Up in arms over a TikTok star: Public morality and the state

Earlier this month, the internet exploded with criticism of Haneen Hossam, a twentysomething with more than 1.2 million followers on TikTok, where she posts videos of herself dancing and singing to mahraganat music, among other content. She refers to herself as Haram Masr, or Egypt’s Pyramid, in her username.

The controversy broke after she published a video in which she spoke about work opportunities for “good-looking women over 18 years old,” via an agency she had founded on the application Likee, offering money in exchange for using the live service and attracting followers to the app. Because of this video, thousands of people accused Hossam on social media of trying to hire young women for online sex work. Soon, talk show hosts joined the attacks, telling families to protect their daughters from “online prostitution” and mocking her English-speaking abilities. Mohamed Othman al-Khosht, the president of Cairo University, where she studies archaeology, said in a statement that Hossam’s behavior violated public morality and the “values and traditions of the institution,” adding that the university was investigating the matter. Lawyers filed complaints to the public prosecutor, accusing Hossam of harming public morality. She was arrested less than 24 hours later, on April 21. Prosecutors charged her with debauchery and human trafficking and ordered her to be jailed on remand.

She is not the first woman to be arrested for allegedly harming public morality online, and she is surely not the last. In fact, days after Hossam’s arrest, actress and dancer Sama al-Masry was arrested on similar charges. In 2016, Salma al-Fouly was arrested for appearing in a music video titled Seeb Eedi. (Funnily enough, the director of that clip, Wael al-Siddiki, who had escaped to the United States to escape his own arrest, posted a video asking the Interior Ministry to arrest Hossam.) Another woman, Shimaa, was arrested in 2017 for another video clip, Andi Zuroof. In 2018, actress Rania Youssef was reported to the public prosecutor for wearing a dress considered by some to be too revealing at the Cairo International Film Festival. The complaint was dropped only when Youssef publicly apologized on pro-government TV host Amr Adib’s show. Last year, two actresses, Mona Farouq and Shimaa al-Hagg, were arrested after a video was posted online without their consent, showing them having group sex with director and MP Khaled Youssef. No criminal charges were filed against Youssef, according to him, although he faces a lawsuit attempting to remove him from Parliament because of the videos. 

In 2016, novelist and writer Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in jail for inciting debauchery and harming public morality after a chapter of his novel Using Life was published in 2014. His sentence was overturned in 2017. That same year, a number of people were arrested after raising a rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Laila concert, after several of their photos were circulated by the media. They were charged with “debauchery,” “inciting sexual deviancy” and “joining an outlawed group.” Others have been arrested by security forces using dating applications like Grindr to entrap them. All of these incidents are surrounded by lesser-known arrests of citizens on vaguely worded charges like inciting debauchery.

The state asserts itself as the guardian of public morality by gathering social acceptance from the conservative majority for what is, in fact, a security approach. Article 10 of the 2014 Constitution states that “The family is the nucleus of society and is founded on religion, morality and patriotism. The state shall ensure its cohesion, stability and the establishment of its values.” The family mentioned here is the heterosexual family, which is the only framework available for citizens to legally have sex: a man, a woman and an official marriage contract. Any sexual activity that falls outside of this framework is considered illegal and may be punishable by a 1961 anti-prostitution law, especially if money is proven to be exchanged for sex. Lawyer Mostafa Mahmoud says that the law is usually used in cases against people percieved by the state to be gay, as homosexuality itself is not explicitly outlawed. The language of this law and other articles about public morality and debauchery in the Egyptian Penal Code is “mysterious and loose,” he says, and does not clearly identify the act being criminalized.

For example, the nebulous terms of “debauchery,” “lewdness” and “vice” used in public morality cases leaves it up to judges to determine the threshold, content and standards of these crimes, and they often rule according to their own assumptions and personal beliefs, Mahmoud said.

The cohesion of this heterosexual family, which is built upon equally loose terms like religion, morality and patriotism, is also the state’s responsibility. This is why Article 10 links family and morality, as every constitution has done since 1923.

Historian Hanan Kholoussy writes that this link was thrown into crisis in the beginning of the 20th century, when middle-class men were postponing marriage for the sake of higher education, causing public figures to stir panic over a “marriage crisis.” This moral panic continued through the rest of the 20th century, with the criminalization of sex work and the 1961 law, followed by an expansion of the security state following former President Anwar Sadat’s infitah, when the state began reaching further into the public and private lives of groups and individuals, especially those who do not conform to “traditional values,” such as male and female sex workers, the LGBT community, gender non-conforming people and oppositional political groups. Public morality has served as a blanket justification for all of this.

The securitization of the social domain continued under Mubarak’s rule. Using the term “vice police,” Hossam Bahgat, a journalist at Mada Masr and former researcher and executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says in a paper published in 2004 that the security state positions itself as the guardian of public moralities at the expense of people who do not conform to its social standards. It classifies them as security threats, then goes after them, he writes, referring to the 2001 Queen Boat raid in which more than 50 people aboard what was alleged to be a “gay disco” were arrested and charged with debauchery and prostitution. On the same point, Egyptian writer and researcher Khaled Mansour emphasizes that the security state pursues people not only when they are caught in the act (in flagrante delicto, in legal terms), but also on the basis of suspicion of homosexuality based on their appearance, clothing and public behaviour. In a 2016 paper, Mansour refers to a case in which a court issued a mandatory divorce ruling on the marriage of writer Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, because of his controversial views deemed “insulting to Islam.”

The family and national security

Before Hossam’s arrest, a number of YouTube and Facebook users filmed themselves asking the state to intervene in what they described as her incitement of women to engage in online prostitution. They used a conservative discourse that valorizes public morality, a discourse of protecting women by preserving “the family.” It’s a card that’s used whenever the state is called upon to restore moral order after a controversy. Just as it earns public support by playing the role of the savior who protects social order, the state also raises the flag of its hegemonic power, pressuring everybody to walk within their assigned lanes and perform their assigned roles. Egyptian media took on the responsibility of lambasting Hossam on air and heightening the sense of moral panic, asking the Public Prosecutor to take serious action: “Calm us down with a procedure to save the identity of the Egyptian family,” as host Nashaat al-Dihy volunteered.

To contextualize Dihy’s call for help, we have to deconstruct it, particularly the way it gathers state, identity and family. Political scientist Nicola Pratt explains the statist obsession with controlling the social as a rooting mechanism for the concept of Egypt’s national and cultural identity. This imagined identity relies on distributing social identities and roles, on the one hand, and the state’s constant effort to differentiate itself from the West, on the other.

Pratt links this to economic changes that have affected social roles inside the family, and the effect the global market and international debt have had on Egypt’s economic and political policies, as well as the state’s own identity. This leads the state to work hard to control the social as a domain it “owns.” Here, sexuality becomes a threat to social order, and the state considers sexuality that exists outside the framework of a man, a woman and a marriage contract to be a threat to national security.

Pratt describes the Queen Boat case as a chance for Mubarak to prove the sovereignty of the state, especially after the Muslim Brotherhood’s gains in the 2000 parliamentary elections. The media smeared those arrested as blindly imitating the West, and described them as religiously corrupt individuals worshipping the devil in the Queen Boat: literally demonizing them. To frame them as national security threats, they were accused of spying for foreign countries. All of this was inseparable from the accusations of debauchery, homosexuality and violating public morality.

The Queen Boat raid remains a vivid example of how the state uses its security forces as well as its judicial and legislative systems to violate the private lives of citizens. It was a step on the journey toward surveilling the internet and its users as part of protecting national security. In his paper, Bahgat mentions the arrest of Shuhdi Surour for publishing an old poem by his father Naguib Surour — an Egyptian poet known for his critiques of Gamal Abdel Nasser — containing sexual imagery on his website. He was accused of having posted sexual content for the purpose of inciting debauchery, thereby violating Article 178 of the Egyptian Penal Code. It was said that the state would not tolerate any content contradicting public moralities on the internet. There would be no exceptions for people thinking the internet is a free space where they can practice and incite debauchery. Egyptian researcher Dalia Abdel Hamid wrote in a 2018 paper published in the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies that the number of people arrested for debauchery had risen fivefold since mid-2013.

 What happened with Haneen Hossam is similar to the operations undertaken against other citizens in the name of a public morality whose standards are unspecific and undefined. The operation invokes terms such as identity, national security and “the family.” It relies on a conservative discourse of morality that is used to organize people in society, and which enforces itself on all levels: through the violence that parents use against children, the social stereotyping and stigmatization of those outside the norm, and the state stepping in and arresting them, declaring them in its enemy.

Wherever you are, patriarchy gets you

The state practices patriarchy in different ways. In the incidents mentioned earlier, it played the role of the father whose behavior conforms to socially accepted standards of masculinity: violent, restrictive and hegemonic. In the stratification of most patriarchal systems, men are on the top of the pyramid, while women occupy a lesser position. And in order for the father to continue his rule over family members, he controls those of lesser privileges for “protection and public good,” be they women, children, or other men made weaker by their class or age.

Control of women in the family is also about controlling their bodies and what those bodies symbolize: honor and vice. Should they disobey, the person responsible for them (usually a man) is stigmatized for their failure to control “their” women.

Let us assume Hossam called on young women to participate in her agency and become sex workers (which she did not). She would have gone against her family’s authority, as well as the greater authority of society and the sovereign power that is the state. One YouTube user remarked that Hossam’s call threatens his relationship with his little sister: “I won’t be able to control…” He doesn’t finish his sentence, perhaps realizing that he is explicitly saying that if his little sister were free to choose what to do with her body, whether the choice is to join Hossam or not, it would mean he would lose his power over her as a man. Another YouTube user warned, “Protect your daughters.”

The women in question, the daughters and sisters who are potential subscribers to Hossam’s money-making project, have no agency whatsoever. In society’s view, they are reduced to potential victims — their stepping away from one system of power necessarily means their subjugation to another. 

For the patriarchal order to continue, each person has to commit to the social identities, gender roles and sexual orientations that the system has assigned, as Cynthia Enloe writes in The Curious Feminist (2004). To achieve this, patriarchal systems — be they families or states — use all means necessary: surveillance, persecution and violence. But economic changes have complicated these roles.

In her ethnography of masculinities in Zawiya al-Hamra, anthropologist Farha Ghannam argues that the hegemony of the family over women who work outside of their homes, buy their own household appliances when they marry, and financially support their families is less than for those who do not. Their financial contribution can shift the power dynamic between them and their fathers or brothers.

For many women, part of the appeal of making money by posting content online is that it doesn’t doesn’t require people to be highly educated. We watch some women cook, while others film their daily routines with children or even host guests on YouTube, and many advertise for lesser known brands. This kind of digital content offers opportunities for those left outside of the highly competitive job market. The more innovative and talented the content creators are, the more they get paid. Many of them contribute to their family’s incomes, including brothers, sisters and in-laws. 

Traditionally, brokers negotiate deals between models and advertisers, taking a share of the payment. Female content creators, however, may be contacted by advertising agencies or brands directly, leaving it up to the women whose bodies will help sell the product to evaluate it and negotiate payment themselves. Similarly, they are in direct control of their relationship with their audience members, who are occasionally willing to donate money to support them. This kind of work strategy is not usually accepted by the conservative majority.

A class-based evaluation is brought to bear on the morality of digital content, in which conservative content from middle-class influencers becomes the standard against which all other content is measured. Women from working-class backgrounds are bullied and mocked as vulgar, or for not speaking English correctly.

Egyptian society, with its conservative majority, may accept slight changes in its structure due to economic patterns affecting social roles and gender identities. These are destabilizations more than they are radical changes, and they are restricted by discourses sustained by the state, which sees these destablizations as a threat to its sovereign power and therefore acts like the ultimate patriarch. Its insistence on this extent of monitoring and encroachment is proof that our private lives are not so separate from questions of formal politics or state power. What forms of resistance are available to us on the scales of our everyday lives? How can we deconstruct the discourses of this power, which does not hesitate to bully and punish? 

Conditional love

In spite of all this smearing, there is an opportunity for social readmission for morally stigmatized women. Some convince themselves they are guilty and show remorse to the state and society. Actress Mona Farouq, mentioned above, posted a video admitting she was guilty, explaining how social stigmatization affects her job and life, and begging for social reacceptance, saying she had already gotten what she deserved by going to jail. Rania Youssef also appeared crying with apology in a video, saying “I am your daughter,” a phrase that spared her a possible trial.

Sarah Ahmed writes that family love is conditional and limited to those who follow the social roles and sexual orientations assigned to them. Youssef played on her audience’s sympathy, admitting she may not have conformed to their conditions for love, but saying she had learned the lesson and promising she would not do it again — seeking readmission as an obedient member of the family. 

Hossam, on the other hand, posted a video explaining what she meant by working on Likee applications, but she did not apologize. Egyptian host Tamer Amin responded to that video, asking her to show remorse. Regret here is the key for social readmission, a confession that everyone is right, except for her.

Ghadeer Ahmed 

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