Egyptian woman mistaken for Syrian refugee in sexual assault

Eman Mohamed Abd El-Rahim is an Egyptian woman married to a western man. In a long post on Facebook, she described in detail her distressful experience of sexual assault at the passport office in the Mogama, the main government administrative complex in the centre of Cairo.

She wrote that as her husband was filling in the residence permit renewal documents in the packed office, she noticed that a man standing nearby was following her with his eyes. She looked him straight in the eyes to send him a message to behave himself. Later, the man stood behind her.

El-Rahim’s husband was instructed to go to another part of the office to complete the paperwork. As she walked closely behind him in the overcrowded room, she felt a hand push hard on her backside and then slide through to grope her genitals.

She turned around and grabbed the assailant as he turned away. It was the man who was eyeing her earlier.

“His response was—he wanted to beat me up and told me: ‘You are coming here to misbehave in our country; you slut; you daughter of a slut.” These obscene comments suggested that he thought she was not Egyptian, possibly a Syrian, as she put it. “This is what encouraged him to be abusive right inside a government administrative building. That thought made me even angrier.”

[There are about 130,000 refugees in Egypt and young Syrian women, especially the ones from poor background, are often considered easy prey in a country where sexual harassment is endemic].

El-Rahim insisted on reporting the incident to the police. “The events that unfolded proved to be the most disgusting experience in my life.”

She was shocked to notice that the assailant did not get any scolding from anyone; instead people were supportive.

She was taken to see two policemen in an office. Various people came in to whisper in their ears. One of the policemen tried to convince her that the assailant only bumped into her by mistake. “He asked me to give a detailed account of what happened, in an attempt to embarrass me and make feel ashamed.”

“But with the courage of being right, I was not embarrassed and told him what happened, countering the claim that the man bumped into me unintentionally.”

Suddenly, an office worker at Mogama came in to give an eyewitness account in favour of the assailant.

The two policemen continued even more strongly trying to talk her out of going ahead with filing an official complaint. One of them told her the assailant will also file a complaint, accusing her and her husband of physical assault.

The policeman told her the assailant had witnesses, including a policeman, to prove that he was assaulted by the woman and her husband.

To further the intimidation, the policemen told her she faced the risk of spending the night in police custody and would be thus bringing shame on herself and her family. She remained unfazed by the threats, particularly after her brothers, three of them lawyers, came to her help.

She was taken to see the chief of investigations in the Mogama, who treated her with respect, and heard the story and learned that she is a writer. He went out briefly and came back with a high-ranking policeman. Her family also used its connections to get in touch with this man. But despite his assurances, a subsequent six meetings with policemen with different ranks—all, but one who holds a PhD degree in law, politely tried to convince her not to go ahead with the official complaint.

It was only after she had the courage to file the complaint that the mystery of the apparent complicity of the police in the assault was uncovered: she learned that the assailant is a low-ranking security policeman working at the Egyptian foreign ministry.

Later at the police station, she was asked by a policeman on duty not to take the next step in the complaint procedure and to drop the case because the man will be punished, possibly demoted, which would be sufficient redress. The hardest part was when she went to the prosecution office to give her account of what happened. “I had to explain in detail what happened in the presence of seven men; the prosecutor went on and on in a way that caused me to feel embarrassed and ashamed.”

Meanwhile, the assailant’s relatives were outside talking to her brothers and begging them to drop the case, and then they pleaded with her to drop the case. Appealing to her sympathy, they told her he is a family man and a father of four. The man himself implored her to drop the complaint.

“He stood in front me and apologized with tears welling up in his eyes. I cried too, feeling sorry for his family, myself and all those who find themselves in a similar situation. But I did not know what to do.”

She came under mounting pressures and even her brothers asked her to drop the case. But her husband insisted on going ahead with it. Eventually, my husband suggested that I drop the case in return for the assailant’s agreement to do community service for several months.

“I told my husband this would work in his country but he told me imprisoning him would not lead to the rehabilitation that he needs.”

She came up with the idea of asking the assailant to donate 5,000 Egyptian pounds [about $640] to Syrian refugees—it was the thought that she is a Syrian refugee that encouraged him to sexually harass her. After haggling with his family, they finally agreed to pay 4,000 Egyptian pounds.

“Because a settlement is not permitted in an indecent assault crime, I had to change my statement, saying I was not sure that what he did was an intentional act. Having to change my statement made me cry.”

“I apologise to society and to women for showing weakness. But I think by taking this step, I got redress both for myself and for the people he would assault in the same way he did me. I took this action without hurting his family.”

El-Rahim is looking to give the money to groups assisting Syrian refugees.