Content that advocates for women’s rights and champions feminist ideas is often met with violent digital attacks in Egypt. These include hacking, spreading hate speech, defamation, and even revenge pornography, i.e., sharing explicit images without consent as an act of retaliation.
Social media has become another space where women in Egypt endure digital violence and hate speech, impacting their experiences on these platforms and their lives more generally.
According to a UN study published in March, women are 27 times more likely to face online harassment or hate speech, despite being 20% less likely than men to use the internet.
When Aya Mounir, founder of Superwomen initiative, criticized a post by a Salafi preacher talking about polygyny, she was attacked within less than a minute.
Every time she publishes content targeting women, Aya is met with a barrage of digital violence, including “bullying and ridiculing [her] status as a divorcee,” she told SMEX. “Some of these absurd comments are made by people close to me, such as family members.”
However, these experiences have strengthened Aya’s resolve to protect herself digitally. She began taking steps to protect her accounts when the attacks occurred. “I temporarily disable comments, despite the negative impact that this has on interaction with our Facebook page, or I ignore the comments altogether,” she explains.
Unfortunately, these attacks are not limited to digital violence. They even go as far as attempting to have personal accounts and pages suspended.
Egyptian feminist Samira Abdul Qadir, founder of Polygamy Control, told SMEX, “Six Facebook pages and personal accounts have been suspended due to reporting campaigns simply because we criticized laws that are unfair towards women in Egypt, such as the Personal Status Law.”
When Samira flagged the issue to Facebook, she was told that her pages “violated standards and spread hate speech,” without specifying which post was in violation and without giving any further details about the incident.
The Polygamy Control page often receives unsafe links in an attempt to hack it, and its founder receives many prison and death threats. This led her to launch several campaigns against hate speech targeting women on social media.
“There is a strong correlation between hate speech, social media, and crimes against women,” Abdul Qadir told SMEX. “One example is the case of Naira Ashraf, who was stabbed by a young man in 2020.”
At the time, those demanding justice for Naira faced violent backlash on social media. According to Abdul Qadir, many people tried to justify the perpetrator’s actions.
In light of Naira Ashraf’s case, a study by journalism professors Munia Ishaq and Sarah Ahmed published this year in Cairo University’s Egyptian Journal of Media Research found that “social media has a major role in the spread of social hate speech, [which leads to the] oppression and harassment of women in society.” The study identifies political hate speech as the most prevalent type, accounting for 33% of instances, followed by social hate speech (29%), and sports-related hate speech (27%).
Restricting Women’s Freedom in Public Spaces
Lamia Lotfi, the founder of the New Woman Foundation, an Egyptian nonprofit championing women’s rights, said, “When the internet first appeared, women thought it would be a space where they could express themselves without harassment and violence.”
“That, however, was not the case. Social media gave people access to the real personal data of some women, including their photos, addresses, and sometimes even identified family members.” According to Lotfi, this data has been used “to restrict women’s freedom in public spaces, forcing them to hide from society,” Lotfi adds.
Different forms of digital violence, from society to the family, pressure women and girls and force them to practice self-censorship, Lotfi added. “This includes setting up fake accounts, limiting their online interactions to a few friends, or avoiding technology and social media altogether.”
According to Lotfi, what makes matters worse is that women under digital attacks are reluctant to report such incidents for the same reasons that prevent them from reporting cases of everyday violence on the streets.
“Society puts the blame on women; police officers are not responsive. Women’s complaints are not taken seriously. Their personal data often becomes available to the public, who then pressure or even extort them to drop the case.”
Furthermore, laws such as Law No. 175 of 2018 on Anti-Cybercrimes and Information Technology Crimes have been weaponized to prosecute and persecute women. One notorious case is the prosecution of female entertainment content creators on TikTok in 2020, such as Mina Abdul Aziz, Haneen Hossam, and Mawada al-Adham, under the pretext that they “violated Egyptian family values,” according to a 2021 EuroMed Rights study.
Despite all that, Lotfi still hopes these issues can be addressed. She first proposes that safe channels be established, enabling women to report cases of digital violence, with strict safeguards to protect the personal data of informants.
“These issues should be given priority by the judiciary. One authority should be given jurisdiction to look into them rather than having several, each with different reporting channels, i.e., the Internal and the Telecom Investigation Bureaus.”
Tips for Enhancing Digital Safety
It is useful to take a few preventative and proactive steps to enhance your digital safety and counter digital threats as much as possible. Below are the tips recommended by the Digital Safety Helpdesk at SMEX.
- Use strong passwords and vary them across platforms: Use strong and complex passwords for your social media and email accounts and update your passwords regularly.
- Enable Two-factor authentication (2FA): Two-factor authentication strengthens your accounts’ security and makes them harder to hack.
- Ensure links and attachments are legitimate and safe: Avoid opening unknown links or downloading attachments unless you trust their source.
- Review your privacy settings: Verify social media accounts privacy settings and adjust them to restrict who can view your content.
- Review your online content: Think carefully about whether you truly wish to share sensitive personal information, such as photos, addresses, or personal data.
- Report threats when safe to do so: If you are exposed to any digital threat or harassment, do not hesitate to report it to the relevant platforms or even to the competent authorities, if necessary, and if it is safe for you to do so. You may avoid interacting with the source of the threat to avoid escalating the situation.
- Contact our Digital Safety Helpdesk: *You can always contact the Digital Safety Helpdesk at SMEX if you experience any digital threat. Reach us on:
- Signal: 0096181633133
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- WhatsApp: 0096181633133