The Secret Blacklist of Palestinian Sexual Harassers and Rapists

One young woman from Egypt sparked a revolution by revealing how egregious sexual harassment is covered up in her country. Now Palestinian feminists are also compiling a blacklist

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22-year-old Nadeen Ashraf, founder of the @assaultpolice Instagram page, at her home in Cairo this month.
22-year-old Nadeen Ashraf, founder of the @assaultpolice Instagram page, at her home in Cairo this month.Credit: SIMA DIAB / NYT
Rajaa Natour
Rajaa Natour
Rajaa Natour
Rajaa Natour

Criminals from good families aren’t just harassers, rapists and pedophiles with power. They are also all the men who wield their power, status and prestige in defense, support and legitimization of rape and sexual harassment. And they are the people in the second circle of support for the rapists and harassers: the people who protect and legitimatize rape culture. They are every man who has stayed mum, oppressed women, or ran roughshod over us with his prestige.

It’s not easy to get at the criminals from good families and the men who stand behind them, but it can be done. For instance, by a 22-year-old woman with a computer, Instagram account and enough anger and courage. That’s exactly what Nadeen Ashraf, a young Egyptian woman, did on the night of July 2 this year. She went after criminals from good families.

Ashraf sat in her room in a well-off neighborhood of Cairo, trying vainly to study for an exam the next day. This bored, wealthy woman, who had never attended a demonstration, never inhaled tear gas, never known the feel of police batons on her body and never looked brutal investigators in the eyes was browsing Facebook when, to her surprise, she ran across a post in which another young Egyptian woman described being sexually harassed by a student named Ahmed Bassam Zaki. Seconds after she read the post, it suddenly vanished.

It turns out that a 'secret' list has been prepared – the 'Excel blacklist' – that contains the names of quite a few Palestinian harassers and rapists

That shook her. She couldn’t study or sleep. She instinctively grasped that the young woman was being silenced, and felt she had to take action.

Ashraf explored, she investigated, she cross-checked information, and she came to realize that for years, this criminal from a good family, Zaki – apparently under his father’s aegis – had used threats and extortion to silence hundreds of women he had harassed since 2015 while studying at the American University in Cairo. Ashraf set up an Instagram page under the name “Assault Police” and published the harasser’s name and picture, which she found on the web.

Under the picture, she wrote, “This man has avoided punishment for his actions for years and managed to forcibly silence many women. The time has come to punish him.”

Unexpected places

Today, culture and sociopolitical change can arise in unexpected places. Ashraf wasn’t a celebrity or even an activist but she managed to influence Egypt’s social and feminist conversation. What she did have that many people with actual fame lack was the courage to discuss things that are taboo or kept quiet.

When Ashraf went to sleep that night after opening her Instagram page, she didn’t know that the story of that young woman and Zaki was just the tip of the iceberg. That she was opening the gates of hell, that her Instagram page would shock Egyptian society to its core, and would ultimately revolutionize the conversation among Egyptian women and feminists.

Within an hour, while Ashraf slept, 150 stories from other Egyptian women were posted on the page. Most were about sexual harassment and some involved Zaki. Thirty of them described rapes.

Protest against sexual harassment, Cairo, June 14, 2014Credit: Asmaa Waguih/REUTERS

It is the tip of the iceberg. According to a UN report, 99 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed at least once in their lives.

Ashraf didn’t expect the flood of stories on her Instagram page – or that the case of a gang rape that occurred in 2014, similar to this year’s gang rape in Eilat, would be exposed and blown wide open.

Six men in their twenties had drugged and raped a young Egyptian woman in a room at Cairo’s Fairmont Nile City Hotel. Nor did they stop there. They also wrote their names on her body, photographed her and, to confirm the social kill, sent the pictures to their friends. Just raping her wasn’t enough for them: they took the sick step of not only photographing her but disseminating the pictures. They wanted to leave behind scorched earth – physical, mental and emotional destruction from which no recovery was possible.

Like Zaki, the harasser from the American University, the suspects in the gang rape – Amro Hafiz, Amer Zaed, Ahmad Al-Janzori, Omar Fares Al-Komi, Amro Hussen, Khaled Mahmoud and Amro Al- Sedawi, were from good families. For five years they managed to silence the woman whose life they had destroyed.

We might wonder why the women remain silent. Actually the question ought to be, what kind of power, oppression and sanctions cause this silence. When it comes to rape and sexual harassment, we must change our questions.

Protest against sexual harassment, Cairo, June 14, 2014Credit: Amr Nabil/AP

The silence of the victims attests primarily to the kind of society in which they and we all live. The problem isn’t just the power and resources available to people from “good families” and the patriarchalism of the law enforcement agencies (in attitude and actions). They couldn’t be as effective as they are without backing from hidden power structures – meaning the complicity of men who claim to support us in our struggle.

After Ashraf posted about the Fairmont incident, thousands of her followers demanded that the suspects and everyone involved in the rape be put on trial. In August, the National Council for Women in Egypt sent an official letter to the prosecution with testimony from the victim attached and demanded that an investigation be opened immediately.

When the prosecution decided to issue arrest warrants for all the suspects, it turned out that some had fled to Lebanon. But Lebanon managed to arrest three of them and return them to Egypt for trial. The case remains pending and the prosecution is continuing to gather evidence.

The ‘Excel blacklist’

Stories of sexual harassment have come to light in quite a few Arab countries; in this regard, Egypt isn’t exceptional. And I believe it is high time to examine the Palestinian community in Israel from this perspective.

Palestinian women head to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.Credit: ABBAS MOMANI / AFP

Not a day passes in which I don’t wonder why there is no public conversation about sexual violence in Israel’s Palestinian community. What are the conditions that enabled Egyptian women to do this? How can we, as Palestinian women, create the same conditions and neutralize existing power structures?

These questions aren’t an attempt to ignore the conditions and power structures under which Palestinian women live and work. It’s clear to me that Palestinian women live under occupation, and there’s no reason for them to trust law enforcement agencies that don’t lift a finger to stop them from being murdered. It’s also clear to me that the Palestinian feminist conversation is still in its infancy, so it doesn’t have organizations and institutions that could both provide protection for rape victims and take practical steps that would result in the rapists being punished.

Nevertheless, it turns out that a “secret” list has been prepared – the “Excel blacklist” – that contains the names of quite a few Palestinian harassers and rapists. Everybody knows the list exists but they don’t know who’s on it. I consider this list, which was put together by female Palestinian activists, to be a very powerful, important, feminist act. Because through it, Palestinian women, even under the prevailing social and political circumstances, are protecting themselves and others. And above all, they are building mechanisms and tools of their own to stop sexual violence against them.

As in the Fairmont Hotel case, the Palestinian harassers whose names appear on this Excel blacklist come from good families. In other words, they have social and political status, power and financial resources and are prepared to take steps to suppress and silence their victims. To these criminals from good families, I say: One day, this secret blacklist will become an open, courageous mass of testimony from which no A-list lawyer you hire will be able to save you.