims should be an impetus for Egypt and more broadly, across much of the region, to deal with sexual harassment, abuse and the patriarchal power structures that enable these pervasive problems.
The accusations against this man began resurfacing on social media last week, years after he was accused on a popular Facebook page that primarily included American University of Cairo students but was unaffiliated with the institution. The deletion of the post featuring the accusations and the accounts of women who shared their suffering appears to have spurred dozens more to share stories of being abused by him.
The man was detained over the weekend, and the public prosecution has charged him with a range of offences, including attempted rape, harassment and blackmail, based on the testimony of three women and an underage girl. The indictment will likely be expanded as more and more women speak out.
And therein lies the true potential of the moment – it may drive a shift in the narrative towards supporting the rights of the victims and encouraging them to raise their voices, rather than retreat under a cloud of shame, beaten down by cultural attitudes that blame them for being victims of a social epidemic.
Cairo is one of the world’s most dangerous cities for women. At least 60 per cent of Egyptian women have been victims of harassment, according to a UN Women survey. But these attitudes are not limited to Egypt.
In countries across the region, 'honour' killings continue even in cases where the woman is a victim of sexual abuse – because she supposedly besmirched the family’s reputation. The practice continues to be accepted by a sizeable minority in Arab countries. Laws that permit rapists to marry their victims still exist.
It is evident that even the possibility of being a victim of sexual harassment comes with societal costs. In Syria, former female detainees say they have difficulty integrating back into society after their release because they are often assumed to have been sexually violated by the government’s security services during their imprisonment.
Our cultures privilege concepts such as satr (literally covering up or shielding) and avoiding kalam al nas (the talk of the people) over the rights of victims to seek justice and accountability for violent crimes.
The public outpouring of solidarity for the victims of this man is heartening and long overdue. So is the open backing and encouragement by the authorities and the public prosecution for the victims, and the pledges that their stories will be heard impartially, as well as Al Azhar’s religious sanction of those who wish to come forward with their stories.
It will take longer to instil a broader societal shift. That would require laws that punish abuse and protect the rights of victims; for religious leaders to encourage women to come forward; and a wider, continuous campaign to push the narrative away from shame and towards empowerment.
But the onus also falls on us men as individuals and members of families who benefit from patriarchal privilege, not just in the Arab world. The “system” does not simply exist because governments and religious figures don’t challenge it. It exists because we are all complicit.
Power structures that privilege men exist in every home, college and street around the world. And every time we ignore that catcall made by someone we know or do it ourselves, every time a man stares, honks, leers, every unwanted touch and advance – each of those actions perpetuates the culture of harassment and makes the world even more unsafe for women.
Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada