INTERVIEW-Egypt's #MeToo crusader fights sex crimes via Instagram

CAIRO, Sept 3- 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. 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…

By Menna A. Farouk

CAIRO, Sept 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – After exposingtwo major sexual assaults in her first two months as anInstagram activist, and spurring Egypt to bring in a law toprotect victims’ identities, Nadeen Ashraf has bigger plans.

The 22-year-old student wants to turn her #MeToo-styleInstagram account Assault Police, which has emboldened hundredsof Egyptian women to speak out about violence, into an advocacygroup that can win justice for sexual assault survivors.

“I want to create an entity on a wide scale where women cango to when they experience any violence to help them get theirrights,” Ashraf told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in aninterview in her house in Egypt’s capital, Cairo.

“Change is already happening and we will keep pushing formore changes.”

Women’s rights campaigners say there is a deep-rooted biasin the conservative, Muslim-majority nation to place more blameon women for behaviour deemed provocative than on men for sexcrimes.

A 2017 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll found Cairo to be themost dangerous megacity for women, and a United Nations’ surveyin 2013 found that 99% of women had experienced harassment inEgypt, a country where women have long felt disadvantaged.

Ahmed Bassam Zaki, a former student of the AmericanUniversity in Cairo (AUC) in his early 20s, was arrested in Julyafter several women used Assault Police to make allegationsabout him.

The public prosecutor on Wednesday referred Zaki to thecriminal court on charges of sexually assaulting three girlsunder the age of 18 and using threats to continue abusing them.

Zaki has not addressed the accusations publicly but deniedsome of them during questioning, according to a prosecutionstatement. The Thomson Reuters Foundation was not able to locatea lawyer representing him.

Ashraf, who is a student at AUC, said she decided to set upAssault Police after she heard allegations from friends at theuniversity about Zaki, who comes from a wealthy background,raping and blackmailing women.

“I saw a post written by a woman I know on her personalaccount 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 (bypeople who commented online) to delete the post … Many peopleknew about what he did to many women, but (no action) was takenagainst him.”

GANG RAPE

A second sexual assault case that Ashraf has highlighted viasocial media has proven trickier, leading to complaints fromprosecutors that women are not sharing information with them ina timely manner, as well as death threats against Ashraf.

After claims about an alleged gang rape at Cairo’s FairmontHotel in 2014 circulated online in July, seven suspects fledEgypt, the public prosecutor’s office said, urging women to filecomplaints so they can investigate, not post accusations online.

Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces said on Saturday it hadarrested three of the men and they would be deported to Egypt.

Two other suspects in the case were also arrested in Egyptlast week, Egypt’s public prosecutor said.

Egypt passed a law in August giving victims the automaticright to anonymity in a bid to encourage more women to reportsexual assault, as Ashraf unleashed a #MeToo movement on socialmedia, echoing the 2017 campaign in the United States.

Ashraf said state authorities need to work more closely withcivil society if they are to be effective in addressing sexualharassment in Egypt.

“Our goal is never to accuse, defame, or point fingers atanyone,” she said in a video post on Assault Police on Aug. 20,where she revealed her identity for the first time to some190,000 followers.

“We are simply mediators between survivors and theappropriate entities they want to reach. Our role is to simplyencourage survivors and guide them in taking the appropriatelegal actions.”

She said this involves redirecting survivors to the NationalCouncil for Women, a government agency which has a hotline forcomplaints and helps women through the legal process, or to filetheir own police reports.

Ashraf said her goal is to change attitudes in Egypt towardswomen who experience sexual assault.

“Society always blames the victim, not the one who does theharassment. And even if they do not blame her, they pressure herto keep silent about it,” she said.

“I will do live interviews on Instagram with psychologistsand sociologists to raise awareness among women about how toprotect themselves against violence and assaults.”(Reporting by Menna A. Farouk, Editing by Katy Migiro. Pleasecredit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm ofThomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around theworld who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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