The Egyptian authorities must immediately put an end to their crackdown on women TikTok influencers prosecuted on absurd charges of “indecency” and “violating family principles and values”, Amnesty International said today. Women who reported sexual assault, violations of their right to privacy and online abuse are among social media influencers targeted by the authorities’ use of new repressive tactics to control cyber space by policing women’s bodies and conduct and by undermining their ability to earn an independent living.
Instead of policing women online, the government must prioritize investigating the widespread cases of sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls in Egypt and take real steps to combat gender discrimination in law and practiceLynn Maalouf
Since April 2020, the Egyptian authorities have arrested ten women TikTok influencers and put them on trial for violating the draconian cyber-crimes law, and other overly vague legal provisions related to “decency” and “inciting immorality”. Those prosecuted all have large followings on social media, ranging from hundreds of thousands to several million. Four of the women were sentenced to prison terms ranging between two and three years and heavy fines, while six others are awaiting trial.
Through interviews with their lawyers and relatives and the review of prosecution’s investigations and court documents in five cases, Amnesty International has revealed chilling new details.
“In one horrifying case, a woman social media influencer went live online with a bruised face pleading with the state to prosecute the men she accused of raping her. She was arrested along with her alleged attackers, and their statements were used to charge her with ‘inciting debauchery’ and ‘violating family principles and values’,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Acting Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Instead of policing women online, the government must prioritize investigating the widespread cases of sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls in Egypt and take real steps to combat gender discrimination in law and practice.”
In at least two other instances, courts used private photos that were leaked to blackmail women as “evidence” against them, even though they had previously reported the abuse to police.
On 29 April 2020, shortly after the first arrests of TikTok influencers, the public prosecution issued a statement “reaffirm[ing] its commitment to continue fighting shameful crimes violating the principles and values of our society”, warning again on 2 May that Egypt was protecting the “new cyber border… abused by forces of evil”.
Prosecuted for “violating family values” or “showing charms”
Since June, Egyptian courts have sentenced social media performers Manar Samy and Sama El-Masry to three years’ imprisonment, and Hanin Hossam and Mawada el-Adham to two years’ imprisonment, on vague charges including “violating family principles and values” and inciting “indecency” and “debauchery”. Their appeal dates are scheduled in the coming weeks. Six other women are awaiting trial on similar charges.
The Egyptian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all the women TikTok influencers and drop the outrageous charges against them. They should also repeal or amend all laws restricting bodily autonomy, the right to privacy and freedom of expression and belief in the name of ‘morality’ or ‘decencyLynn Maalouf
According to case files, verdicts and lawyers’ testimonies, the women are being punished for the way they dress, act, “influence” the broader public on social media, and earn money online. The women found themselves on the dock following complaints by men purportedly outraged by their behaviour and investigations by the Morality Directorate of the ministry of interior.
In one case, courts used a photo of belly dancer Sama el-Masry in a swimsuit as evidence to convict her for publishing videos and photos “showing her charms” and for making “sexually suggestive expressions and movements”.
“The Egyptian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all the women TikTok influencers and drop the outrageous charges against them. They should also repeal or amend all laws restricting bodily autonomy, the right to privacy and freedom of expression and belief in the name of ‘morality’ or ‘decency’,” said Lynn Maalouf.
“Criminalizing women for exercising these rights doesn’t only contravene international law, but also perpetuates a culture of inequality and violence against women.”
Treated like a criminal after reporting rape
Social media influencer Menna Abdelaziz, 18, went live on Instagram on 22 May to appeal for help. She appeared in a video with a bruised face, and said she had been raped, beaten, and filmed without her consent.
Amnesty International learnt that she had earlier tried to report the crime at the Talbiya police station in Cairo, but officers referred her to another police station as the incident had taken place in a different geographic jurisdiction.
Criminalizing women for exercising these rights doesn’t only contravene international law, but also perpetuates a culture of inequality and violence against womenLynn Maalouf
On 26 May, security forces arrested Menna Abdelaziz and six men accused of assaulting her. According to her lawyer, prosecutors interrogated her for nearly eight hours and relied on the defendants’ statements to accuse her of “violating family principles and values” and “inciting debauchery”.
Prosecutors faulted survivors of sexual violence with “sharing” their accounts of “indecent assault” publicly, instead of reporting them privately to security forces.
Menna Abdelaziz is now at a government shelter for survivors of violence, where she remains under investigation. Amnesty International had previously expressed concerns regarding the functioning of such facilities including the imposition of restrictions on freedom of movement.
“Prosecuting a victim of sexual assault who publicly pleads for help is a shocking injustice that risks discouraging other women from speaking out and reporting such cases. Instead, authorities must ensure that women who have suffered sexual assault can access adequate and timely remedies including access to medical care and psychological counselling, and must undertake thorough and impartial investigations into the crimes against them” said Lynn Maalouf.
Using leaked private photos as “evidence”
On 15 May, security forces arrested social media influencer Mawada el-Adham and prosecutors ordered her detention on several charges, including “violating family principles and values”. According to her case file seen by Amnesty International, prosecutors presented 17 photos they described as “indecent” as evidence against her. Mawada el-Adham claimed that these pictures had been leaked from her phone after it was stolen in May 2019. At the time, she had reported the theft and photo leaks, but instead of investigating, police simply asked her why she had taken these photos of herself.
Similarly, prosecutors presented private photos as evidence against actress and model Manar Samy in court. Amnesty International learnt that she had lodged a complaint in 2018 against her ex-husband, accusing him of making public intimate photos he had taken during their marriage, in order to blackmail her and gain custody of their daughter. On 29 July 2020 she was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 300,000 EGP (around 19,000 USD). She is currently released on bail.
Daring to earn a living online
Amnesty International’s research indicates that prosecutions were in part related to the women’s popularity on social media, as well as their ability to independently make a living through TikTok and other social media platforms.
For instance, the review of Hanin Hossam’s verdict shows that she was reprimanded for gaining “popularity on social media platforms and influencing young girls”. Hanin Hossam also faces separate charges of involvement in ” human trafficking” in relation to an Instagram video, in which she encouraged women over 18 to post videos of themselves on the app Likee that is monetized based on the number of viewers. Amnesty International reviewed the video and found no credible evidence linking her to any internationally recognizable crime.
Manar Samy’s lawyer told Amnesty International that her arrest warrant was based on a complaint filed by another lawyer describing her dancing videos as “indecent” and aiming to “attract attention and earn money.”
The public prosecutor claimed in a statement that difficult social circumstances have led Menna Abdelaziz “with her lack of experience, competence and weak personality to seek fame by any means”.
Egyptian women’s human rights defenders have been calling for comprehensive reforms in law and practice for years to address sexual and gender-based violence, including guaranteeing confidentiality and safety of survivors and witnesses to encourage them to report sexual violence. On 8 July, the Egyptian cabinet approved a procedural amendment allowing prosecutors to conceal survivors’ identities and personal information from their case files in cases of sexual violence.