How ‘family values’ are used against women | Q&A with Lobna Darwish
Haneen Hossam and Mowada al-Adham

The Cairo Economic Court issued its judicial reasoning behind the sentencing of Mowada al-Adham, Haneen Hossam and three other unnamed defendants to two years in prison in addition to a fine of LE300,000 each on charges of violating “family values.” 

The sentences — which are based on articles in the 2018 cybercrime law — were the first of their kind following a series of arrests made recently targeting women who are popular on the social media application TikTok. Two days later, the Tanta Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencer Manar Samy to three years in prison and a fine of LE300,000 on similar charges. 

The judicial reasoning states that Hossam posted a video clip online “calling upon girls of society to abandon principles and traditions and offer themselves to the viewers of this website through video chats.” The court ruled that the reason for such an invitation to “increase the number of views and funds, ultimately requiring girls to make immoral concessions.”

The court also referred to a video by Hossam in which they allege: “she called on girls to record videos, ostensibly in a reserved manner, but in essence was clearly calling on her followers to violate public morals. In doing so, she took advantage of the quarantine and the girls’ need for money.”

The court said it relied in part on the testimony of Hussein Gamal al-Gohari, show host on YouTube, who came forward to prosecutors on his own initiative. According to the reasoning, Gohari claims that the management of the applications Bigo Live and Likee asked him to work with them, but he refused because of what he said was their reputation as hubs for prostitution. The court used this as evidence to convict the defendants. 

The court also relied on personal photos of Adham which she did not publish herself, but which were leaked. The reasoning also says one of the defendants, on the advice of her lawyer, deleted a number of photos and video clips from her TikTok account in which she was wearing outfits the court described as “indecent and obscene.” Additionally, the Central Bank of Egypt submitted a report that showed Adham had received large sums of money from abroad through her various bank accounts, according to the reasoning. 

The reasoning says: “The defendants [committed] acts under the banner of freedom and development, but freedom must have its limits and stay away from nudity, vulgarity and obscenity.”

According to the court, “enacting laws to protect freedom of creativity from those who use it to violate laws, principles, and rules stemming from religious literature, is imperative.” The reasoning went on to state that when the defendants “violated these principles by uttering filth and obscenities, and through nudity” the court was obliged to “apply the law and punish the defendants under Articles 144, 145 and 187 from the Penal Code and Articles 22, 25 and 27 from the cybercrime law.”

An appeal on the ruling is scheduled for August 17.

Mada Masr spoke to Lobna Darwish, gender and human rights officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, about the judicial reasoning behind the verdict’s use of “family values” to target women making money online. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

Mada Masr: “Profiting from the internet” was among the accusations that Adham and Hossam faced. Explain what this means in legal terms.

Lobna Darwish: Legally, there is nothing that criminalizes [making money on the internet], unless the money is made by committing other crimes. In the case of Mawada and Haneen, there was a state of incitement during the investigation and the phrase “profiting from the internet” was repeated a lot as an accusation. This goes back to the general monitoring and ambushing of any content by women on the internet, which is always linked to their class position.”

Working and middle-class women try to find job opportunities and sources of income using the internet where they have relatively more freedom. However, they have been surprised by increasing restrictiveness, which the court in its reasoning said was necessary in cases of  “those who treat the internet as space outside of the boundaries of the law.” The reasoning also said that the defendants used “cyberspace not as a space to exchange opinions, but as a space to call for the infringement of personal freedoms, the system and public morality.”

This series of restrictions imposed on women did not begin in the judicial system, but rather with male YouTubers who played a role in inciting against women creating content online, by belittling or trivializing them, or by accusing them of immorality or earning money dishonorably, as in the case of Mowada and Haneen.

There are also men profiting from criticizing female content creators — it’s as if they take umbrage at the very participation of women in the internet and their ability to earn an independent living.

MM: The first press release by the prosecution accused Hanine of human trafficking and Mowada of promoting prostitution. What happened to these accusations?

LD: The public prosecutor’s initial statement on the case mentioned human trafficking [and prostitution] but when the case was referred to the court, the only charges were violating family values through online accounts. The court did not punish them for human trafficking or for sex, or profiting from the internet, which are the accusations that were used by the prosecution to call for their arrest and mobilize public opinion.

The statement created public hysteria while the women were under investigation. This frenzy was used to mobilize support for the women’s detention,with news outlets publishing their photos and their full names, a common practice in the arrest of women on these kinds of charges where their privacy is systematically violated.

Media outlets used sensationalist terms like the “TikTok scandal” to describe the case without reporting on the facts and suggested that the women were implicated in crimes they were not charged with in the first place.

Even if the defendants had been acquitted, they would have faced social backlash because of the photos and personal details about them published by the press.

MM: What are the standards regarding the violation of “family values” as established by the law?

LD: The law is very broad with no detailed standards. The Cabinet is supposed to issue an explanatory note that clarifies any law within 3 months of its ratification. But the explanatory note for the cybercrime law, which includes an article on the violation of family values, has not been released yet despite the law being ratified in August 2018.

The law has to be specific in its wording so that one knows what to avoid and what to do. For example, belly dancers must follow specific criteria when it comes to their outfits and anyone who violates them can be punished. But in the case of the charge of violating family values, there is no criteria or framework.

MM: Could this verdict be used as a legal precedent in similar cases in the future?

LD: Egypt does not have these types of cases except in very specific instances, but this creates a form of normalization for the criminalization of certain actions without having a clear law for it. This normalization was apparent in what are known as “debauchery” cases, where men face a specific charge if they have sex with other men, regardless of whether it’s in exchange for money or not. However, the situation has changed recently, and now men are being ambushed on dating applications and arrested before the act that is punishable by the law [performing sex] actually takes place. This culture has been normalized in the absence of a legal article for it, and this is also evident in the acceleration of complaints targeting female online content producers.


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