Quick trip to the mall spirals into national incident for Egyptian woman
Somaya Tarek is slapped by a stranger, shamed by TV host
Somaya Tarek wanted to speak out as a survivor of sexual harassment. Instead she found herself twice victimized.
Once by a strange man who physically assaulted her in a Cairo mall. Then by a popular Egyptian television host who aired personal photos of Tarek wearing a bikini, a taboo in Muslim culture, to prove the 20-something deserved to be attacked.
The incident began in a Cairo mall last week.
The college student says she went by herself to finish a few quick errands.
A man began following her and harassing her, she says, in a very busy public space.
Tarek stopped, confronted the man, and threatened to call security. He slapped her twice across the face.
The entire incident and her panicked reaction was captured on closed circuit television. But the attacker was not jailed or charged by Egyptian police, Tarek said.
The young woman made a rare and even dangerous choice in Egypt: She choose to speak up and demand justice.
A televised showdown
Tarek agreed to an interview on a popular talk show with host Reham Saeed. Rather than find empathy, the victim found an aggressive and accusatory presenter.
“I see you were wearing a tank top and tight jeans,” Saeed says of the CCTV footage of the assault. “Don’t you think that this clothes was inappropriate?”
“There is no justification,” Tarek responds. “Women in hijab and niqabs all get harassed. There was nothing inappropriate.”
After the taped interview was aired on private network Al-Nahar, Saeed addressed the camera in a nearly 12-minute monologue in which she raised doubts about Tarek’s story before showing pictures of the victim in a private setting to accuse her of lewd behavior.
In one image she is seen holding a bottle of Bailey’s; another photo shows her being carried by a man, playfully, on the beach; another picture that is blurred claims to be Tarek wearing a bikini in what appears to be a bedroom.
“If I am the type of woman who accepts being carried by a man while I am in my bathing suit then I must be the type of woman who would accept sexual harassment,” Saeed says to the camera. “Just as there are harassers in the streets, some girls have really gone beyond the limits. You won’t like this, but this is the truth. Keep your girls in check and nothing will happen to them.”
The public shaming sent Tarek into a spiral. She called into program after program, crying and claiming that Reham Saeed’s production staff had stolen the private photographs off her phone when she left it unattended.
“Now I think I wish I would have gotten hit and, so what, just accepted I was slapped.” Tarek said afterward through tears to another Egyptian network. “I wish I hadn’t filed a police report. I could have taken two, three, even four slaps and who was going to see it? Maybe 50 people in the mall? Now all of Egypt is staring at me.”
Tarek had been harassed by one man. Now she felt the collective sexual gaze of a nation of more than 80 million.
Social media backlash
Drinking alcohol, mingling with the opposite sex, and short clothes are all considered very risqué in Egypt’s conservative Muslim society. Women and girls are often made to feel complicit in their own victimization in a country where more than 99% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, according to a 2013 United Nations report. Most of these crimes go unreported.
But in this instance, Tarek found overwhelming support among a social media community bent on dispelling the taboos that are often used to justify sexual violence against women. An Arabic hashtag that translated as #DieReham spread quickly on Facebook and Twitter, with many calling for a boycott on advertisers of the program that shamed Tarek.
“@VodafoneEgypt don’t tarnish your company name by supporting slanderous TV shows that support sexual harassment,” one user wrote.
Another person wrote “What kind of message are you sending to women? If you get sexually assaulted, keep your mouth shut about it.”
The hashtag started trending across the Arabic-speaking world as local media reported that at least 15 companies announced they would end their advertising contracts with Reham Saeed’s show, “Sabaya al-Khair.” Bassem Youssef, known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, condemned the anchor’s actions.
On Friday, Al-Nahar TV, the network that carries Reham Saeed’s program, addressed the controversy by suspending her program and apologizing to viewers.
“Al-Nahar TV apologizes to all those who were offended by the episode. We affirm our respect of all women and girls and daughters of our nation,” the network said in an online statement. “The Egyptian people are the crowns on our heads and we continue to respect them and value them. We apologize to everyone once again.”
Wael Abbas, a prominent Egyptian blogger largely credited with pushing the online campaign, quickly rejoiced on social media. The activist, known for his fierce commitment to change during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, tweeted a tongue-in-cheek response to his more than 300,000 followers:
“Look, hashtags can’t stop electoral fraud, or stop the rain, or fix the sewage system…But it can wipe the floor with Reham Saeed. Leave us to celebrate! #RehamSaeedisDead”