Freedom of Expression and Gender in the Egyptian Cyberspace


Gender is a fundamental factor that profoundly influences the ability to exercise freedom of expression in cyberspace. Several cultural and social factors combine to create a remarkable gap in the extent to which women are able to exercise their right to freedom of expression in cyberspace compared to men.

Although this gap exists across the political borders of countries, its close connection leads to it varying greatly from one country to another in terms of size and qualitative characteristics. To understand the factors leading to a gender gap in the ability to exercise the right to freedom of expression, these factors must be studied within the framework of what we call the local cyberspace. This cyberspace is formed as a social space that includes individuals who belong to a specific country or geographical region. It also includes entities active on the Internet that belong to the same country or have a special interest in it.

This paper seeks to address the most influential factors in women’s right to exercise their freedom of expression in Egyptian cyberspace. The paper uses an approach that hypothesizes that the most influential factor in creating an oppressive climate for women to exercise their right to freedom of expression is the prevalence of hate speech and misogynistic rhetoric that is decisively dismissive of the principle of gender equality.

The paper also proposes a hypothesis that hate speech directed against women has a specific set of characteristics. The roots of these characteristics can be traced to several cultural, social, and economic factors affecting Egyptian society. This specificity makes hate speech against women in Egyptian cyberspace more radically entrenched and magnifies its impact on women’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

What Do We Mean By the Egyptian Cyberspace?

The origin of cyberspace is that it is transnational, meaning crossing political borders between countries. It also crosses groups, societies, cultures, and all the foundations on which different identities of individuals are built. In practice, when looking at cyberspace as a social space, it becomes clear that it is divided into several spaces according to the commonalities that may bring together a number of individuals. The interaction between these individuals through cyberspace is more intense and continuous than the interaction between any of them with individuals with whom they do not have such commonalities.

On this basis, cyberspaces related to different countries can be distinguished where each of these spaces has its members united by belonging to one of the countries. This comes as a result of the unity of language, issues, and details of daily life that engage individuals’ concerns.

For the majority of Internet users, the local cyberspace, which is of the country in which they live or belong, represents the only virtual space. Users are active in this space and interact almost exclusively with its individuals, websites, and social media platforms.

The main distinguishing characteristic of local cyberspace is its close connection to the actual reality. This has effects, some positive and others negative. The positive effect is that the local cyberspace represents an extension of the social environment of individuals in their daily real lives. This extension provides several ways to communicate with family members, friends, co-workers, and others with whom individuals interact in real life.

On the other hand, the close connection between local cyberspace and physical reality produces negative effects. These effects include the potential risks resulting from the possibility of transferring the discord and hostility to the actual reality.  In this case, the threats of violence through the internet become threats in real life; therefore, it is not limited to tools that cannot cause physical harm or threaten the life of the target.

There is a prevailing trend in cyberspace that began with the increase spread of internet usage around the world. This trend is represented by the tendency of cyberspace to fragment into local spaces and to the increasing non-porosity of the boundaries between these spaces. Therefore, for the majority of internet users, the daily lived experience in virtual reality has become a reflection of the dominant characteristics of their daily lived experiences in actual reality. In addition, the mutual influence of the two experiences is now more closely related than it was a decade or more ago.

Factors of Gender Discrimination and Hostility towards Women in the Egyptian Society:

The Egyptian cyberspace reflects the social, cultural and economic features prevailing in the Egyptian society in physical reality. Cyberspace has its own specificity that relates to the way these features are translated through interaction mechanisms. These mechanisms include various applications on the internet, most notably social networking websites.

These applications provide mechanisms that are unprecedented in real life. Therefore, it often leads to amplification of the impact and resulting reactions to the behavior practiced through it. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the social, cultural, and economic factors that most influence the escalation of discrimination against women and misogyny rhetoric in the Egyptian cyberspace. The paper will address these factors in the next section.

Social, Cultural, and Political Factors of Discrimination against Women:

Egyptian society does not differ from other societies in the general outlines of the prevalence of discrimination against women. However, manifestations of discrimination in Egyptian society tend to be more severe due to several factors. These factors include the conservative tendency of Egyptian society in general, the rise of extremist religious discourse rooted in society in recent decades, and the indecisive stance of state institutions towards achieving gender equality.

The Egyptian Society’s Tendency towards Conservatism:

The tendency towards conservatism has not very much changed in the Egyptian society over the various historical stages it has passed through. This is reflected in the persistence and continued adherence to a set of traditional gender perceptions. The most influential of these perceptions regarding equality in the exercise of the right to freedom of expression is the belief that women’s feelings and emotions inherently override their ability to think rationally.

This perception is evident in the constant tendency to confiscate a woman’s right to express her opinion on any issue, including issues that concern her. This belief is also evident in interpreting the opinions a woman expresses and the stances she takes on the basis of her psychological state or social circumstances. It is another form of confiscating these opinions and stances and not taking them seriously.

State Institutions Indecisive Stance towards Achieving Gender Equality:

Constitutional texts recognize the state’s commitment to equality among citizens in terms of rights and duties without discrimination on the basis 0f religion, belief, sex, origin, race…etc. (Article no.53 of the Egyptian Constitution of 2014). These texts also specify gender equality with a text obligating the state to achieve equality between men and women in terms of civil and political rights and to work to provide women with the opportunity to assume senior positions in the state (Article no. 11 of the Egyptian Constitution of 2014).

However, various state policies are inconsistent in achieving these obligations. There is also a clear conflict between some state policies that support gender equality and the official discourse of many state institutions. In addition, the practices of some of these institutions are directly involved in discrimination against women and deprivation of their rights. This prompts many people with extreme conservative stances to interpret practices supporting gender equality as “formal”, aiming to present the state in a progressive appearance before the international community as a necessity to foreign policy.

Factors of Escalating Hostility towards Women:

Although society’s tendency toward conservatism and the prevalent extremist religious discourse in it are general phenomena that are reflected in the debate over all issues raised in the public space, including cyberspace, it can be noted that women’s issues and affairs occupy a wide area of public debate compared to other issues.

There are also factors directly related to hostility towards women, including the stifling economic crisis, the blockage of paths to social advancement, the narrow horizon of validation, as well as the lack of sufficient legislative and judicial mechanisms that limit the conflicts arising from it or resolve them promptly and completely. One can also add the side effect of the rise and prominence of feminist discourse since the January 2011 revolution. The paper briefly discusses these factors as follows:

The Rise of Feminist Discourse:

There has been a clear rise of feminist activism in the last decade that began with the outbreak of the January 2011 revolution. This activity takes cyberspace in particular as a field to work in defense of women’s rights and to raise public issues related to forms of discrimination against women. This feminist activity has succeeded in creating a prominent presence for itself in Egyptian cyberspace.

The rise of feminist activism in cyberspace has led to its expansion into other public spaces, such as the media, and areas of artistic creativity, especially drama series and cinema films. While this rise and expansion had many positive effects, it produced harsh reactions on the part of representatives of conservative movements, as well as a majority of men and even women with more conservative orientations. Hence, in the last decade, an anti-feminist discourse has grown using arguments based on widespread claims that feminist ideas are alien to the Egyptian society to attack feminist stances on women’s issues.

The Rise of Misogyny: Intersection and Interaction of Various Factors:

The previous factors work with each other in an intersecting way, leading to enhancing the impact of each of them as well as amplifying their overall impact. Both the conflict over women’s rights and the rise of feminist discourse have an impact on the growing phenomenon of fragile masculinity, which in turn contributes to raising the intensity of the conflict over women’s rights issues.

On the other hand, women’s rights issues are among the most important topics that feminist discourse always addresses. The impact of this extends to addressing these issues through the media and drama works, some of which have tended to adopt stances closer to feminist stances on these issues. This, in turn, inflames the conflict around these stances, leading to more widespread hostility in society against women.

Mechanisms of Hate, hostile and Misogynistic Rhetoric towards Women in the Egyptian Cyberspace:

The factors discussed above interact to create the specificity of the Egyptian cyberspace in terms of the features of discrimination practices against women, hate speech, and hostility. These factors translate into two aspects. The first is hate speech itself in terms of its predominant nature and in terms of the main themes used in its content. The second is the mechanisms for posing this discourse and working on its spread and dominance in the Egyptian cyberspace and maximizing its direct impact on its target group, which are women.

Discourse Content: Gender Distribution of Social Roles:

Talking about the necessity of preserving the traditional distribution of social roles for men and women is one of the main topics in the prevailing discourse in the Egyptian cyberspace. This discourse is almost limited to complaining about women’s current refusal to adhere to the requirements of these roles. In this context, it is constantly emphasized that the natural role of a woman in society is limited to being a wife and mother where her primary concern is taking care of her husband and children.

In this context, any aspirations of women to make any achievements, whether in the fields of education or work, are attacked and denigrated. If the discourse is tolerant with women’s education and their going out to work, it considers this to be complementary fields, and neither of them should be an end or a goal per se. That is to say the woman learns in order to be a better mother, and goes out to work to help her husband bear the burden of living.

Rejecting Gender Equality in Rights:

Expressing rejection of gender equality in rights occupies a large sector of the mainstream discourse in the Egyptian cyberspace. Users of this rhetoric often focus, on their attack, on a fabricated aspect of the counterargument trying to undermine its strength.

Mechanisms of Using Misogyny Rhetoric, Hate and Hostile Speech Against Women:

Many mechanisms are used to amplify the impact of hate speech and misogyny and to suppress any speech that contradicts it. These mechanisms include:

  • Creating influencers for hate speech and misogyny and supporting their influence in cyberspace.
  • Expanding the reach of hate speech and misogyny through extensive re-dissemination and shares.
  • Stalking influential women in cyberspace and flooding their posts with hostile comments.
  • Using private communication mechanisms to pursue women as a response to expressing their opinions or showing personal practices.

Industry of Hate Influencers:

Every trend in the cyberspace produces its own celebrities who express it more successfully than others. These influencers are distinguished by their ability to formulate the discourse of this trend efficiently with the help of qualifications that give them greater credibility in expressing it. Influencers industry is an effective mechanism for spreading a discourse that expresses the trend they represent. Those who belong to a particular trend automatically realize the importance of having powerful influencers in the cyberspace. Hence, they are interested in raising the value of these influencers and thus increasing their influence. The Egyptian cyberspace has produced a number of superstars of hate speech and misogyny.

Extensive Dissemination of Hate and Hostile speech towards Women:

Social media platforms are particularly characterized by creating “trends” or the most frequently repeated topics. Algorithms play an essential role in disseminating the most frequently mentioned topics at scale. This mechanism is frequently used in the Egyptian cyberspace by re-publishing posts that present hate speech and misogyny in an attractive or well-worded form. This happens automatically because the sources of these posts are usually hate speech influencers. These influencers have a large number of followers who tend to repost their posts because they express their opinions better than they could themselves.

Stalking Powerful/Influential Women:

Influence in cyberspace is usually represented by a large number of followers on social media platforms. This appears in the large number of people interested in the person and his/her news through news media and social media platforms, which also have a large number of followers.

Stars of drama arts are included in the category that has traditional influence by virtue of wide fame. However, the cyberspace itself has created another category, which is “influencers”. Influential women from both categories are subject to constant harassment. This happens through hostile comments on their posts on social media platforms, as well as on their news published by news websites and pages.

Stalking Women through Private Communication Mechanisms:

Women in general are exposed to privacy violation by strangers communicating with them through private communication mechanisms much more frequently than men.

These violations of privacy rates escalate in cases where these women’s posts in the public sphere are more widely circulated than they are accustomed to. Many consider that women’s expression of opinions and stances that contradicts the norm, or posting personal photos as an invitation to address them through private communication mechanisms.

On the other hand, some of these people use moral advice as an entry point in their attempt to extend a dialogue while some others invade the personal space of these women only in order to express their dissatisfaction and anger towards the opinions expressed or the pictures published.

Impact on Freedom of Expression:

The mechanisms described above create an oppressive environment for women to exercise their right to freedom of expression in general, and with regard to controversial issues related to women’s rights and equality with men in particular. The main mechanism for suppressing freedom of opinion is to raise its costs by making the negative consequences of exercising it so heavy that the right holder prefers not to exercise it in order to avoid these consequences.

Each of the previously explained mechanisms plays a special role in discouraging women from expressing their opinions, especially if they go against the norm, reflect an attempt to confront hate speech and hostility toward women, or take a stance on one of the issues related to women’s rights, especially their right to equality. The following sections address the role of each mechanism in suppressing women’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

Avoiding confrontation with Hate Influencers:

Women know that directly expressing opinions in response to those posted by hate influencers will make them the target of a campaign of attacks by the influencers’ fans or even lead to the influencers themselves attacking them, amplifying the intensity of attacks by their followers.

Hence, many women avoid engaging in confrontation, even if it is indirect, with what these influencers publish. The effectiveness of the mechanism of creating influencers appears here, as their followers’ use of their posts- to deliver messages expressing opinions that they share with them- exempts these followers from spreading such opinions themselves.

The Impact of Intensive Dissemination of Hate and Hostile Speech towards Women:

Mass dissemination of a particular speech may lead to a kind of drowning out any speech that contradicts it, which in a way represents a suppression of this speech, and thus a suppression of the right of those who represent it to exercise freedom of expression. However, more directly, the apparent dominance of a particular discourse in any space of social interaction leads to a feeling of frustration among those holding opposing or alternative discourses and the futility of swimming against the prevailing direction of the current.

At the same time, the massive dissemination of any speech reinforces the feeling of the opposing party that attempting to confront it will necessarily lead to consequences that one does not wish to bear. For these reasons, the massive dissemination of hate speech and misogyny is an effective tool to suppress women’s exercise of the right to freedom of expression in response to it. In addition, the exposure of any vulnerable group in society to intense and widespread hate speech leads to its members tending to isolate themselves and avoid appearing in general.

Therefore, the widespread of hate speech against women at scale is an effective tool to push them to limit their activity in the public cyberspace to the lowest possible extent because they feel that they are targeted in general, regardless of their opinions or stances, especially in light of a conservative culture that considers the appearance of women in any public space an reprehensible issue in itself.

Avoiding the Chase:

For influential women in cyberspace who are subjected to constant chasing with hostile comments on their posts, whatever their subject is, and even if they are expressing a socially acceptable opinion, expressing opinions that contradict the norm or responding directly to hate speech and misogyny is enough to expose them to hostile campaigns many times more than what they are normally exposed to, and many times more than what other, less prominent women might be exposed to.

Therefore, influential women hardly express opinions or stances publicly for fear of attracting such consequences. In addition to this being a suppression of their right to expression, it also decreases the weight of their influence in supporting women’s issues in general. In addition, the chase that these women are usually subjected to represents a negative example for other women as it prompt them to avoid appearing in cyberspace in general and limit their activity in this space, representing a deeper suppression of their right to freedom of expression.

Avoiding Privacy Violation:

Women’s attempts to avoid violation of their privacy in general also fall under the heading of isolation, avoiding appearance, and limiting activity in cyberspace. This effect differs from its predecessors in its broad scope, as there is hardly a female user of the Internet who has not had her privacy violated by unwanted communication through private communication mechanisms. However, the widespread prevalence is offset by a relatively low severity for non-influential women.

On the other hand, women’s awareness of the fact that increasing their influence and prominence would increase the rate of their exposure to intrusions into their private sphere, leads them, as previously mentioned, to prefer isolation. Hence, the mechanism of invading privacy remains effective in suppressing women’s exercise of their right to freedom of opinion, and it is characterized by its broad scope, as it includes all Women without discrimination, and it is not necessarily related to expressing specific opinions, but rather includes a wide range of expressions and behaviors that may draw attention to their owner.


The paper raised two basic hypotheses. The first is that the prevalence of hate speech and misogyny is a major factor in suppressing women’s exercise of the right to freedom of expression in general. The second is that the Egyptian cyberspace, due to social, cultural and economic factors that are effective in reality and are significantly reflected in this space, represents a multiplied oppressive environment for women to exercise their right to freedom of expression through it. 

The paper sought to support these two hypotheses through a presentation of the social, cultural and economic factors prevailing in the Egyptian context while most influential in the spread of hate speech and hostility towards women in it, and doubly so in its cyberspace. The paper then introduced an analysis of the mechanisms through which hate and hostility speeches towards women are spread in the Egyptian cyberspace, while exploiting the nature of this space to enhance the impact and effectiveness of these mechanisms in suppressing women’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Finally, the paper explained the role of each of these mechanisms in achieving the aforementioned repression.

The absent role of state institutions in committing to its responsibility of confronting hate speech against the groups most vulnerable to abuse, especially women, emerges in the background of what this paper has presented. It is also negatively present through the contribution of these institutions practices in creating the factors agitating the spread of hate and hostility speeches towards women. Therefore, the Egyptian state is required, through its legislative, judicial and executive institutions, to fulfill its constitutional obligations towards achieving justice and equality for male and female citizens in terms of rights and duties, and towards confronting hate speech with appropriate legislation and policies.

At last, suppressing women’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression in the Egyptian cyberspace is only one of dozens of manifestations of the socially entrenched discrimination against women in Egypt. Like other of these manifestations, there is no way to get rid of it except through comprehensive social change that requires, in addition to the serious commitment of state institutions to achieve it, the presence of a strong and effective civil society playing the necessary role in achieving this change.