Campaigners have hailed a rare victory against sexual violence in the Middle East after prosecutors in Iran and Egypt announced the arrest of alleged rapists who were named online by women.
Victims of sexual assault in conservative Muslim societies have taken to social media to identify their alleged tormentors in a series of high-profile cases inspired by the “Me Too” movement.
In Tehran, Police Chief Hossein Rahimi announced the arrest of Keyvan Emamverdi, a former art student of Tehran University, who stands accused of multiple counts of rape.
Dozens of women had launched an online campaign to accuse Mr Emamverdi, who owns a bookshop close to the university, of luring them to his house and getting them intoxicated before allegedly raping them.
After one alleged victim named Mr Emamverdi on Twitter with the “#rape” hashtag, at least 20 others joined in to expose him as their assailant. One of his cousins also came forward to testify that she had feared being “molested” by him.
Mr Emamverdi’s arrest became a trending story on Iranian social media on Wednesday morning, with women applauding the fact that the case had been investigated.
“The achievement in this story is not his arrest, but the situation will be created afterwards so victims of rape cases can talk about [their experiences],” one user said.
There were also posts in support of the former student. One wrote: “Keyvan Emam (sic) was one of my close friends when I was in Tehran. He was the most moral and best friend. Why do you judge him one-sided? Why do not you want to hear his voice…? Shame on you.”
The case comes after Egypt’s public prosecutor this week issued arrest warrants and a travel ban for six men accused of an alleged gang rape of an 18-year-old woman at a luxury hotel six years ago. The suspects were also “outed” on social media last month.
The lack of any previous action against the men — said to be from powerful families — caused a public outcry after details of the woman’s alleged 2014 ordeal were posted on an Egyptian Instagram account with more than 180,000 followers.
Earlier this month prosecutors questioned the alleged victim, who was reportedly drugged before the men raped her, after several people came forward to give statements about the incident. The attack was said to have occurred after a party at Cairo’s five-star Fairmont Nile City Hotel.
The so-called “Assault Police” Instagram account, which revealed the case, previously accused Ahmed Bassam Zaki, 24, a university student from a wealthy family, of raping and blackmailing multiple women. He was subsequently arrested and remains under investigation.
Egyptian prosecutors claim that Mr Zaki has admitted to using indecent photographs to threaten women. He has denied further allegations.
The Assault Police account was temporarily taken offline after its administrators received repeated death threats, although it has since been reactivated.
Egypt’s state-run National Council for Women (NCW) said in a statement that the prosecutor’s decision sent a message of reassurance and comfort to women who have long felt disadvantaged in the conservative, Muslim-majority nation.
Meanwhile in Tehran, Brigadier General Rahimi urged other abuse victims to come forward, pledging that their identities would be safeguarded to protect them from stigma.
Rotna Begum, a spokesman on women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch, said that campaigners across the region were now “coalescing around specific cases and naming people online”, with police starting to pay attention to cases that could otherwise go unheard.
“Although there are concerns about this naming and shaming, in most cases all these women seek is for the authorities to listen to them and investigate, as they still mainly face a culture of impunity for sexual harassment and abuse,” she added.
“In many countries for women to speak out is taboo, not just due to pressure from their families and society, but from a criminal justice system that they believe won’t take them seriously or might even prosecute them for coming forward.”
Last week Egypt’s parliament voted to approve a new law to protect the anonymity of victims of sexual harassment or assault, in a move described by activists as the “beginning of a feminist revolution”.
But Egyptian prosecutors have also recently charged several women for “inciting debauchery” after they posted videos of themselves singing and dancing on apps such as Instagram and TikTok, in a move that campaigners say could undermine the reforms.
Also charged was a 17-year-old girl who shared a live video on Instagram in May showing bruises on her face and alleging she had been beaten and raped.
Although the six men she accused were subsequently detained by police, the girl was arrested along with them and she was charged with inciting debauchery and “violating family principles and values” on the basis of the men’s statements.
She remains under investigation in a government-run shelter for abuse victims, and Amnesty International has condemned the case as “a shocking injustice that risks discouraging other women from speaking out”.
But Reda Eldanoubki, a lawyer and executive director of the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness, said if convicted, men accused of rape or sexual assault could also expect to receive hefty jail sentences in Iran and Egypt.
“We hope that women amid this momentum will make more gains in their endeavours to be legally protected against sexual violence in all its forms,” he said.