Many Egyptians recently celebrated the amendment of the Penal Code to combat sexual harassment. The current law stipulates that anyone who exposes others in either a public or private place to sexual or pornographic acts, insinuations, or hints, whether by signs, words, actions, or any other means, including wired or wireless means, will be imprisoned for not less than six months and fined for the equivalent of $191 to $318, or both.
The new law added “electronic communication methods” and increased imprisonment to a minimum of two and a maximum of four years and a fine of some $6,357 to $12,713, or both. In case one of the perpetrators was carrying a weapon, imprisonment will be no less than seven years.
If applied, these penalties could be a deterrent in both actual and virtual reality. Yet, there is a third reality where they may not work: Egyptian prisons. In case of repeated harassment, whether by prison guards or among prisoners, there is serious doubt if such crimes will ever be investigated and punished.
The National Security Headquarters
Egyptian photographer Shorouk Amgad (27) was harassed more than once in detention, which started on April 25, 2018. It happened in the National Security headquarters, in Qanater Prison, and while preparing for her court sessions.
“I was arrested with two fellow journalists in front of the Journalists Syndicate on April 25, 2018,” Shorouk told Daraj. “They put us in a small car with our heads on our knees and our hands tied behind our backs, and drove us to the National Security headquarters in Abbasiya. I didn’t deny I produce videos and investigations for Al-Jazeera. Yet, I was being beaten in order for my colleague to confess, because he refused to admit the charges against him.”
“They started torturing me during the interrogation,” Shorouk recounts her experience inside the National Security headquarters. “The officer hit me in the face more than once. They gave me electric shocks and I fainted. When I woke up there were the hands of an officer on me. He tried to open the zipper of my pants. When I screamed, they beat me and told me: ‘this screaming of yours is not allowed here.’ According to Shorouk, she was threatened. The officers on duty told her they would to kill her if she dared report the harassment.
Humiliated with Menstrual Blood
“On the first day after my arrest I asked to go to the bathroom, but the officer refused,” Shorouk continued. “The next day I asked him again and explained I had my period. He laughed. When they removed my blindfold, I discovered my clothes were soaked in blood.”
On the third day, Shorouk was taken to the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), where a prosecutor saw her state and arranged sanitary napkins and new clothes for her.
Physical abuse and virginity detection
On July 21, 2018, Shorouk was transferred from Cairo’s Al-Marg Police Station to Qanater Prison. There the 2nd sexual assault occurred. A body search was conducted, which included stripping her naked and examining her anus and vagina in extremely humiliating conditions.
“A jailer came, put me in a bathroom and took off my clothes, while I wanted to stand in my underwear,” Shorouk said. “I was afraid and shocked that she stripped me of my underwear.”
“I was 23 at the time,” she continued. “The guard forced me to bend down while I was completely naked. She opened my anus and then slapped me while trying to search the vaginal area. She wanted to insert her hand. I screamed and told her I was a virgin. So she forced me to sit on the floor for hours to make sure I wasn’t hiding anything in my vagina.”
“Every time I complained to the prison administration, but never an official investigation was conducted,” she said. “Rather they insisted for us to solve the issue among us. There was a soldier who kept on putting his hand on the prisoners’ bodies when they were preparing to go to court. He put his hand on my back too and harassed me. I asked the officer to investigate the matter and punish the soldier, but he only verbally reprimanded him.”
Transfer or an “administrative sanction”
“In 2019, I was sexually assaulted by Hanim, one of the prison guards at the Al-Qanater Women’s Prison,” a female journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, told Daraj. Despite the many obstacles put on her path, she insisted on informing the prosecutor with the help of her lawyer. “When I complained to the prosecutor, his response was when I put you in a cell in Al-Hita, you were alone and there was no one with you,” she said. “The prosecution is affiliated with Al-Qanater Prison. It refused to receive the report my lawyer submitted. The prosecutor only agreed to do so after a media frenzy.”
The report describes the assault on the journalist as follows: “The jailer, Hanim, forced her to take off her underwear. When the victim refused, because wearing underwear was not in violation of the prison dress code, the warden attacked her and stripped her of her underwear by force. The warden interacted with the prisoner’s body and female organs, until she collapsed and entered a state of intense crying, while embracing a fetal position.”
Although the prison guard Hanim was punished with three to seven years of hard labor for her indecent assault, she was finally only transferred and administratively sanctioned, as she was no longer allowed to physically inspect prisoners.
Verbal harassment in prison is normal for prison guards to insult prisoners. According to Shorouk, a prisoner is never called by just her name. It is always preceded by an insulting word with a sexual connotation.
Shorouk added that the treatment and verbal harassment of female prisoners in the criminal section is worse than the treatment of political prisoners. And for foreign women in the criminal section it is even worse.
“A foreign prisoner told us she was forced to have oral sex with an officer in exchange for a phone call to a lawyer or an acquaintance,” she said.
“The punishment of harassment is supposed to apply inside prisons as it applies outside, but in reality the opposite is true,” human rights lawyer Nabih Al-Janadi told Daraj. “The problem is to reach the stage of an investigation and prove harassment took place.”
Journalist Solafa Magdy was subjected to sexual harassment and the incident was never investigated, because the prison administration did not respond, and the prosecution also refused an investigation.
“I don’t remember any investigation of an official regarding a case of harassment in prison,” said Janadi. “We have submitted reports to the public prosecution office regarding the harassment of Solafa Magdy. But they issued a statement saying that it was all just rumors, even though the incident was never investigated.”
Janadi explained that stripping a woman of her clothes and touching her in a humiliating manner during inspection constitutes harassment and sexual assault.
The Egyptian Front for Human Rights (EFHR) documented attacks on at least four female detainees in the political ward of Qanater Women’s Prison in the first week of February this year. Women were stripped of their personal belongings and placed outside the political ward among killers and drug dealers. According to the EFHR, Solafa Magdy was beaten and harassed during her detention in Qanater. When her mother visited her eight days after the incident, she found her in a state of severe fatigue, and Soulafa told her that she was suffering from severe internal bleedings, as a result of the forced physical examination.