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Egyptian Women Give Up on the Law – and Turn to the Internet for Justice

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Women protest against sexual abuse in Cairo, 2014.
Women protest against sexual abuse in Cairo, 2014. Credit: Amr Nabil / AP

All three women admired Islam el Azzazi. Each one explained that she had been so excited and could not believe that the famous director had invited her to his home to discuss her future in film.

One woman wrote that though she hadn't studied film, she had an idea for a movie and was seeking a grant to produce it. "People recommended that I turn to I.A. [the initials of Egyptian film director Islam el Azzazi] because he was on many judging panels and he knows how to present proposals for this kind of grant," she wrote. Her story was published last month, alongside stories of many other women, in the Egyptian, Arabic-language feminist blog "Daftar Hekayat" (which translates to "Story Book"). The blog is intended to serve as a forum for women who have suffered sexual harassment and violence. The woman added that she knew Azzazi was married with a daughter, and he knew she was married – he had even met members of her family.

After knowing him for a time, the writer said that she felt safe coming to the director's house. She arrived with a gift for his daughter and a basket of fruit. When she began cutting up the fruit in his kitchen, he suddenly pounced on her from behind, grabbing her chest and kissing her. "What are you doing? I screamed at him, and he answered in a flat tone: 'I misunderstood,'" she wrote. After the experience, she gave up all intention of working in cinema and got rid of all the materials she had gathered for her grant application.

In another post about the director, a woman wrote that she had been invited to his home to discuss a role in one of his movies. "One thing led to another and he started asking how such a pretty girl was still unmarried and other questions of the sort" – before trying to force himself on her, she wrote. A third woman recounted how she had been invited over to discuss film theory. Azzazi showed her a pornographic film, asking for her "artistic" opinion of it, all while trying to embrace her.

All of these stories are written anonymously and numbered. Twenty-nine such testimonies have been published since the blog went live in July. They include accusations against journalists, a teacher, a doctor, the artistic director of a theater school and a clergyman. The posts about Azzazi went up as his new film "About Her" ("Anha") was set to compete at the Cairo International Film Festival. While the posts' publication at the start of the festival embarrassed the management, they did not prevent Azzazi from participating

According to reports in Egyptian media, the film was not supposed to compete and had been withdrawn from the festival's competition before it had been screened. Only because of business connections between the festival's director, Mohammed Hefzy, and a Syrian-Lebanese production company – which also distributes Hefzy's own films – was Azzazi's film added to the competition roster.

“About Her” follows a young widow whose husband has just died through her grief and struggle. It won a great deal of praise from critics who celebrated Azzazi's original cinematic language. But the anonymous posts stole the show and forced the festival management to issue an extraordinary statement. “Cairo Film Festival emphasizes its respect for women, and rejects all forms of violence against them, including harassment... We pledge that if the allegations against [Azzazi] are proven or indictments are formally filed that attest to the content of the testimonies, his film will be barred from the competition," a post on the festival's Facebook page read.

The realm of consent

This did not happen, of course. The women did not go to the police and no official investigation has been launched against Azzazi. Meanwhile, the festival in Cairo screened the excellent film “Curfew,” from the Egyptian director Amir Ramses. The story takes place during the curfew imposed on Egypt in the summer of 2013, after the removal of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and the takeover of the presidency by Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. But it is not a political film. Instead, it exposes cases of domestic violence, a well-known and common issue, but one that has been kept hidden from the public eye and not addressed in public discourse.

“Curfew” is the story of Fatin – played by the legendary Egyptian actress Ilham Shaheen, who won the best actress award at the festival – who was imprisoned for 20 years for murdering her husband. She committed the murder because of his abuse and harassment of their daughter. In an interview with France 24, Ramses said the public is only told about domestic violence when it ends in murder or serious injury, but that the main problem is the concealment of it, and the silence and acceptance of it by society. It is not just that the laws must be changed; the issue does not receive the appropriate condemnation from society for the scope and size of it that it deserves, he said.

In this June 14, 2014 file photo, Egyptian women shout slogans and hold banners during a protest against sexual harassment in Cairo, Egypt. Credit: Amr Nabil / AP

Clear proof of Ramses’ arguments appears in an article written by veteran journalist Karima Kamal in the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, 10 days after the film festival ended. In an article with the headline “The Murder,” Kamal wrote that “we must focus on the fact that the testimonies of the women [in the blog] represent only their viewpoint. In other words, this is what they think happened and not really what happened.” She added that the women are not necessarily lying but that we need to examine the circumstances, too.

“One of them said that she drank wine in the presence of the director and used drugs until she lost consciousness, and when she woke up, she was surprised to find that he had already had sexual relations with her. Doesn’t such a rendezvous mean consent?” wrote Kamal. She also argued that the public attacks on Azzazi were planned in advance – including the demand to throw him out of the film festival and prevent a session scheduled to discuss his film. “We must not execute a person psychologically without giving them the opportunity to defend themselves,” she wrote. “The enthusiasm to take action against sexual harassment cannot turn us into prosecutors, judges and executioners.”

Two days later, Kamal was presented with a scathing and long article in response from Egyptian filmmaker Aida El-Kashef on the Mada Masr website. El-Kashef focused her criticism on the definition of the extent of a woman’s consent as noted by Kamal. “How is it possible to talk about the range of consent or rejection during sleep?” she wrote. “There is no way to express opposition at a time the woman loses consciousness, unrelated to the way in which it occurred. And how is it possible to view drinking wine or using drugs as an invitation to sexual relations? Must we accept the determination according to which relations between a man and a woman are only sexual?”

Paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, El-Kashef ripped apart Kamal’s arguments and presented her as someone who does not understand the meaning of sexual harassment. El-Kashef has a great deal of experience with the issue. She was an actress and director who took a very active role in the Arab Spring demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo, was beaten and arrested as she filmed the disturbing events. In 2015, she created a crowdfunding campaign for her documentary film “The Day I Ate the Fish,” which describes the lives of imprisoned women who murdered their husbands.

The law does not protect against shame

These confrontations between women active in the public sphere – who are part of the movement for women’s rights, but interpret these rights in a different way – is not new. The blogs and social media posts that sustain the feminist movement in Egypt, and in other Arab countries, have been known for years. They began developing even before the Arab Spring, but gained enormous momentum because of the protests, and mostly because of the serious incidents of harassment exposed during the protests.

A protester at Tahrir Square holds up a picture of a half-naked protester being beaten by police in 2011. Credit: AP

As a result, new laws were passed aimed at protecting women from attacks, but it turns out that these laws are incapable of protecting women from shame and fear of the responses from their families. Social media has taken over the role of law enforcement and has become the judicial platform through which the stories and testimonies have reached the public. These are trickling down very slowly and are creating a new awareness of the status of women and their rights. What is new in the conflict between Kamal and El-Kashef is in the clarity the public debate has reached over women’s rights, the definition of sexual harassment and the role of the public space in uncovering the truth and punishing the criminals.

When El-Kashef asks whether a woman who uses drugs or drinks wine in the presence of a man is necessarily inviting him to a sexual act or even rape – and in comparison, Kamal presents these actions as contributing to the act and in doing so reduces the significance of the crime – the disagreement is no longer over just the rape, but about lifestyle. What are the boundaries of what is permitted and what is forbidden, and what defines a woman as “decent?” Such questions are never directed at men; for them, the answer is taken for granted. “Does a man know at all what harassment is?” wrote Elkashef. “What is abuse and what is rape? Why is it assumed there is ambiguity in the interpretation of an incident for the women, as victims, and we do not assume its existence for men, when they are accused?”

It is doubtful that any real investigation will be conducted into the claims made in the blog posts, whether it is because the women themselves don’t won’t to be exposed (and undergo humiliating interrogation in which they are accused of being promiscuous) or because the prosecution is traditionally in no rush to investigate such incidents, and does so only after they deteriorate into cases of serious violence and murder.

But when you want to examine what good the Arab Spring did for the status of women’s rights in Egypt, at least it is possible to note the development of an open public debate, exacting and demanding, that may not have created a formal revolution – but has already succeeded in changing public awareness, at least a little bit.

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