By Shahira Amin
May 13, 2019
A social media campaign calling for parents "to ensure
that their daughters dress modestly in public so that citizens can fast"
has sparked wide controversy in Egypt.
The online campaign, launched days ahead of the Muslim
fasting month of Ramadan, provoked a backlash from liberal activists and
women's rights advocates. It was, however, supported by conservatives in the
patriarchal society. The campaign's proponents believe that immodest or
revealing clothes worn by women during Ramadan distract men from their fast, an
assumption that many women found insulting.
"The campaign is in fact a call for sexual harassment
under the guise of fake piety," wrote Rabab Kamal, a radio broadcaster and
Facebook user, in a comment published May 6 on her page. Her comment has been
"liked" by more than 400 followers who clearly oppose the
"It reflects a real-life situation where men give
themselves the right to approve of or punish women for what they wear,"
tweeted Cairo-based journalist Amira El-Fekki in criticism of the campaign's
Several other internet users chose to offer advice to
campaign supporters who believe the sight of an uncovered woman can evoke lust
that would ruin their fast.
"This is wrong. The campaign should instead call for
men to be human beings, not animals, and for them to control their sexual
urges," suggested one tweet.
"Are you concerned about your fast? Are you provoked by
the way she dresses and find it hard to control yourself? Do you always blame
women and their clothes? Try wearing "a morality face mask" that will
cover your eyes and protect you against temptation. It will help you fast without
the need to preach morality to others. The face masks come in two colors: black
and brown!" was another tweet ridiculing the controversial campaign. Below
the comment were pictures of the brown and black "face masks":
blinkers worn by horses to prevent them from seeing to the rear or to the side.
Azza Kamel, founder and chairperson of Appropriate
Communication Techniques for Development, a Cairo-based nongovernmental group,
told Al-Monitor, "Ramadan is a time of fasting and reflection. It is a
time for heightened spirituality and for purifying the body and soul. The
people behind the campaign have closed minds and are clueless about the true
meaning of the fast. Instead of focusing on worldly matters, they should focus
on spiritual growth during the holy month."
Member of Parliament Mohamed El Husseiny, meanwhile, posted
an online video urging those behind the campaign to "stop attacking
He said, "Rather than tell girls what to wear and what
not to wear, each person should distinguish between what's right and wrong
based on their conscience. … I'm not waiting for someone to tell my daughter
what she can or cannot wear.”
Sexual harassment is commonplace in Egypt despite a law in
place since mid-2014 outlawing all forms of harassment. A 2017 study by the
international research organization Promundo and UN Women found that 60% of
Egyptian women have been subjected to harassment, most commonly on public
transportation or on the street. According to the report, 75% of men and 84% of
women interviewed in the poll agreed that "women who dress provocatively
deserve to be harassed."
In February 2016, talk show host Reham Saeed was sentenced
to 18 months in prison for shaming a sexual assault victim who was a guest on
her show. Saeed had suggested that the woman "deserved her fate" and
showed private photos of her in revealing clothes, including a bikini. The
woman said the pictures had been stolen by a member of the show's production
team from her phone, which she had left with the TV crew before entering the studio.
Three months later, however, Saeed was acquitted on appeal of libel, slander
and violating the woman's privacy by airing the pictures. This unfortunately
seemed to back the message that victims of harassment or assault invite
harassment by what they wear.
Two women who complained about sexual harassment have
been made to pay a dear price for speaking out.
One of the women, Amal Fathy, a 35-year-old Egyptian
pro-democracy activist and former member of the April 6 youth group that
mobilized for the 2011 mass protests, has been detained since May 2018. She was
arrested in a predawn raid on her home two days after posting an online video
criticizing the authorities for failing to tackle sexual harassment. In the
12-minute video posted on her Facebook page, Fathy described how she was
sexually harassed twice on the same day and criticized the deteriorating
socio-economic conditions in the country. Four months later, she was sentenced
to two years in prison on charges of "spreading false news that harms national
security" and ordered to pay a fine of $560 and $1,120 in bail.
In the case involving the second woman, a man was sentenced
to a mere two weeks in prison on assault charges in 2017 but was acquitted of
harassment charges even though the incident had been caught on surveillance
cameras in a mall two years earlier. Upon his release from prison, he took
revenge on his accuser by slashing her face with a knife, inflicting a
20-centimeter-long (8-inch) wound on her right cheek. Two months later, the
woman, emotionally exhausted by the ordeal, attempted suicide on live video by
overdosing on anti-depressant pills but was rescued by a friend who rushed her
to hospital. In June 2018, her attacker was sentenced to one year in prison.
There have only been a few rare cases in which men have been
actually punished for the crime of harassment. In August 2017, a tuk tuk driver
was handed a five-year jail sentence and ordered to pay a fine of 1,000
Egyptian pounds (about $59) after he was convicted in a sexual harassment case,
the first such harsh ruling for harassment in Egypt.
The online campaign urging women to cover up during Ramadan
also sparked a heated public debate about Hijab, the headscarf traditionally
worn by some Muslim women.
In a TV interview broadcast on the private channel CBC,
Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, said that while Muslim women were
not obliged to wear the full face veil, or niqab — although wearing it is
"permissible" — they are required to cover their hair.
"The Quran tells Muslim women to wear a headscarf but
those who choose not to should not be considered deviants from the faith;
labeling them as such is in itself a sin," he told the interviewer.
"There are bigger sins than not wearing Hijab," he
added, citing lying and gossiping as two such "major sins.”
His remarks prompted a backlash from Amna Nosseir, a Member
of Parliament and professor of jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University.
"Women do not need guardianship," she said in a telephone interview
broadcast on the privately owned channel Al Hadath Al Youm. "A woman's
modesty is not just in her appearance or style of dress. She should pay equal
attention to her behavior and manners and dress according to the times we live
in. That said, modesty is part of a woman's beauty and dignity; she should wear
what she likes without attracting too much attention. No one is our guardian
save for our Lord who will judge us on Judgment Day."
But despite the denunciation of the campaign by rights
advocates, critics feel that more can be done to address Egypt's
"harassment epidemic.” Women's awareness of their rights, continued
coverage by the media and enforcement of the anti-harassment law are key in
curbing harassment," Kamel told Al-Monitor.
Amin is an award-winning journalist based in Cairo. Former deputy head of
state-run Nile TV, she quit her job at the height of the 2011 uprising to
protest censorship of her work. She has since worked as a freelance writer for
Index on Censorship, Freemuse, CNN and various news websites and as a filmmaker
producing documentaries for UN agencies.