Magazine

I refuse to be shamed for having a female body

Media playback is unsupported on your device

When Egyptian teenager Ghadeer Ahmed sent her boyfriend a video of her dancing - without her hijab, and in a short dress - she never imagined he would post it online. But years later he did. Here she tells the story of her decision to re-post the video herself, and to tell the world she saw no reason to be ashamed.

In 2009, when I was 18 years old, I was at a friend's house having fun and dancing with other girls. In Egypt, girls don't have anywhere to dance in public, so we dance together behind closed doors.

I asked one of my friends to record a video of me dancing on my mobile phone. There was nothing pornographic about this video, but I was wearing a short dress that revealed my body. A few days later, I sent it to my boyfriend.

In Europe or the US this would not be a big deal. But I come from an ordinary Muslim family in the Nile delta and, like most Egyptian girls, I had been raised to believe that no man has the right to see my body except my husband. At that time I was still wearing the hijab, the very emblem of female modesty, whenever I left the house. I knew that it was risky to send that kind of video to a man who was not my husband or even my fiance. But I sent it anyway. A while later I did something even riskier and sent him some private photos.

By 2012 we had broken up. That's when the threats started. He said he would put the video and photos online if I didn't get back together with him. He knew that I was starting to build a public profile as a political activist and women's rights campaigner, and he thought he could use these images to destroy my career as well as my reputation.

I was really frightened. I even thought my life might be in danger. In our society, the reputation of the whole family rests on the conduct of its daughters, sisters, and wives. Our bodies are not our own: they belong to the male members of the family, and are the vessels in which the family's honour is carried. I was scared that the video would bring shame on my parents, that our friends and neighbours would condemn my father for failing to raise me as a "good girl". I begged my ex-boyfriend not to publish the photos or the video.

About a year later, in early 2013, I was talking with friends and mentioned that I loved dancing. I'll never forget the reply from one of the men in the group. "I know," he said. "I've seen you dancing on YouTube."


#ShameOnline

This is one of a series of stories looking at a new and disturbing phenomenon - the use of private or sexually explicit images to threaten, blackmail and shame young people, mainly girls and women, in some of the world's most conservative societies. You can explore all the stories and contribute to the conversation here.


My ex had not only uploaded the dancing video - he had also made a video montage out of the private photographs and uploaded that as well. I managed to get YouTube to take down the video showing these photos, but the dancing video was still online.

Secretly, I contacted a friend who is a lawyer and asked if there was anything in Egyptian law that would allow me to press charges. He encouraged me to file a complaint for defamation. The next day I reported my ex-boyfriend to the police.

My family still knew nothing of this, and I was hoping to keep it that way. But a few months later, when I was on my way from Cairo back to my parents' home town, I received a phone call from my mum. Worried by the involvement of the law, my ex-boyfriend had gone to my father and told him everything. He had even shown my dad the private photos to prove that he had seen my body, and then offered to "restore" the family's honour by marrying me - on the condition, of course, that I drop the charges. I can definitely say that this was the worst marriage proposal I have ever received.

The absurdity of this offer - a legal settlement wrapped up as a marriage proposal - lays bare the assumptions that restrict the sexual freedom of women in Egypt and across the Arab world. Family honour is inextricably linked to female sexual purity. If that purity is compromised in any way, honour can only be restored through marriage - or, in extreme cases, through murder. Some countries apply the same logic even in cases of rape. Jordan, for example, still has a law, Article 308, which exempts rapists from prosecution or punishment if they agree to marry their victims.

When I got home, my mother was distraught. "You have shamed us," she said. I left and got on the bus back to Cairo, where I had been living for a while. I was convinced that I had lost my family. But after a few kilometres, I told the bus driver to stop and let me off. I went home again to my parents and asked them to help me put it right. "I can't fix this without your support," I told them.

My father was furious with me for sending the video to a stranger. I tried to argue that the fault lay not with me, but with the man who had violated my privacy. He looked totally unconvinced. But despite the immense social pressures that they were under, my parents supported me in my fight for the right to privacy, and in 2014 my ex-boyfriend was convicted for defamation and sentenced in absentia to one year in jail.

The legal situation was muddied by counter charges that, in an attempt to derail the case, he had filed against me in a separate dispute over money.

In the end, exhausted by the whole procedure, I decided to withdraw my complaint. His conviction was annulled and he was never arrested or jailed. But the fact that a judge had examined the case and found him guilty was enough for me. The blackmailing was over. I thought I could forget about the video and get on with my life. I was wrong.

Image copyright Facebook

Back in 2012, exactly one year after the Egyptian uprising and the protests in Tahrir square, I had founded a group called Girls' Revolution. It began as a hashtag on Twitter, and then grew into a movement of young women campaigning for change. We felt we had no real rights in Egypt, that we were merely tolerated as guests in our own country. Around the same time I decided to take off the hijab and started to become more outspoken - on Facebook, in TV debates and elsewhere - about the situation of women in Egypt.

This drew hostility from some men, who began to insult me on social media. In October 2014, one of these trolls posted a link to the dancing video, with a comment saying, "This is Ghadeer Ahmed, who wants to corrupt our Egyptian girls, and here is the video that shows that she herself is a slut."

For me, that was breaking point. I was exploding with rage. I thought, "No. I refuse to be blackmailed, I refuse to be threatened, I refuse to be shamed for having a female body. I will never again feel guilty about my own body, or frightened of what I do with it."

So I took the dancing video and posted it on my own Facebook page for the whole world to see. The post I wrote to accompany it said: "Yesterday a group of men tried to shame me by sharing a private video of me dancing with friends. I am writing this to announce that, yes, it was me in the video, and no, I am not ashamed of my body. To whoever is trying to stigmatise me, as a feminist I've got over the social misconceptions about women's bodies that still dominate Eastern societies. I don't feel ashamed because I was dancing happily, just as I did publicly at my sister's wedding, where I also wore a very short and revealing dress. Now, I want to ask you guys: what is it that really annoys you? Me being a slut, or me being a slut without sleeping with you? My body is not a source of shame. I have nothing to regret about this video."

Immediately, the post went viral in Egypt. A lot of people said how brave I was, and agreed with my argument that a woman must have rights over her own body, as well as the right not to be exposed online. I received calls from my close friends offering their support. Finally, after five years, I felt that I had put an end to all the fear. I closed the door on it all.

Two years on, I have no regrets about posting that video. Every now and then a girl has to break the mould that girls are put in. A girl has to stand up and say "Yes, I've been blackmailed with private images, yes, I sent them of my own free will, but still no-one has the right to use them to shame or humiliate me."

I am sharing my story now to encourage the thousands of girls all over the world who are still being threatened and blackmailed with digital images on social media. Here is what I want to say to you: You are not alone. I went through what you are struggling for. I felt lonely, I felt helpless, I felt weak and ashamed. There were times when I collapsed during this whole exhausting experience. I do not have the right to tell you to fight as I did, but I am urging you to ask for help from someone you trust. Once we ask for help, we feel less alone, less endangered. Together, we can change the culture that makes us frightened and ashamed. Together, we can survive. Together, as sisters, we can turn the world into a safer place for women.

Join the conversation - find us on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.

Related Topics