May 2, 2021
Normally, about this time of year we would be locking down the location for the annual Organizers Forum International Dialogue. When the board of Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center met recently for the second straight time we bowed to the inevitable and recorded unanimous votes to cancel the dialogue for another year. Postponing doesn’t mean forgetting, since we have visited so many countries that are caught in the throes of the pandemic like India, South Africa, and many countries in South America. It also doesn’t mean that our eyes don’t catch headlines of other countries dealing with separate struggles that they shared with us over the years, particularly those of women facing organized and state sponsored misogyny and harassment. We had often been awed in meetings with individual women organizers and their organizations in Turkey, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia, as they told us of their situations and work in this regard.
So, it should come as no surprise that I read every word with both horror and hope of a piece recently in the New York Review of Books called “Me Too in Egypt and Morocco.” The Organizers’ Forum had hosted a delegation of twenty-five people to Cairo in the aftermath of the Arab Spring there more than a decade ago. More recently we were in Morocco and were awed there by a young woman whose advocacy and courage on these issues had led to her arrest and imprisonment and constant harassment because she had also organized the arrival of a ship from Europe that had anchored outside of Casablanca to advise and offer women assistance for their reproductive health.
Ursula Lindsey’s article began with the story of Nadeen Ashraf, a young twenties woman who in 2020 stumbled on a 2018 Facebook post that was removed warning other young women about a student named Ahmed Bassam Zaki with deep family connections who was taking advantage of the repressive sexual and family culture and blackmailing and harassing women sexually. Ashraf created an Instagram account called Assault Police to try and get the police on the job to stop this. After the posting shocked her by going viral, she collected a tragic 150 testimonies from women who had been victimized by rape and other assaults by this young man since he was a teenager. Ashraf’s spark burned the establishment in Egypt sufficiently that the young man was arrested and, in a rarity, prosecuted, triggering a version of Egypt’s much needed #MeToo moment. Let no good deed go unpunished, Ashraf has received death threats and worse for her advocacy. Also, don’t make the mistake of believing that the Egyptian government and police really learned their lesson, since other issues continue to surface proving the opposite.
Nor is this horror restricted to Egypt. Gang rapes in Morocco led to a social media campaign called Masaktach or I Will Not Be Silent, where change has still not come for women. As Lindsey reports, “Sex outside of marriage is still a crime according to Moroccan law; women rarely report rape because if they can’t prove their case, they risk being prosecuted themselves.” Shamefully, although is not the law in the United States, it reads eerily like the Betsey DeVos proposal for university investigations of alleged rape that would put more of the onus on women victims.
There’s no happy ending in sight yet in Morocco. Lindsey reports that police and government have weaponized allegations of abuse and rape into something similar to a “sexual assassination” in order to arrest journalists and opponents of the king and his cronies. In a worse irony, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and, even Turkey, until recently were all Islamic countries with a history of secularism that had at one point offered women the prospects of more cultural and political freedoms. In Morocco, we often listened to young women relating the stories of their mothers and grandmothers in more liberal times, while they felt increasingly pressured in dress and head coverings.
We can hope a thousand Ashrafs will stand up, but we also need to find a way to support them in their lonely fights for women’s rights against staggering odds.