Rights activists say keeping momentum going depends on reaching poorer women and cementing change in the justice system
By Menna A. Farouk
CAIRO, Sept 24 (Reuters) - In just two months, Egypt's burgeoning #MeToo movement has exposed sexual assaults, spurred legal reform and emboldened hundreds of abuse victims including celebrities to speak out, sparking a long-overdue debate about gender inequality.
Now, rights activists in the conservative country say keeping the social media campaign's momentum going hinges on taking the message offline to reach poorer women, especially in rural areas, and changing attitudes in the justice system.
"I hope this momentum does not remain in the upper- and middle-class segments of society, but moves downwards to the lower social classes as well," said Entessar El-Saeed, head of the Cairo Center for Development and Law, an NGO.
"There are many women who are not educated and are exposed to sexual harassment but still do not speak up whether because they fear social stigma or they are not aware of the legal procedures," El-Saeed told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She noted that many less-educated women, especially outside the cities, do not use social media or have internet access.
Only 54% of Egypt's population is connected to the internet, according to a 2020 report by UK-based creative agency We Are Social. In rural areas, that figure falls to 19.1%, found a 2019 report by the state-run statistics agency CAPMAS.
Randa Fakhr El-Deen, executive director of the NGOs' Union on Harmful Practices against Women and Children, said that in poorer areas many women do not have mobile phones and are barely aware of social media trends.
"Moreover, violence against women is at much higher levels in these areas," she said. "Those women are really left behind. That is why the state along with NGOs have to concentrate their efforts towards them."
She suggested taking #MeToo offline by organizing workshops where women can share their stories, and training more female rural leaders to help raise awareness among women about their legal rights and how to address gender-based violence.
'RAPE CULTURE, VICTIM BLAMING'
The current reckoning over sexual violence began in July when a 22-year-old student launched a #MeToo-style Instagram page called Assault Police to expose a university student who is now accused of raping and blackmailing several women.
Weeks later, it brought to light a gang rape case, which now involves up to nine suspects from powerful, wealthy families.
Responding to the growing public debate, parliament passed a law in August giving women the automatic right to anonymity in a bid to encourage more to report sexual assaults.
In a country where women have long felt disadvantaged, rights activists are keen to seize on the movement as an opportunity to change deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes.
A 2017 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll found Cairo to be the most dangerous megacity for women and 99% of women in Egypt interviewed by the United Nations in 2013 said they had experienced sexual harassment.
Alia Soliman, a women's rights advocate, said there was a gap between improved public awareness and the way in which police and judicial authorities handle sexual assault cases.
"Social media use and raising awareness is important to shatter rape culture (and) victim blaming. It needs to be complimented with strong and consistent legal zero tolerance actions against rapists and sexual harassers," she said.
Fakhr El-Deen suggested installing special units in police stations to handle complaints of gender-based violence.
Many women still fear the stigma of reporting sexual abuse in Egypt, where there is a deep bias to put more blame on women for behaviour deemed provocative than on men for sex crimes.
Reda Eldanbouki, a lawyer and executive director of the Women's Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness, an NGO, said #MeToo had highlighted the need for a law to protect witnesses.
Egyptian authorities arrested a man and three women who were witnesses to the gang rape case, charging them with "morality" and "debauchery" offenses, according to Human Rights Watch.
"This can make women fearful of reporting cases of sexual assaults as lawyers of suspects can turn the case against them and level accusations against them," Eldanbouki said.
#MeToo's supporters acknowledge the scale of their task.
Calling the campaign "a feminist revolution", Shady Noor, a women's rights advocate and filmmaker who has become a leading voice in the movement, said he was determined that women of all social classes should benefit.
"There is a great resistance. We know that," he said.
"(But) we don't want it to remain for some time and then fade away like previous waves."
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(Reporting by Menna A. Farouk; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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