One morning, an Egyptian father checked his phone in the morning to find a message on Facebook. The text from an unknown person with whom he had no prior connection. It said: “If your daughter Shorouk marries someone other than me, I will kill her.” Concerned, her father rushed to ask her about the situation.
Shorouk Ashraf, the sister of Naira Ashraf, the university student who was killed a year ago in front of Mansoura University by a man she refused to marry, now lives in fear after receiving death threats from an unknown person.
Shorouk revealed that she had received several messages from a person she didn’t know, so she blocked him to avoid communication. However, he then sought out her father and sent him the threatening message. This led her to report him to the police, and he was indeed arrested.
But the fear did not subside, according to her, especially since the family had previously lost Naira after she had received threatening messages. Shorouk went to the police to file a report against the perpetrator to avoid facing a fate similar to her sister’s.
Naira’s fate has never left Shorouk’s mind since she and her father received those threatening messages. Images of her sister covered in blood, lying on the ground, haunt her day and night. She fears she might be the next victim, not because she committed a crime, but because a person proposed to her, and she rejected him, leading to threats, and eventually murder.
What Shorouk experienced are the crimes of electronic extortion, cyberbullying, and death threats. According to investigations conducted by the public prosecutor with the accused, as reported by several news outlets, the accused sent such messages to several girls, not only Shorouk.
According to Amnesty International, electronic violence “takes various forms, including direct or indirect threats using physical or sexual violence, and abuse targeting one or more aspects of a woman’s identity.” The organization emphasized that the majority of victims of this crime are women.
Financial and Sexual Extortion
Shorouk is not the only one facing this; before and undoubtedly after her, similar incidents have occurred and will continue to happen. This is evident in the case of 32-year-old Marwa Hamdi, who met a guy and eventually got engaged to him. However, after eight months of engagement, disputes arose, leading to a breakup.
Marwa’s relationship with the guy ended, but the harassment and harm did not. He sent her threatening messages with their private chats and pictures, demanding money. “He said that, if I didn’t send him the money, he would send the pictures and texts to my parents.” She entered a never ending cycle of extortion: “I blocked him, but he created new accounts and continued to send threats. I was terrified, because had the pictures and texts gotten to my parents, they could have killed me.”
Marwa learned about the existence of a unit to combat electronic crimes in the police stations, but the option of reporting and filing a case was not viable for her. “Even if I had found someone who would hear me out or stand with me, I would not be shielded from the scandal and pain. And my parents would have learned about the situation, the images would have been released, and people would forget anything that came before that and would judge me based on that.”
Marwa thus chose the second option: complying with her ex-fiance and transferring the demanded sum of money. This is a choice made by many girls and women facing various forms of online violence. According to a report by the regional office of the United Nations Women titled “Violence against Women in the Digital Space: Insights from a Multinational Study in Arab States,” 49% of female internet users in the Arab region expressed feeling unsafe from online harassment. 36% of women who faced online violence last year were advised to ignore the incident, 23% were blamed, and 21% were told to delete their social media accounts.
The Law is Not Enough!
Despite numerous feminist organizations and initiatives addressing this form of violence against women and encouraging reporting, having a law alone is insufficient. What is more crucial is protecting women during the reporting process and safeguarding their private data. Mahmoud Al Yamani, the founder Qawem, an initiative which deals with electronic extortion cases in Egypt, agrees with this perspective. According to him, the initiative aims to resist electronic violence against women, encourage them to pursue legal action, and raise awareness.
The threat of murder is not limited to individuals outside the family framework, and electronic violence is no exception, as seen in the case of 38-year-old Rehab Taha. In her case, the threat came from her ex-husband after a divorce following a four-year marriage with a child under two. Despite attempts to convey the importance of maintaining a good relationship for the sake of their child, he persisted to harass and threaten Rehab.
After several attempts to get Marwa to go back to marital life, the threatening stage began: “ When I found out that there wasn’t any hope to return to our marital life, I blocked him. He then sent me a message from another account saying that he would throw burning water at me if I don’t take him back, and that he would maim me. He continued to threaten me and follow me on the internet, on the street, and even in front of my workplace.”
Rehab’s decision was in contrast to Marwa’s, as she went to the police station to file a report against her husband and seek protection. The response from the officer responsible for processing the report was disappointing, as Rehab recounts: “The officer told me, ‘Oh lady, it’s a shame on you to file a report against your husband. I have another solution; I can talk to him, and we can settle things peacefully. He loves you so much, that’s all.'”
Rehab stated that societal attitudes that consistently favor men often encourage them to perpetrate more violence against women. This is evident in how the police officer treated her at the station, displaying bias in favor of the husband without understanding the situation.
This bias can escalate to murder, with the perpetrator continuing to harass the victim or the victim taking her own life to escape the torment. This tragic outcome was evident in the case of Basant Khaled, a young woman who committed suicide due to online extortion and threats to publish manipulated images of her on social media.
Lama Lutfi, the director of the New Woman Foundation dealing with women’s issues, believes that laws alone do not solve the problem. She emphasizes the importance of societal awareness and support. While acknowledging progress in laws against electronic crimes and efforts to protect the data of those reporting, the real crisis lies in the reporting culture. Women find dealing with police stations, narrating incidents, and sharing details to be a psychological burden. Additionally, they fear social rejection or what is termed societal disgrace.
Until the societal system integrates with the legal system, providing protection for women to encourage reporting, cases like Marwa’s, who received threatening messages from her ex-boyfriend or Rehab, who changed her residence and job to escape her ex-husband’s pursuit, will persist.
This fear continues to haunt Shorouk, bearing the image of her sister, and hoping not to become the protagonist of the next scene.