New Delhi: Muslim-majority Egypt, leaving behind its relative liberalism has swung into purdah by punishing several women for featuring in TikTok and other videos the country’s courts have declared as “obscene”.
The court fined the women 300,000 Egyptian pounds (nearly $ 19,000) each for “violating the values and principles of the Egyptian family, inciting debauchery and promoting human trafficking, according to a statement from the public prosecutor”. Their lawyers vowed to appeal the ruling.
The prosecution statement named just two of the defendants 20-year-old student Haneen Hossam and 22-year-old Mawada Eladhm. It said the other three helped run their social media accounts.
The TikTok fame of both the women is a recent phenomenon. But they amassed millions of followers for their video snippets set to catchy Egyptian club-pop tracks. In their respective 15-second clips, the women wearing makeup pose in cars, dance in kitchens and joke in skits familiar and seemingly tame content for the platform.
Their social media stardom became their curse in Egypt. This quazi-Islamic state dumps citizens in prisons for vague crimes such as misusing social media, disseminating fake news, or inciting debauchery and immorality.
Eladhm’s lawyer, Ahmed el-Bahkeri, confirmed the sentencing. The prosecution argued Eladhm’s photos and videos were “disgraceful” and “insulting”.
Eladhm broke down inside the courtroom. “Two years? 300,000 Egyptian pounds? This is really something very tough to hear,” said Samar Shabana, the attorney’s assistant.
They just want followers. They are not part of any prostitution network, and did not know this is how their message would be perceived by prosecutors, she added, in reference to their posts encouraging young women to share videos and chat with strangers in exchange for money on another social media platform.
Although Egypt remains far more liberal than Gulf Arab states, the Muslim-majority country has swung in a decidedly conservative direction over the past half-century. Belly dancers, pop divas and social media influencers have faced backlash for violating the norms.
The string of arrests for “moral issues” is more broadly part of a clampdown on personal freedoms that has accelerated since President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi came to power in 2013.
A widely circulated online petition described the arrests as a systematic crackdown that targets low-income women. It urged authorities to free the nine young women detained in recent months for posting TikTok videos. Mondays sentencing was the first.
Over the past weeks, the issue of womens rights has galvanized nationwide attention in Egypt. Scores of accusations of serial sexual assault at the most elite university of Egypt has prompted disbelief, outrage and an unprecedented outpouring of support, becoming Egypts answer to the #MeToo movement.
Whether the firestorm will have a long-term impact on womens freedom in Egypt remains to be seen. Critics say state prosecutor’s willingness to come down so severely on the TikTok women, who tend to come from lower-income families in which traditional values are firmly entrenched, has raised doubts that the movement can cut across the countrys stark class lines.