What should have been a harmless night of teenage frolics, turned into a public outcry and nightmare for one young girl.
Her story is currently being featured in the BBC series Shame. The program focuses on the growing trend of the use of images and videos to blackmail women in some of the most conservative countries. When these incidents arise, it often proves to be a catastrophe for the average girl. Some cases end in tragedy, as in the highly publicized case of Amanda Todd. But in a predominantly Muslim country, it takes a different turn, one, which could also lead to the girl’s death - at the hands of others.
Back in 2009, an 18-year-old Ghadeer Ahmed spent a night at a friend’s house where they listened to music. Her friend recorded Ghadeer dancing without a hijab and wearing a short dress. There was nothing in the video that could be deemed as pornographic or explicit and she later sent it to her 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,” Ghadeer told the BBC.
Once the relationship ended three years later, the tides changed and brought with it something else. Her now ex-boyfriend threatened to post the video online unless Ghadeer agreed to get back together with him. She pleaded but he persisted with his demands.
“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 honor is carried,” she said.
She thought the matter was forgotten about until a year later a friend mentioned that they had seen her on YouTube. Distressed, she went to the police station to file a complaint, but being too afraid, kept her family in the dark.
A few months later, her ex-boyfriend went to her father and told him everything, including showing him the video. He told her father that he would marry her to “restore” the family’s honor, on the basis that she dropped the charges.
“Honor 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,” she continued.
Her parents were infuriated, telling her that she had shamed them, but relented and supported her through her case. And in 2014, her ex-boyfriend was convicted and sentenced in absentia to one year in jail. As the ongoing trial began to take its toll, Ghadeer decided to drop the charges, content that the judge recognized him as guilty.
But the story was about to grow into a life of its own. Following the protests in Tahrir Square, Ghadeer started the group Girls’ Revolution that soon garnered a nationwide following of young women, petitioning for changes in women’s rights in Egypt. As a backlash from this controversial movement, the video of her was posted on social media with the comment, “This is Ghadeer Ahmed, who wants to corrupt our Egyptian girls, and here is the video that shows that she herself is a slut.”
Ghadeer retaliated in an unprecedented move and posted the video onto her own Facebook page with a statement that 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 stigmatize 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.
In no time, her video went viral across Egypt as many reached out to her, supporting her bravery and her activism.
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.
An uprising is being born with women like Ghadeer as a younger generation in the East are challenging the ideology that their body belongs to them, and not to a notion of “honor.” It is a courageous move, yet it could also be one with fatal consequences.
Just months ago, a different story unfolded in Pakistan when social media celebrity, Qandeel Baloch, was murdered by her brother. He claimed that her online presence caused shame to her family and expressed no regret.
In places like Pakistan, “honor killings” still account for almost 1,000 deaths each year. It again brings to the table that question, “Where is the honor in killing women?”
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