Opinion |

When Will the Arab World Confront Its Sex Abuse Problem?

Sexual harassment and assault are pandemics stalking the Middle East, aided by fear and the impunity granted to perpetrators. But boosted by #MeToo, women and are slowly, surely, breaking their silence

Reem Abdellatif
Reem Abdellatif
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Sexual harassment is a pandemic across the Arab world, and so is the ongoing repression of this assault on women. But slowly, a #MeToo movement, to speak up, is building
Sexual harassment is a pandemic across the Arab world, and so is the ongoing repression of this assault on women. But slowly, a #MeToo movement, to speak up, is buildingCredit: Tomer Appelbaum
Reem Abdellatif
Reem Abdellatif

In 2017, we all heard a wrenching and unfamiliar sound: Women’s voices reverberating around the world as the first shocking stories of the #MeToo were revealed, from the United States to Europe, and even to parts of Africa.

That movement, founded by American activist Tarana Burke, created a massive ripple effect that still inspires men and women around the world.

As an American woman of Egyptian descent, I looked to the movement’s birth and growth in awe, hoping, praying for a similar women’s uprising in the Middle East.

As a survivor of sexual abuse committed by my father, I have often been victim-blamed and gaslit for coming out with my story. Not least, by my own mother. And that was several years before the public square in the West had been prepped for this kind of exposure.

I found some solace knowing that my family’s views towards women were a byproduct of the repression and violence they themselves had experienced growing up in Egypt. Both my parents had experienced child abuse. Their mothers had been child brides, married when they were 12 and 14. Both witnessed police brutality in Egypt, and at just nine years old, my mother underwent Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Cairo.

A counselor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Minia June 13, 2006.Credit: Uncredited, Reuters

In Egypt, internalized misogyny, victim-blaming and slut-shaming is still the norm. While it doesn’t change what happened, it allows me to look to the future with hope because after years of grappling with demons of the past, I sought healing and therapy to break a cycle that wasn’t even my own.

While women have made some gains in Egypt over the years, such as the criminalization of FGM, sexual harassment is still a pandemic right across the Arab world’s most populous country.

At least 90 percent of women in Egypt between the ages of 18-29 and 88 percent of women aged 30-39 said they have faced some form of sexual harassment. The justice system isn’t set up to protect victims, and police officers themselves are sometimes perpetrators.

However, the ongoing repression of this assault on women is not exclusive to Egypt. The muffled cries of women who are waiting to share their survivor stories can be heard across the Arab world, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

I have heard their voices. I met scores of women in the five years that I lived, worked and traveled across the Gulf Cooperation Council. They are eager to be heard within a sympathetic environment, but they are overwhelmingly hesitant to do so in any wider forum – or to testify. That’s because the legal systems in the Gulf are often not on the sides of women or survivors of gender violence.

I faced my own #MeToo moment after a run-in with an editor for a prominent American media platform that has went into partnership with a Saudi Arabian media institution. He was well-known for conducting star interviews, including with Mohammed bin Salman himself.

Journalists watch a screen showing Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcoming Qatar's Emir Sheikh al-Thani upon his arrival at the GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia.Credit: AHMED YOSRI/ REUTERS

He reached out to me while I was living in Dubai to discuss a position as a reporter: I was eminently qualified, with years of experience as a businesse and general news reporter; I covered the Egyptian uprising and the Middle East for global newspapers and media outlets. I genuinely thought he was interested in my breadth of work experience.

He mentioned that one of the roles could be based in Riyadh, and suggested meeting up to discuss. It sounded entirely appropriate, so I accepted. I thought: "Hey, this guy is married to a fellow journalist, he seems like a respectable family man. He has a beautiful baby daughter. He wouldn't dare try anything."

I was wrong. I underestimated his self-entitlement and audacity.

At the meeting, he made uninvited sexual advances towards me, and even offered to put in a "good word" for me if I wanted to apply for the reporter role. I told him I wasn’t interested. He still tried to entice me over to his home: his wife and child were on holiday. I said no.

I felt disgusted. But I also felt guilty, for not having protected myself better from his harassment. It would take more time before I realized that he should bear the blame and shame for abusing me and for abusing his power.

As a natural response to that trauma, I steered clear of any man who approached me for a role within that organization. This, multiplied tens of thousands of times, is one of many ways women are kept out of public spaces and management positions.

Imprisoned in Mohammed bin Salman's 'new' Saudi Arabia for standing up for women's empowerment: Nassima al-Sadah, Loujain Al-Hathloul and Samar Badawi

Plenty of journalists within that editor’s media group, including him, stay silent about flagrant abuses against human rights in Saudi Arabia. Of course, it can be very dangerous for journalists to cover negative aspects of the Gulf region. That’s why many are forced to remain silent, including myself at one point.

But abusive men, abusive people are not entitled to our silence. It is never okay to privilege the reputation of corrupt leaders over the safety of women, or over human rights.

Dubai may have the glitz and glamor, but it’s just as dangerous there as it is in other Gulf states for women to speak up about sexual harassment and assault.

While rape is a serious crime in the UAE, the very act of reporting it puts a woman in danger of being accused of illicit sex. This causes many women who are raped to suffer in silence or leave the UAE altogether. I know women who left the country for this reason, fearing that they would be jailed or accused of being intoxicated and therefore "asking for it."

The perception of Middle Eastern society towards survivors who come forward with their stories is also terrifying. Oftentimes, society thinks the woman is out to get attention or that she was "dressed to provoke it."

Women in Cairo shout slogans and hold banners during a protest against sexual assaults, in Cairo, Egypt. A year and a half ago, the #MeToo movement in Egypt suddenly gained traction.Credit: Amr Nabil,AP

The criminalization of women who become pregnant out of wedlock in the UAE and Saudi Arabia is horrifying on its own terms – but it has even wider repercussions which expose the law’s real intent: cruelty and the control of women’s bodies.

One morning, while I was living in the UAE, I woke up in a pool of my own blood. I quickly drove myself to the gynecologist.

I was suffering from endometrial hyperplasia, where the thickening of blood cells in my uterus had led to uncontrollable bleeding.

"Is there any possibility that you could be pregnant?" the gynaecologist asked. "There’s no way, doctor," I replied. "Well, I have to ask and also do a blood test to confirm, because if this is due to a miscarriage, I am required by law to report to the authorities before operating on you to stop the bleeding."

She told me that if the blood test came out positive for a pregnancy, I would be arrested after the surgery.

I was furious, and frantic. Here I was, thinking I was going to die from excessive blood loss – a possibility the doctor herself later confirmed had she not operated immediately. But I still had to wait for an oppressive bureaucratic procedure before I could be treated.

In that moment, I felt the burden of being a woman in the Gulf. Imagine the humiliation and anguish women have to go through if they indeed become pregnant, or lose a baby out of wedlock. How is this still possible today?

Demonstrators in Istanbul protest against gender-based violence on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women holding a banner reading: "Let our voice be heard".Credit: UMIT BEKTAS/ REUTERS

Despite the setbacks, a feminist revolution is slowly brewing in the Middle East, set in motion by the women doing the silent, yet powerful, inner reckoning.

In Turkey today, women have been sharing their own painful experiences online after a Twitter user accused a prominent writer of sexual assault. There is a longstanding, and fierce, protest movement against domestic violence against women, though their dead bodies keep accumulating and the conservative backlash, fearing more legal protections for women "undermine family values," is strong.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdowns have triggered skyrocketing violence against women and girls around the world. Feeling the pressure, women in Egypt launched their own viral #MeToo movement during the summer of 2020.

The movement against sexual violence in Egypt also picked up steam last July when 22-year-old student Nadeen Ashraf launched an anonymous Instagram page called Assault Police to expose a university student accused of blackmailing and raping several women. I joined the movement because I am all too familiar with the methods used to silence and terrorize women.

Young Egyptian women are harassed by men on the first day of Eid al-Fitr in Cairo, Egypt. During Muslim holidays there is a surge of teenage mobs sexually harassing women in the street.Credit: AP

The attacks and their exposure released a deluge of stories from women, girls, and young men, describing their abuse in jarring detail. It was a moment Egypt and the region had never witnessed before. And women and girls are continuing to use social media to expose sexual abuse, sometimes at the hands of powerful men.

The Egyptian government saw the surge of outrage and finally acted, but it was too little, too late. In August, the government approved a new law to protect the identity of women who come forward to report sexual harassment or assault.

This is a basic legal right that should have been put into practice decades ago. Yet, Egypt’s National Council for Women, a government agency, lags behind in so many areas. That’s because the state prioritizes placing loyalists in power, not survivors of abuse, or leaders who actually understand women’s lived experiences.

When those accused of assault or rape are men in power, or their sons, the council’s loyalty is firmly pledged to the government not the women that they are sworn to protect.

Sadly, this is the lived reality of many women and girls in the Middle East.

Yet, the brave men and women who battle against taboos, intimidation and violence to speak truth to power give me, a survivor, hope that change in the Arab world is not only possible, but inevitable.

Reem Abdellatif is a public speaker and former foreign correspondent with over 10 years of experience covering MENA, the GCC economies, and women’s issues. Her work has appeared in Goethe Institut, WSJ, LA Times, Al-Monitor and others. She is a founding member of African Women Rights Advocates (AWRA) and the founder and director of Redefined Communications Agency in The Netherlands. Twitter: @Reem_Abdellatif

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