After exposing two major sexual assaults in her first two months as an Instagram activist, and spurring Egypt to bring in a law to protect victims’ identities, Nadeen Ashraf has bigger plans.
The 22-year-old student wants to turn her #MeToo-style Instagram account Assault Police, which has emboldened hundreds of Egyptian women to speak out about violence, into an advocacy group that can win justice for sexual assault survivors.
“I want to create an entity on a wide scale where women can go to when they experience any violence to help them get their rights,” Ashraf told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in her house in Egypt’s capital, Cairo.
“Change is already happening and we will keep pushing for more changes.”
Women’s rights campaigners say there is a deep-rooted bias in the conservative, Muslim-majority nation to place more blame on women for behaviour deemed provocative than on men for sex crimes.
A 2017 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll found Cairo to be the most dangerous megacity for women, and a United Nations’ survey in 2013 found that 99% of women had experienced harassment in Egypt, a country where women have long felt disadvantaged.
Ahmed Bassam Zaki, a former student of the American University in Cairo (AUC) in his early 20s, was arrested in July after several women used Assault Police to make allegations about him.
The public prosecutor on Wednesday referred Zaki to the criminal court on charges of sexually assaulting three girls under the age of 18 and using threats to continue abusing them.
Zaki has not addressed the accusations publicly but denied some of them during questioning, according to a prosecution statement. The Thomson Reuters Foundation was not able to locate a lawyer representing him.
Ashraf, who is a student at AUC, said she decided to set up Assault Police after she heard allegations from friends at the university about Zaki, who comes from a wealthy background, raping and blackmailing women.
“I saw a post written by a woman I know on her personal account in which she narrated a sexual harassment incident by (Zaki) and warned other girls against him,” said Ashraf.
“I got really angry because the girl was pressured (by people who commented online) to delete the post … Many people knew about what he did to many women, but (no action) was taken against him.”
A second sexual assault case that Ashraf has highlighted via social media has proven trickier, leading to complaints from prosecutors that women are not sharing information with them in a timely manner, as well as death threats against Ashraf.
After claims about an alleged gang rape at Cairo’s Fairmont Hotel in 2014 circulated online in July, seven suspects fled Egypt, the public prosecutor’s office said, urging women to file complaints so they can investigate, not post accusations online.
Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces said on Saturday it had arrested three of the men and they would be deported to Egypt.
Two other suspects in the case were also arrested in Egypt last week, Egypt’s public prosecutor said.
Egypt passed a law in August giving victims the automatic right to anonymity in a bid to encourage more women to report sexual assault, as Ashraf unleashed a #MeToo movement on social media, echoing the 2017 campaign in the United States.
Ashraf said state authorities need to work more closely with civil society if they are to be effective in addressing sexual harassment in Egypt.
“Our goal is never to accuse, defame, or point fingers at anyone,” she said in a video post on Assault Police on Aug. 20, where she revealed her identity for the first time to some 190,000 followers.
“We are simply mediators between survivors and the appropriate entities they want to reach. Our role is to simply encourage survivors and guide them in taking the appropriate legal actions.”
She said this involves redirecting survivors to the National Council for Women, a government agency which has a hotline for complaints and helps women through the legal process, or to file their own police reports.
Ashraf said her goal is to change attitudes in Egypt towards women who experience sexual assault.
“Society always blames the victim, not the one who does the harassment. And even if they do not blame her, they pressure her to keep silent about it,” she said.
“I will do live interviews on Instagram with psychologists and sociologists to raise awareness among women about how to protect themselves against violence and assaults.”