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‘Change Is Coming’

From Assault Police and beyond, Nadeen Ashraf is spearheading social transformation

By Yakin Ouederni

One complaint of sexual assault. Two. Three. Four…. 50. Nadeen Ashraf felt as if the stories of sexual harassment incidents she had been hearing were endless, including her own. The women in her life were repeatedly speaking of their experiences, which seemed to disappear into thin air. She had decided that enough was enough.

“I was just angry and annoyed that the voices of my friends and classmates weren’t being heard, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and create this platform dedicated to exposing these crimes,” she reflects.

Ashraf, a philosophy graduating senior, founded the Instagram account Assault Police in July 2020 after several women came out on social media accusing a university student of numerous sexual crimes. Ashraf recounts that their online reports were either taken down or not taken seriously, so she revealed the harasser’s identity to the world. The account picked up momentum quickly, and to date has 330,000 followers. Since the initial post, the harasser was arrested and many more exposed for their crimes.

“I wanted everyone to be aware and for some sort of action to take place, but to be honest, I didn’t think it would get this big,” Ashraf says. “You can even see it in my early posts, where I tell people to take screenshots and record the content I posted because I didn’t think the page would stay up past a day or two.”

Ashraf’s efforts were the final spark of a long-raging fire that took off in Egypt. Assault Police has undoubtedly empowered women to speak up against their harassers and was the driving force of the Egyptian #MeToo movement that erupted in the summer of 2020.

And she caught the world’s attention while at it. Ashraf was selected as one of the BBC 100 Women 2020, recognized as a “linchpin for social change.” She also received the Changemaker Award at the Equality Now Virtual Gala. Major news outlets like The New York Times and The Economist profiled her.

Ashraf at the AUC SpeakUp Dialog Series

But she wasn’t always the face of it. Ashraf kept her identity secret for some time, even from her parents, as the page was gaining momentum. At a time when speaking up was uncommon, her father even told her to hide her identity once she broke the news to him. But by then, she’d made the decision to reveal herself,
especially after her personal information had started to be leaked. For her, it was important that the “good people” knew who she was if the “bad people” already did.

According to a 2013 survey released by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, 99.3% of Egyptian women are sexually harassed in one way or the other. Another UN survey in 2017 found that 66% of Egyptian men had sexually harassed a woman before.

And while the prevalence of such crimes is well-known, it is the willingness and ability to report and take action that are difficult navigation for women.

“I suddenly just found myself in this role of being the mediator between these women speaking out and the authorities,” Ashraf says. “Even though I wasn’t ready for it, I felt like I had to take on this responsibility and do the best I could to fulfill whatever justice we could get.”

Now Assault Police gets hundreds of messages a day, according to Ashraf. And while the first exposed harasser’s name was revealed, everyone else’s is kept confidential, as she and her team fact check accusations and verify them. The most important thing about the page for her is its accessibility — anyone can send a message, anyone can make their voice heard and anyone can speak up when they want. “People are seeing that we’re not a group of professionals doing this,” she says. “It’s just ordinary people who are committed to this cause, and anyone is capable of doing this.”

A screenshot from the Assault Police Instagram page

Tackling the root of the issue is the only way to fight it, Ashraf stresses. In this case, it’s the taboo of talking about anything sexual that creates the barrier between women and speaking up.

And that’s what Assault Police is trying to change. The page has transformed not only into a platform to expose sexual harassers but to raise awareness, inform the public on available resources, encourage people to report and change the way society treats victims of harassment.

“Since it started, I can definitely see things changing. I’m more grateful than anything for the conversations that have been started as a result of this movement,” Ashraf notes.

These conversations are the ones in people’s houses, in schools, in friend groups and everywhere else. For Ashraf, the most important thing is to be able to talk about this issue openly in society.

Al-Azhar released a statement of support for Assault Police, which Ashraf says helped legitimize the movement and encourage people to speak up. The National Council for Women has played a large role in disseminating information and resources to women and pushing for policy change regarding sexual harassment laws and punishments.

Ashraf has also used the page to push for legal change in the country. Shortly after the launch of Assault Police, Egypt’s Parliament approved a law to protect the identities of sexual assault victims who report their cases. “This is how powerful your voices are. Keep sharing. Keep talking about this. Change is coming,” announced the Assault Police page.

A screenshot from the Assault Police Instagram page

Ashraf’s work has since expanded far past managing Assault Police. She is growing her social media team to have more time to work directly with victims. Her vision is for the page to turn into an organization that connects survivors to professionals, legal aid and therapy.

Ashraf recently joined AUC’s SpeakUp Dialog Series Advisory Board to help increase conversations about sexual harassment, raise public awareness and get influential people in Egypt to normalize the subject through educational sessions. She works alongside Maya Morsy ’95, president of Egypt’s National Council for Women, and Omar Samra ’00, UN Goodwill Ambassador and adventurer.

“I am lucky to be working on something I’m passionate about, and I can’t wait for the next steps like forming something more official that enables us to financially support survivors of sexual violence,” she says.

In the midst of the social media frenzy, media interviews and on-ground work,
Ashraf still holds strong to the belief that change starts with the small things:
having conversations at dinner tables, correcting your friends when they say something problematic, staying away from gossip, learning not to doubt your instincts when you are uncomfortable and, most importantly, speaking with someone.

“I’m excited for what’s to come, and I don’t want it to die down anytime soon,” she says.

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