Egyptian authorities have since 2020 carried out a campaign to silence female social media influencers, using a cybercrime law to detain them on vague charges such as violating “public morals” and “undermining family values”. Last week, TikTok celebrity Salma Elshimy became the latest in a growing list of women to fall foul of the authorities over social media posts.
Elshimy had just landed at Cairo International Airport when she was arrested on April 3 on charges of inciting “debauchery” and “violating family values” through her social media posts. The Egyptian model and influencer with an audience of 3.3 million TikTok followers was returning from a trip to Dubai, where she filed a residency application ahead of a planned move.
Her arrest was reported by a photographer from the United Arab Emirates, who informed the Egyptian news website Mada. According to Qatar-based Middle East Monitor, Egypt’s public prosecutor ordered that she be detained for four days on charges of “spreading immorality” and publishing videos and photographs that “contradict social morals and values”.
Lawyer Hany Sameh, a member of the Lawyers Syndicate’s committee on freedoms who has worked on similar cases in the past, described the accusations against Elshimy as “vague”. In an interview with Mada, he said they stemmed from “vestiges of regressive male chauvinism that is uncompromising against women”.
Such arrests are increasingly common in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt, noted Amr Magdi, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a Twitter post last week. “Egyptian authorities arrested yet another female influencer for ‘debauchery’ just because she posts photos we see in everyday life and TVs,” he wrote, adding that arrests of women on “morality” charges “have skyrocketed” under al-Sisi.
‘Inappropriate Pharaonic clothes’
Elshimy’s arrest is not her first brush with the judiciary. The popular influencer was jailed for a month in December 2020, and later released on bail, after taking part in a photo shoot outside the Saqqara necropolis, near the ancient capital of Memphis.
The fashion blogger was denounced to the authorities for posting photographs of herself in ancient Egyptian dress in front of the Pyramid of Djoser, one of Egypt’s most iconic monuments. Local media accused her of “exploiting the cultural value of the antiquities in inappropriate Pharaonic clothes”.
Rights groups say morality charges have surged since the adoption of a cybercrime law in 2018, which specifically targets online content deemed to “undermine public morals” or “family values”. Egyptian authorities have been using the law to target women on social media and curtail their freedom of expression, HRW warns.
“Arresting women and girls on very vague grounds simply for posting videos and photos of themselves on social media sites is discriminatory and directly violates their right to free expression,” Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at HRW, wrote in a 2020 report. “Policing women’s peaceful conduct online smacks of a new effort to control women’s use of public spaces.”
Sameh, the lawyer, stressed the ambiguities of a law that does not specify what social norms should be upheld.
“Are these the values of Egypt in the 1960s, the values of the families of the upper class and residents of resorts, or the values of Salafists?” he questioned, pointing out that Elshimy’s attire is no different from the clothing worn by other artists and actresses on television and in the media.
‘A chilling signal about the state of women’s rights’
Monitors say more than a dozen female influencers have been arrested since 2020. They include TikTok celebrities Haneen Hossam, 24, and Mawada al-Adham, 22, who were first arrested in 2020 and later jailed for social media posts deemed to violate “public morals”.
Hossam was notably accused of “human trafficking” for telling her 1.3 million followers at the time that young girls could earn money through social media posts. According to Amnesty International, the punishment for both women had more to do with the way they danced, dressed and spoke in their videos.
In 2020, the UK-based rights watchdog denounced the arrest of a young influencer who had posted a live video in which she appeared covered in bruises, pleading with the authorities to arrest and prosecute men she accused of beating and raping her. The woman was herself charged with violating “public morals” and “undermining family values”, based on her alleged assailants’ testimony.
“These serial arrests of women send a chilling signal about the state of women’s rights in Egypt,” wrote HRW’s Begum. “Instead of tackling pervasive domestic violence, sexual harassment, and violence, Egyptian authorities appear intent on reinforcing societal discrimination by persecuting women and girls for how they appear online or what they say.”
If she is found guilty, Elshimy faces up to five years in prison and 8,000 euros (8,700 dollars) in fines for “violating public morality”, and a further six months in jail and up to 3,000 euros for “infringing on family principles and values in Egyptian society”.
Source : France24