Why We Need to Start Taking Arab Women Seriously

RIP Naira Ashraf Abdel Qader

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When I was four-years-old, there was a group of teenage boys and young adult men that could always be found leaning against the brick walls of the unfinished houses that lined the dirt roads of our tiny zenga in rural Algeria, just waiting for unsuspecting and unaccompanied women and young girls to pass by for them to direct their unsolicited crude remarks and gestures at. 

There was one boy in particular, about 12 to 14  years in age, who terrified me. Though I was a child, this boy made it his personal mission to torment me whenever he saw me playing hopscotch outside or dashing across the street to grab whatever it was my mom or aunts sent me to get from the neighborhood hanout that day. And even though I was not even old enough to know how to tie my own shoes, I was still able to process, at my young age, how uncomfortable and scared his behavior— namely cat-calling and inappropriate taunting— made little four-year-old me feel.  

I complained about him. I voiced my distress to all of the adults who would listen. My parents, my aunts, uncles, older cousins. They just brushed it off, assuring me he’s harmless and wouldn’t hurt me. 

One day, my mom sent me and my older sister (who was six at the time) to the corner shop down the road to buy bread (it was very normal to send kids to run errands back in my day), and as we were sauntering down the road, I saw him. As soon as we locked eyes, I knew what was coming. Looking back, he probably knew I was scared of him and got a rush out of frightening me. 

I immediately dropped the plastic grocery bag I was carrying and ran as fast as my little jelly-sandaled feet would take me. Of course, due to size and age difference, he was able to catch up to me pretty quickly and when he did, he began forcing himself on me. No matter how loud I screamed and tried to push him away, I was helpless.

Then in a blink of an eye, my older sister came up from behind him and swung a brick she picked up from the side of the road directly at his head, without missing a beat, bringing his lifeless body to the ground immediately upon impact. We just killed someone, was the only thought running across our minds as we ran back home and locked ourselves inside one of the rooms, just waiting for an armed police force to break our door down and handcuff us for first-degree murder.  

As if right on cue, we heard the sound of angry fists banging against our metal outside door. But it wasn’t the gendarmerie like we initially thought, but the boy’s furious mother demanding to know what we’d done to her son (spoiler alert: we didn’t kill him). We were pulled out of our safe haven and interrogated by the adults, prompting us to explain what had happened. Fortunately his mom was on our side, and whatever wrath she unleashed on him later was between her and the Lord.

Still, if someone had just taken my complaints seriously, just one person, this whole ordeal could have been avoided and that menace probably wouldn’t have needed stitches— I say probably because who’s to say another brave young girl tired of being tormented by him wouldn’t take it upon herself to knock him out cold with a brick.  

My story happened almost 25-years-ago, but it appears that little has changed since then, unfortunately. 

Much like Algeria, neighboring Egypt is just as patriarchal of a society with street-harassment rates that are one of the highest, if not the highest, in the world. Now, my experience pales to the brutal and senseless murder of Egyptian student Naira Ashraf Abdel Qader in broad daylight. In fact, it doesn’t even come close. But the overarching takeaway is more or less the same: We need to take women and girls seriously. 

Abdel Qader was a bright student at Egypt’s Mansoura University. At 21-years-old, she had her whole life ahead of her. Before it was senselessly taken away this week by a classmate, who stabbed her repeatedly in her neck and torso outside the gates of her university in front of a crowd, for rejecting his advances.

The suspect, who has been labeled as “Mohammed A,” had been blocked by Abdel Qader on social media several times for harassing her and her family had reported his threats to the police, who ultimately failed to protect the victim.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story for me is how comfortable the accused felt to casually murder an innocent woman in broad daylight, in front of onlookers, and surrounded by security cameras. It’s almost as if he was so emboldened by society’s constant failure to protect women and hold abusers accountable, that he thought he could get away with it. 

In fact, shortly after news spread of Abdel Qader’s murder, Mabrouk Attia, an Islamic scholar in Egypt came out and suggested that if the victim’s hair and body had been covered, she wouldn’t have been killed. As horrifying as that sounds, Attia’s attitude is shared among several, who believe that it is a woman’s responsibility to protect herself from being killed. 

Fortunately, “Mohammed A” was arrested at the scene. However, I can’t help but feel it’s not justice enough. A young innocent girl had her whole life taken away by her classmate just because she refused to marry him. 

The worst part is, if the police had taken the family’s reports seriously, perhaps Abdel Qader would still be alive today. 

It’s time we start taking women seriously. It could literally save their life.

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