Saving Egyptian women from sextortion
Last northern summer, Mohammed Elyamani was struck by the news that a 17-year-old girl — who’d sought his help after her ex-boyfriend had sent personal images to her father — had taken her own life. Elyamani uses Facebook to raise awareness about sexual harassment and ‘sextortion’ to confront those who have for many years been sexually exploiting thousands of women across Egypt. When the girl texted him about her case, he advised her to go to the police. However, when Elyamani contacted the girl's family to take legal action against the extorter, the response was: “We don’t want scandals. She’s already dead.”
Overwhelmed by guilt, Elyamani vowed to do all he could to save other victims from the same fate. In June 2020, he created Qawem — Arabic for resist — a page and group on Facebook to help victims of sextortion. Today, the group has more than 250,000 followers; the group’s network has 200 volunteers. While female volunteers run the Facebook group and respond to victims’ messages, others collect information about extorters, locating their families, co-workers and employers, if need be.
When a report about an incident is received, the volunteers contact the extorter online and ask him to delete all the content he’s holding against the victim, explaining the consequences of his actions and threatening to expose him to his family, friends and at his workplace. The extorter is asked to film himself while deleting the material, and then send the video to Qawem and issue an apology to the victim.
Elyamani told DW some extorters respond when they realise the victim isn’t alone. “But most don’t unless we threaten to expose their actions,” he adds.
“Occasionally, we send volunteers to meet the extorter in person, and we try to send volunteers from the same neighbourhood as the extorter” to put pressure on the individual, he says. Only in a few cases has the group resorted to calling in the police when the extorter wouldn’t comply, and then only with the support of the victim.
Qawem says it now receives around 500 cases a day, resolving some 200 each week. It takes between a few hours and a week to get an extorter to back down, it says.
Randa* is among those who’ve been helped by Qawem. The 29-year-old says it took three days to resolve her case, after her boyfriend threatened to expose her nude pictures when she told him she wanted to break off their relationship.
Although Egypt passed a law last August to protect the identities of victims of sexual violence, including sextortion, to encourage more women to come forward, Randa was still afraid to approach police.
And there is some justification for that fear. Aziza Eltawil, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent human rights organisation, believes Randa’s fears are well-placed. Many victims avoid speaking to police for fear the news will be leaked to their families, the media or online, she says.
“Sometimes the lawyer of the accused and his family try to defame and discredit the victim,” she notes. And, the legal process can often drag on. Worse, victims under the age of 18 must file the official complaint via their legal guardian. This discourages young victims from reporting incidents as they’re too scared to tell their parents.
Yasser Saad, a lawyer who handles sextortion cases, says Egyptian law does protect victims of sextortion, and punishes extortion and violations of another’s privacy with fines, prison or both. But filing an official complaint remains a challenge. The length of time between filing and the start of the investigation leaves room for the extorter to carry out his threat, he says, while police culture will often blame victims for such crimes.
Nourhan*, 30, says police in Assiut Governorate in southern Egypt took 40 days before questioning her ex-fiancé after she filed an official complaint against him for sextortion last October.
Eltawil explains that the duration between filing a complaint and questioning the culprit “depends on how fast the police can obtain the IP address of the suspect’s device and complete the necessary investigations.”
Although Nourhan’s case eventually forced her ex-fiancé to back down, she says she could have been murdered had he carried out his threat. In Southern Egypt, so-called honour killings — where a woman is killed for her perceived immoral behaviour — are believed to be common.
Elyamani admits Qawem’s biggest challenge in resolving a case is when the victim doesn’t know the blackmailer. “Some women sell their phones after deleting all stored images and videos, not knowing a new owner could restore the deleted content using special programs. These women then start getting blackmailed from the new owners of their phones, whom they do not know,” he says. In these cases, he advises victims to go straight to the police.
Qawem doesn’t handle cases involving gangs. “There are cases where women fall victim to fake advertisements for a modelling career that ask girls to send revealing images and then they get blackmailed,” Elyamani says. He also reports cases demanding money have risen during the pandemic.
Despite this, experts believe Qawem’s approach will continue to gain appeal. Ahmed Abdullah, a psychology lecturer at Zagazig University, northeast of Cairo, says many in Arab countries “prefer to settle disputes through traditional methods rather than the rule of law. All a victim wants is for the material being used to threaten them to get deleted, without any scandals. If the informal route proves to be effective, they take it.”
*Names have been changed at the request of the victims
TOP Qawem’s Facebook header
BOTTOM Mohammed Elyamani runs his Facebook group alongside his marketing job