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The Naked Truth of Discrimination

Will Justice be served for elderly Christian woman who was dragged naked in Egypt?

By Engy Magdy, Special to The Tablet

In May 2016, an elderly Coptic Christian woman, Souad Thabet, was attacked and dragged naked down the street by a Muslim mob in her village in Egypt. In January 2020, the three men were sentenced to 10 years each in absentia by the Minya Criminal Court but were acquitted on Dec. 17 after turning themselves in. 

CAIRO — After more than four years waiting for justice, an elderly Coptic Christian woman, who was attacked and dragged naked down the street by a Muslim mob in her village in Egypt, feels shock and injustice as the court ruling acquitted the assailants. The acquittal by the Minya Governorate criminal court of three defendants — of a father and his two sons — in December has provoked outrage among Coptic Christians and rights groups.

In January 2020, the three men were sentenced to 10 years each in absentia by the Minya Criminal Court but were acquitted on Dec. 17 after turning themselves in. In an interview with the local Christian website Coptic United, Mrs. Souad Thabet, 75 years old, burst into tears calling God for revenge.

“I waited so long for justice, I was beaten and stripped completely naked. They torched my home and I was displaced from the village. My sons had to leave Egypt as they couldn’t stay after what happened, I stayed waiting for justice for all those long years”, she said while sobbing as she felt more humiliation of the ruling, asking “where is the justice? I feel shocked.” 

Mrs. Souad’s nightmare was triggered by false rumors of a love affair between her married son Ashraf and a married Muslim woman. On Friday, May 20, 2016, a mob of some 300 people broke into Mrs. Souad’s home in Kom Lofi village — 180 miles south of Cairo — beating up her old husband, before four of the assailants turned to her pulling her hair and stripping her completely naked, and then dragged her down the street — without anyone intervening to defend her, according to what Mrs.  Souad said in a previous interview with The Tablet.

When Mrs. Souad fled to a neighbor’s home who tried to hide her, the mob went after her and finally burnt down her home. Also, they attacked the wife of her other son Awni, stripping her of her clothes, dragging her down the stairs, and throwing her onto the floor in front of her children. The attackers even beat up the children and were preparing to throw them into the fire that was set, but a Muslim neighbor begged them not to kill the children. After that, they looted and burnt down at least five houses owned by Christians in the village.

Mrs. Souad’s daughter-in-law refused to file a lawsuit because she felt so ashamed of what happened to her. She and her husband work as teachers and she didn’t want to attract media attention.

When Egyptian President Abd Al Fattah Al Sisi denounced the heinous attack on the elderly woman and her family, she felt relief that the perpetrators may face justice. “Anyone who wronged her, no matter how many they are, must be held accountable … all Egyptians are equal in rights and duties”, Sisi said during a televised speech on 30 May 2016.

“How is it possible that after the president condemned the attack, and many parliament members and clerics from Al Azhar (the highest  Muslim religious authority in Egypt) apologized for what happened, then the court acquits them?” Mr. Souad said. “I told the truth to the prosecutors. I told it all honestly. How those criminals got freedom as if nothing had happened?” she added.

In the wake of the barbaric attack, the local media had many interviews with witnesses, among them a Muslim lady who gave the garment to Mrs. Souad to cover her naked body.

Over the course of the last 11 months, several judges had recused themselves from the case for unclear reasons. Since 2016, the case has been stalled, as it has been referred between four courts while the verdict has been repeatedly postponed and in two courts judges recused under the pretext of sensing embarrassed.

Ironically, Mrs. Souad’s younger son served a one-year prison sentence for a fabricated case of adultery with the Muslim woman who insisted that she never had an affair with him. 

“They tried to blackmail me. For years, I repeatedly went to the court,” Mrs. Souad said. “Every time it finished with disappointment. I cried and asked God for justice. However, I never gave up, I took a pledge not to give up” 

In a detailed press release on the case, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights warned of the repercussions of the failure to convict those involved in these attacks, which entrench the absence of justice and discrimination among citizens on the basis of religion and encourage the repetition of such sectarian attacks, in addition to the message that it represents of tolerance towards incidents of violence against women in general.

“The verdict is yet a clear example of discrimination against Christians in Egypt. it is unveiling the deeply rooted bias against Christians in the justice system. Christians have been long fallen victim to sectarian violence and discrimination, while they often fail to get justice,” Mina Thabet, the head of Policy Unit at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, told the Tablet.

Mina praised Mrs. Souad as a strong lady: “She defended her honor to the end, standing against enormous social barriers to admit what happened to her as a woman in a rural society.”

Regrettably, Mina said that the verdict “come as a blow to any Christian woman who dares to make a stand and defend her bodily integrity, her family and her faith.”

After a fury of anger among the Coptic Christians and others, Egypt’s prosecutor-General has ordered an appeal against the acquittal of the men. ” I’m not sure if this will make any difference. However, let’s wait and see what will happen. Many Christians have lost faith in their opportunity to achieve justice or to see any real steps to address the deeply rooted discrimination against them,” Mina said.