A woman watches a video of influencer Mowada al-Adham, who was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of violation public morals, on the video-sharing app TikTok in Egypt's capital Cairo on July 28, 2020. Photo: AFP/Khaled Desouki

Egyptian courts have handed down multi-year prison sentences to six young women in the past week over TikTok content, deeming lip-syncing, dancing and explainers for how to monetize social media as “inciting debauchery” and “calls for prostitution.”

In their short videos on the app, the young women appear doing satirical lip-syncs, comedic skits, dance videos and voice-overs, content that is widely popular around the world on the Chinese mobile app.

At least one of the women received a request by investigation to inspect her hymen, a so-called “virginity test,” a practice the World Health Organization says has no scientific merit and may cause long-term psychological damage.

Another of the young women’s mothers told Egyptian media she sold the family’s refrigerator and washing machine to post bail and prevent her daughter from spending a night in an Egyptian prison.

In 2011, Amnesty International discovered that a male Egyptian doctor had forced a group of 18 arrested female protesters to undergo “virginity tests” in full view of other men who were taking pictures.

“We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them,” an Egyptian general explained as the authorities’ justification at the time.

On Monday, the lawyer for TikTok-er Mawada al-Adham told Egyptian media his client had refused to submit to the controversial procedure.

Why destroy someone?

In the run-up to the arrests, one of the young women posted an emotional video recounting the abuse she had received online over her social media presence.

“How do you benefit from destroying a human being?” demanded Haneen Hossam tearfully, days before being arrested for allegedly encouraging women to engage in prostitution.

Hossam said she had only offered tips to her followers on how to monetize their social media presence and not to engage in any inappropriate behavior. She argued that social media influencers had the right to earn money like any other profession.

“Does anyone agree to work without getting paid?” she asked.

In recent years, big-name influencers such as Kylie Jenner and Bella Hadid have wracked up millions of dollars in endorsements through their ubiquitous social media presence, which they have used to plug brands as well as their own business ventures.

On Monday, five Egyptian female social media influencers including Hossam were found guilty of “harming family values,” each sentenced to two years in prison and fined 300,000 Egyptian pounds (US$18,750).

Then on Wednesday, TikTok-er Manar Samy was handed a three-year sentence on charges of “inciting debauchery, immorality and stirring up instincts” through her online videos.

Samy, in her early-to-mid twenties, dances and lip-syncs to popular music in her videos, something ubiquitous to TikTok the world over. An Egyptian court deemed the content to be “offensive to public decency” and posted with the intent of soliciting sex work, a societal death sentence in a conservative and patriarchal society like Egypt.

Double standards

The court cases centered on protecting “family values” in a country notorious for sexual harassment of women, raising accusations of double standards among civil society activists.

“The TikTok crackdown is the latest manifestation of this regime’s exercise of control — in this case, over independent expression and public morality,” said Mai El-Sadany, a human rights lawyer with the Washington-based Tahrir Institute.

“These TikTok users, who are disproportionately women and from a particular socioeconomic background (working class), have a platform and an audience, and so authorities are going after them in an attempt to send a message on how, to who’s benefit, and for what purposes a relatively new platform like TikTok is to be used,” Sadany told Asia Times.

Mohamed Khairat, the founder of the independent English-language website Egyptian Streets, suggested a comparison between the treatment of an Egyptian male soccer star and one of the young women jailed.

“Egyptian football star Amr Warda … sexually harassed several women on social media, often aggressively. Punishment? None,” he tweeted. Next to Warda he posted a photo of Mawada el-Adham. The young woman, he said, “posted ordinary videos on #TikTok.”

Her punishment? “Arrested for ‘violating public moral and family values.'”

Egypt’s most famous soccer player – Mohamad Salah – famously deployed his star power to defend his teammate Warda after the latter’s aggression toward women came to light.

Warda, who had been benched by the Egyptian Football Association last summer, was quickly returned to the field after Salah’s intervention.

Egyptian Streets is now trying to raise awareness and bring justice to a 2014 incident, in which a group of wealthy and connected young men allegedly drugged and gang-raped a young woman in the Fairmont Hotel in Cairo, posting the video online and threatening her against retaliation.

Rights groups say more freedoms have been curtailed in Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who took office in 2014. Feminist Mona Eltahawy took to Twitter to point out that previous “virginity tests” against demonstrators were carried out when Sisi was head of military intelligence.

Egypt has in recent years enforced strict internet controls through laws allowing authorities to block websites seen as a threat to national security and to monitor personal social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers.

– With reporting from AFP

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Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.