Egyptian conservative Nabih al-Wahsh told viewers on a TV panel show that men had a "national duty" to rape women who wore denim.
Nabih al-Wahsh. Screenshot via Infrad Show
In Egypt, a leading lawyer has been handed a three-year prison sentence for saying men had a “national duty” to rape women wearing ripped jeans, Al Arabiya reports.
Nabih al-Wahsh, a prominent conservative figure, made the remarks on Infrad Show, an Egyptian chat show, on October 19. The panelists were discussing a proposed law on sex work when al-Wahsh denounced women who wear ripped jeans, saying that it was “a national duty" to rape women wearing these clothes.
He went on to justify his remarks by claiming that women wearing ripped jeans were inviting men to harass them. “Girls must respect themselves so others respect them,” he said. “Protecting morals is more important than protecting borders.”
Al-Wahsh is no stranger to controversy, having beat an Australian imam around the head with a shoe in October 2016 after he argued that the hijab should be a choice, not a requirement, for Muslim women. The BBC also reports that he once described the Holocaust as "imaginary."
But al-Wahsh's most recent comments crossed a line, even in the religiously conservative country. Feminist activists across the nation reacted to his remarks with outrage and condemnation. Spokesperson Maya Mursi of Egypt’s National Council for Women, a leading women’s rights group, denounced him as issuing an unconstitutional and “flagrant call” for rape, and filed a complaint to Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation
Following the outcry, Egypt’s state prosecutor charged al-Wahsh with “publicly inciting to flout the law' and "spreading with malice reports and statements meant to perturb public order... and harm the public interest,” the Daily Mail reports. After he failed to show up for his court hearing, al-Wahsh was sentenced in absentia to a three-year jail term, which can be appealed.
“In a country like Egypt, such comments are really serious since there is already a culture of impunity and lack of serious investigations into incidents of harassment and sexual violence,” says Amr Magdi of Human Rights Watch.
He believes that al-Wahsh will probably not actually spend any time in jail, despite his relatively long sentence. “The sentence was in absentia and al-Wahsh can pay about $600 USD to suspend the sentence,” Magdi explains.
Magdi argues that challenging the broader culture around sexual assault is more important than prosecuting individual incidences of inflammatory speech. “There is still a strong culture that does not take sexual harassment and violence against women seriously, despite recent law amendments. Prosecutors and police officers would usually try to convince the victim to give up their complaints,” he says. “Al-Wahsh’s comments are inextricable from other officially-sponsored ideas about what modesty means, or general ideas about how women should dress or act or work.”
If the Eygptian authorities are serious about women’s rights, high-profile prosecutions won’t go far enough. “The government should prosecute those who abuse women sexually and train more policemen and women on combating sexual violence, and introduce more services that tackle the issue on many aspects," he says. "The prosecution of al-Wahsh is quite irrelevant if no other badly-needed steps are taken.”