Two women with little in common have detonated their way out of the fortress of taboo that surrounds sexual violence in Egypt, where victimized women are routinely forced to accept shame and blame, not justice. In fighting back and speaking out, these two have forced the beginnings of a reckoning onto men whom countless excuses have absolved of their mistreatment of women.
In February, a court sentenced a man in southern Egypt to three years in prison for groping one of the women. In Cairo, a onetime presidential candidate, Khaled Ali — whom some had considered an avatar of the ideals of Egypt’s 2011 revolution — resigned as head of the Bread and Freedom Party and as a lawyer with the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights after being accused of sexual misconduct. Another of the center’s lawyers, whom the other woman accused of rape, also resigned.
The women’s accounts have prompted widespread discussion about whether anything has improved for Egypt’s women since 2011. They have also exposed the hypocrisy of career activists who think the revolution’s principles apply to everyone but themselves.
One of the women is Rania Fahmy, 23, who wears a hijab and has become famous as “Upper Egyptian Girl.” She fought back, both literally and legally, against a man who groped her in the street. Video from a store’s surveillance camera showed her beating him with her purse. It was widely shared on social media and she used it to press for her attacker’s conviction and sentencing last month.
The other woman is a feminist whose email to a group of fellow activists in October accused Mr. Ali of sexual misconduct in 2015 and another human rights lawyer of raping her in 2014. My friend Ahmed Abdel-Rasool forwarded her email to me with her name removed to protect her privacy, saying: “We have to take a stand when people who are supposed to defend rights and to fight against violations are themselves guilty of violations. That’s a disaster.”
The victim, now living outside Egypt and known on social media only as “Email Girl,” has become a foil in many ways for her counterpart, Ms. Fahmy. In her email to her circle of activists she said she wouldn’t press charges because jailing someone was no solution for sexual violence; instead, she said, she was warning women about the conduct of male human rights lawyers they thought they could trust. She described drinking at a bar with co-workers, blacking out and waking up to find the lawyer raping her.
Ms. Fahmy’s rise as a hero to Egypt’s media and tweeters shows how far Egyptian attitudes about sexual harassment and assaults on the street have come. But the fallout from Email Girl’s warning — predictably, she was criticized for her “liberated” lifestyle — shows how much farther we have to go.
Email Girl, it turns out, forced a human rights community that prided itself on its feminist credentials into a test that it failed. Rather than support her, some in the community chose silence; others continued their friendships with the accused men.
“Some said such accusations will taint the revolution, which is false because those two men did not make the revolution famous; rather the revolution made them famous,” said Iman Shukri Abdel-Latif, one of the feminists and activists who criticized an internal investigation by Mr. Ali’s party that exonerated him. “We can’t truly oppose an oppressive regime with an opposition that is unjust and oppresses women,” she added.
It’s tempting to call this Egypt’s #MeToo moment. But it may prove just another example of Egyptian women speaking out against sexual violence. In 2005, female journalists and activists exposed the use of systematic sexual violence by the government of Hosni Mubarak to stop them from protesting.
Egypt’s first conviction for street sexual harassment came in 2008, when a 27 year-old named Noha al-Ostaz dragged a man to a police station after he grabbed her breast. Officers refused to file a complaint until the woman’s father arrived. Nobody had intervened to help her, and Egyptian media outlets accused her of cruelly “ruining the life” of her assailant, who was sentenced to three years in prison.
Less than a month after the 2011 uprising forced Mr. Mubarak to step down, the military subjected female activists to “virginity tests” — a form of sexual assault. Three women exposed the assaults. One tried, in vain, to sue the military.
I too became a victim. In November 2011, the riot police beat me, broke my left arm and right hand, and sexually assaulted me before I was detained by the Interior Ministry and then military intelligence. Later, I went on Egyptian television with both arms in casts and with X-rays of my injuries. I tried unsuccessfully to sue the regime.
Several other Egyptian women have shared stories of sexual assault by policemen or mobs during protests since then. Their goal was obvious: to reassert men’s dominance over hundreds of thousands of women now claiming a role in Egypt’s political life.
The police and the military are not alone in silencing women. A feminist group in Cairo told me that at least 12 other women who were sexually assaulted were too ashamed to speak or were silenced by their families. We still don’t know the name of a woman who was stripped to her bra by soldiers who then stomped on her chest in Tahrir Square in December 2011. That woman deserves a statue for her courage, not a silencing.
For years, Egyptian women have navigated our way out of the maze of taboo and shame to expose sexual violence by the state and by men in the street. It is slow going. But last December, a lawyer was sentenced to three years in prison for saying that women who wear ripped jeans should be raped as a punishment. And I believe that Email Girl has instigated a revolution against what I call the dictator in the home.
Seven years ago, Egyptians conducted a revolution against a dictator in the presidential palace. Today, we need more uprisings — in the street and at home. Activists who spout political principles must start believing in something more meaningful than slogans. They must recognize that while the state oppresses men and women alike, women are singled out for a special brand of oppression — by the state, the street and the home together. I call that the “trifecta of misogyny.”
But we can hope. An Egyptian activist, Islam Hashem, asked me, “How can I oppose the injustice and authoritarianism of a dictatorial regime when I am oppressive and unjust toward my wife and daughters?”
He linked the support for Upper Egyptian Girl to the courage of Email Girl, which he said was like a “a rock thrown into still waters.” Email Girl,” he said, “took that first step and has inspired many others.”
Mona Eltahawy is the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, and a contributing opinion writer.