But there’s another reason we should be talking about TikTok: last week, Egypt jailed two young women for their “indecent” TikTok videos. Two more women stood trial for similar charges. Since April, at least nine Egyptian women have been arrested for their TikTok videos.
One of the women arrested is Haneen Hossam, a 20-year-old archaeology student. Her TikTok presence mostly involves her dancing and lipsynching to Arabic-language music, wearing a headscarf or hood to cover her hair. She was accused of encouraging sex trafficking, for one video she posted in April encouraging other women to post videos of themselves.
“Nothing she said in that video violated the law,” her lawyer told the New York Times. “The video is proof of her innocence, not the opposite.”
The other is Mawada Eladhm, 22, a former beauty pageant contestant based in Cairo. Many of her videos are comic skits, where she lipsynchs to a clearly incongruous soundtrack, a hallmark of TikTok humour. In another trope of the platform, one of her most recent videos involves her in a shark onesie, with the video edited to shift to her in a nice outfit right as the beat drops.
These videos, which also feature the influencers putting on makeup, chatting with friends, and driving in cars were found guilty of “violating family principles and values in Egyptian society,” according to the news outlet Egyptian Streets, as well as inciting debauchery and promoting human trafficking.
Hossam and Eladhm are both facing two years in jail without bail and a fine of 300,000 Egyptian pounds, about $25,000. Three other women were charged for helping them manage their social media accounts, Al Jazeera reported.
Eladhm started crying in court, her lawyer’s assistant told Time.
“Two years? 300,000 Egyptian pounds? This is really something very tough to hear,” she added.
“They have destroyed us, they have destroyed an entire family,” Mawada’s older sister, Rahma Eladhm told an Egyptian news station on Monday, fighting back tears.
The laws that put these women in jail are vaguely worded and inconsistently enforced, the Times explains. Citizens are allowed to press charges against other citizens, and so lawyers who consider themselves activists and who believe it’s their responsibility to enforce moral ideals will regularly file criminal cases accusing people of crimes like “inciting debauchery” and “spreading fake news.” One such lawyer has filed more than 2,700 of these “public interest” lawsuits, often more than one a day.
Several artists and entertainers, including writers, TV hosts, singers and dancers have been punished by these kinds of ruling in the last few years, Egyptian Streets said. In 2016, writer Ahmed Naje was sentenced to two years in jail for writing a novel that featured “obscene sexual content.”
The treatment of Hossam, Eladhm and the other young women facing jail time over TikTok videos is starkly different from the treatment young men have received when accused of crimes.
As Mona Eltahawy and other prominent Egyptian feminists have pointed out, an Egyptian man accused of raping and sexually harassing more than 50 women and who confessed to blackmail and intimidating, is facing charges, but “violating family values” is not among them.
And details have recently emerged about an alleged gang rape in a Cairo hotel, where the perpetrators are accused of drugging and raping a girl. The fact that the accused are from wealthy and prominent families is the reasons most people suspect that supposed crime has so far been ignored by law enforcement.