Egypt’s ‘TikTok girls’: Jailed as a convenient scapegoat

By Stephanie al-Hakim
Posted on Friday, 3 September 2021 13:10

Mobile phone running the TikTok app in Cairo, Egypt on December 2020. (Xinhua/Ahmed Gomaa)

Young women 'influencers' from poor backgrounds are being jailed by the Egyptian government for posting videos on TikTok. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi may have muzzled the Muslim Brotherhood, but his electorate and country is still torn between competing forces of modernisation and conservative traditions. Activists claim the Egyptian authorities - keen to burnish their traditionalist credentials -- are using these defenceless women as convenient scapegoats.

In February this year, Haneen Hossam, a 20 year-old Egyptian woman appeared in a video dancing to celebrate her release from prison. She celebrated too soon; six months later she was been jailed for 10 years.

Haneen and another young woman – 22 year-old Mawada Al-Adham – had previously been sentenced to two years in prison and fined $20,000 for having violated ‘family values, luring other girls to exploit them in human trafficking and creating videos that incite immortality’.

However, what these two young women had done is what thousands of others have been doing across the country: posting videos on social media of them dancing and lip-synching while making money as an influencer.

The only difference in their case, is that they are from a modest social class. That makes easy to turn into an example, given that they would not have the right connections to defend themselves, say many activists.

A child watches a video for Tik Tok influencer Mawada al-Adham in her home in Cairo, Egypt July 5, 2021. REUTERS/Staff – RC25EO9DEKOA

Despite their release by the Economic Court in Cairo, prosecutors continued to investigate the two women on charges of human trafficking. Eventually, another hearing resulted in new jail terms: Haneen was sentenced to 10 years of prison in absentia and Mawada was imprisoned for six years.

“Initially they were in shock, because countless people in Egypt do what they do: celebrities [for] example dress freely, monetise their social media accounts, and film themselves all the time without being accused or even thinking of getting arrested,” says Merhan Keller, a women’s rights activist who launched the Amr Warda harassment case.

“They felt that if they kept it quiet, they would ultimately be released, because what they did definitely did not deserve the sentences they were given,” says Keller, who has been in contact with both of the accused young women.

Justice and social class

It is not a coincidence that justice and social class still go together in many cases in Egypt. The higher a person is in the echelons of society, the safer he/she is, regardless of the acts committed. The infamous Fairmont gang rape case made headlines when the young female victims, all from modest classes, decided to speak up and file reports against their aggressors – all from well-connected families.

The accused men were eventually released for lack of evidence after detaining the witnesses and accusing them of immorality and inciting debauchery. The accused are currently roaming freely in Egypt, threatening to launch legal actions, if they are ever linked to this case again.

In Egypt, we see women who belong to the high class exercise their freedom by wearing what they want or choosing to act a certain way without being blamed or prosecuted. Whereas women from lower classes face social restrictions and state scrutiny, leading to prosecution.

Alaa Hasanien, a writer and victim of sexual harassment filed a case against Mohammed Hashem, owner of a publishing house. The court eventually acquitted him, stating that the plaintiff is a writer and novelist who may be creating more fiction, in addition to inappropriate innuendos linked to her behaviour.

“In Egypt, we see women who belong to the high class exercise their freedom by wearing what they want or choosing to act a certain way without being blamed or prosecuted. Whereas women from lower classes face social restrictions and state scrutiny, leading to prosecution. In the Tiktok cases, many women who were from middle to low classes were prosecuted and imprisoned for simply singing and dancing. However, other women didn’t face the same fate because of their – social – background,” says Hasanien.

Rule of law or implementor of morals?

“Social media is a double-edged sword. Most of us give into its negative side which destroys values and morals. In the blind pursuit of profit, their constant efforts to achieve the maximum number of users through vicious and obscene means, [which] destroyed our values,” said Mohamed Ahmed al-Guindy, the prosecutor of the Tiktok case. “There is no family censorship, and negligence in some families has been driving them to a moral collapse,” he said. Many might ask if the prosecution is a defender of moral values or truly an enforcer of the law.

While Article 11 of the Egyptian constitution states that it is committed to achieving equality between women and men in all “civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights”, the reality on the ground is different. The lawyers representing Mawada and Haneen haven’t even met their clients. During the court proceedings, the accused were not allowed to speak, and the judge dismissed any questions by the lawyers.

“The girls began to understand that staying silent and obedient would not grant them bail or time out of prison, so they started expressing their feelings because they had tried relentlessly to object in court and say they are innocent. But the judge wouldn’t allow them to speak either,” says Keller, who uses her social media account to draw attention to women’s rights in Egypt.

“Haneen made it very clear how she felt in that famous video  before her arrest, one day after court proceedings”, says the Instagrammer who has more than 500,000 followers.

One day after the sentences, Haneen posted a video on her social media account pleading with Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to look into her case. “Your daughter is dying, Mr President. I kept my calm so that I could speak and request the president’s and people’s assistance,” she says in the video. “My mother is about to have a stroke after the ruling,” she said in reference to the 10-year prison sentence.

I do not believe that it is the law that plays a huge role in women’s discrimination in Egypt, but its the implementation of the law and the rule of law that play a vital role in treating women differently

The following day, Haneen was arrested. “She was taken out of bed by nine men, while her mother, a cancer patient, was in the house. She lost sense on the left side of her body,” says Keller. Mawada was still in prison when she was referred to trial in this case. This means that she has one chance to appeal before the Court of Cassation: the final appeal stage under Egyptian law.

Haneen, who was sentenced in absentia, was given a tougher sentence. “It is legal custom to hand down the maximum sentence in absentia and then reduce it in the presence of the accused. The judge considers there to be no submitted defense on behalf of the absent defendant,” says Yasmin Omar, who is an Egyptian human rights lawyer based in the US as well as a legal associate at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Haneen can now file a petition to get a retrial, after which she could appeal before the cassation court, as Mawada did.

‘These sentences are far from being related to the law’

“There is no doubt [that] the human trafficking law includes vague and broad terms but this doesn’t change the fact that the court’s interpretation of the TikTok girls’ case is very controversial and subjective. I do not believe that it is the law that plays a huge role in women’s discrimination in Egypt, but it’s the implementation of the law and the rule of law that play a vital role in treating women differently. These sentences are far from being related to the law,” says Omar.

The law’s definition of trafficking is largely inspired by the Palermo Protocol, but it gives a broader understanding of the crime. Article 2 defines trafficking as a crime composed of three elements:

  • An act of trafficking: “including selling, exposing for sale, buying, promising to sell or buy, using, transporting, handing over, harbouring or receiving a person, either inside the country or across its borders.”
  • Committed by certain means: “using force or violence or threats thereof, or by abduction or fraud or deception, or the exploitation of a position of power or the exploitation of a state of weakness or need, or the promise of 10 financial compensation or benefits in exchange for the consent of a person to the trafficking of another person he/she has control over”.
  • For the purposes of exploitation: “Exploitation includes exploitation in prostitution and all other forms of sexual exploitation, sexual exploitation of children or exploitation of children in pornography, forced labor or services, slavery and slavery-like practices, begging, and the removal of organs or human tissue or parts thereof.”

“There isn’t any clear link between human trafficking and inviting followers to join [one’s]  application. We have to wait for the judge’s reasoning of the verdict, so we know how he lays them to the case facts,” says Omar. The all-male prosecution’s interrogation of Haneen and Mawada included questions on their virginity, and private life; questions not related to charges of trafficking.

For months now, Haneen and Mawada have shared the same prison cell. Surviving in jail has been very difficult for both of them, as the unwritten rules of prison makes it difficult to get by. “To eat in prison, the incarcerated need to have money, but both Haneen and Mawada’s parents have paid their bail money twice and have no more money to give to their daughters,” says Keller. Moreover, these women had become the main breadwinners for their respective families, but have since seen their income and careers vanish.

While Haneen and Mawada’s sentences are unjust, there is one thing that is worth noting. These cases are not going unnoticed anymore.

Protests by Femen activists in front of the Egyptian embassy in Paris on 26 June 2021 against the sentences given to Mawada and Haneen.

“I think that speaking out loud and mobilising on the ground will definitely bring change. It is already happening in increasing awareness and testimonies against rapists and sexual harassers. We also see institutional improvement: many organisations and political parties have adopted new anti-sexual harassment policies in workplaces,” says Omar.

After the exposure of the Ahmed Bassam Zaki harassment case, there has been an online revolution in Egypt that has brought to light the dark situations that women encounter. Activists, lawyers, journalists have kicked off conversations on social media, collected testimonies, and mobilised the government and local NGOs to put a stop to all kinds of crimes perpetrated against women, particularly those left most vulnerable given their place in society.

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