Qawem group saves Egyptian women from sextortion
Last summer, Mohammed Elyamani was devastated by the news that a 17-year-old girl who had reached out to him for help after her ex-boyfriend threatened her with "sextortion" had committed suicide.
When the girl messaged Elyamani about her case, the 35-year-old social activist – who uses Facebook to raise awareness about sexual harassment and sextortion, threats to distribute private and sensitive material – advised her to go to the police. The next day, he learned she had taken her own life after her ex-boyfriend sent the pictures to her father. 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 over 250,000 followers.
Confronting a macho culture
Qawem's network consists of 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 needed. At the same time, they help to tackle the aggressive macho culture to which many Egyptian women are subjected – such as in the form of sexual harassment.
When the volunteers receive a report about an incident, they contact the extorter online. They 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 said some extorters respond when they realise the victim is not alone. "But most don't unless we threaten to expose their actions," he added.
"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 said. "In very few cases, we had to resort to the police in co-ordination with the victim when the extorter wouldn't cave in."
Numerous requests for help
Sexual extortion is widespread in Egypt. According to its own information, Qawem receives around 500 requests for help per day, resolving some 200 every week. It takes between a few hours and a week to get an extorter to back down, the group said.
Randa* is among those who have been saved by Qawem. The 29-year-old said 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 approved 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 of approaching the police.
According to Aziza Eltawil, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent human rights organisation, Randa's fears were justified. Many victims avoid speaking to police for fear that the news will be leaked to their families, the media or online, said Eltawil. "Sometimes the lawyer of the accused and his family try to defame and discredit the victim," she said. Also, Eltawil said, the legal process often drags on, and victims under the age of 18 must file the official complaint via their legal guardian. This discourages young victims from reporting these incidents, as they are too scared to tell their parents.
Yasser Saad, a lawyer who handles sextortion cases, said Egyptian law protects victims of sextortion, and punishes extortion and the violation of another's privacy with fines, prison or both. But its implementation and the procedures of filing a complaint remain problematic. The length of time between filing an official complaint and the start of the investigation leaves room for the extorter to carry out his threat, said Saad, while the macho culture at police stations often blames victims for such crimes.
Nourhan* confirms this. She had separated from her fiancé. He then also threatened sexual blackmail – whereupon she filed charges against him. But the police in Assiut governorate in southern Egypt took 40 days before questioning him. Although the case eventually forced her ex-fiance to back down, Nourhan said she could have been murdered had he carried out his threats during that time.
Deleting data not always the answer
Eltawil explained 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."
Elyamani admits that 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 that a new owner could restore the deleted content using special programmes. These women then start getting blackmailed from the new owners of their phones, whom they do not know," he said. In these cases, he advises victims to go straight to the police.
Elyamani notes that they also don'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," he said.
Elyamani said cases demanding money have risen during the pandemic, but experts believe Qawem's approach will continue to gain appeal.
Ahmed Abdullah, a psychology teacher at Zagazig University northeast of Cairo, said 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'll take it," he said.
© Deutsche Welle 2021
*Names have been changed at the request of the victims.
This article was written in collaboration with the media network Egab.
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