Retribution is not justice

December 4, 2023

BY Nana Abuelsoud

My friend and I used to stay back at the office or call each other on weekends, yelling, cursing, and announcing our disbelief of the shallow reactionary feminist demands to each other. 

“He’ll kill her and then kill himself” she angrily said to me, “who is winning then?” she complimented her thoughts around campaigns and mobilizations demanding death for killers and sexual violence perpetrators. 

In 2019, demands calling for the execution of a teenage boy went viral on Twitter and Facebook. The trending anger erupted when a teenage boy along with his friends killed another teenage boy, because the latter interrupted the first’s sexual harassment of a girl on the street. People, including feminists, demanded the killer be executed, in an attempt to quell how they felt about it. There were no further discussions around how the girl who was harassed and others can walk safely down the street again. Are families in this area going to suffocate their daughters by more mobility restrictions because they are worried for their safety? Quite possible. 

In 2021, the killers’ appeal was refused, and the court ruling to imprison him along with his two friends for 15 years and another friend for five years was final. We know how our prison system in Egypt is dysfunctional, and we are certain that imprisonment didn’t manage to eliminate violence anywhere in the world. Getting a long prison sentence as a teenager means you get a social death sentence by the time you walk out. Chances are high you will go back to prison because your whole life became about this one moment when everything around you made you think it was a cool thing to stab someone. On the other hand, the teenage boy who was killed is lost forever. 

These calls for death felt so wrong, and it felt equally wrong to go against the current and share thoughts widely or publicly around the ineffectiveness of capital punishment. The immediate reaction would be to question one’s intentions and hesitations. Are you perpetuating violence against women by not endorsing death to the convict/perpetrator? 

“The death penalty does not achieve punishment’s main objective, which is the convict’s reform and reintegration into society. Most crucially, it is impossible to reverse the punishment if it is later proven that the convict was in fact innocent of the crime.” Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, 2017 [link]

It is essential to contextualize feminist demands for death and long prison sentences in Egypt. As the political context changed dramatically since the military coup in 2013 and death penalty rates spiked in the following years with expedited judicial processes. For example, in June of 2022, a video capturing the slaughter of a university student by her stalker on the street in broad daylight shook us all. Demands of justice for Nayra flooded our newsfeed, basically calling for his death. Prior to this violent escalation, Nayra tried to file reports against her killer a few times through the cybercrime police, but they were not taken seriously and she was not protected. The demands then shouldn’t only be focusing on enacting retribution on the killer, but rather take into account how the state is complicit in this violation yet would not get interrogated. The killer is now killed, thanks to the reactionary court that served a death sentence in only 16 days!

Three months ago, another young woman was shot at a university where she worked after refusing her colleague’s marriage proposal. He immediately took his own life, leaving nobody to be punished and no “microwavable justice” to be served. My friend was right, her prophecy was fulfilled. People will always find ways to escape punishment, if it becomes known that a killer gets killed or imprisoned for life then they might as well just kill themselves. Then we are left in this dilemma and we, as feminists, are only asking the state for more punitive retributions but no accountability, and certainly no structural transformations. How did it become normal for so much violence to be televised and consumed? The root causes for such violence is not because of the two men’s heartbreaks. These killings are the result of a myriad of factors that enable stalking, police apathy and violence, macho and masculine performativity etc. But who gets their own lives taken or be put in prison at the end of the day? Those who cannot bribe their way out, threaten the victim/survivor or their family, or those who do not have social power to shake the charges off. 

Feminists should be aware of the structural orchestration of violence, our demands should not be a literal translation of our personal agony. In many collective conversations with feminist friends, we shared sentiments on how many of these public demands are reflective of unresolved violations we had experienced ourselves. They stop being about the victim/survivor and start mirroring personal retributive wishes. How do feminists think of the state as an ally, if our experiences prove that their interest in a public position condemning violence is mainly performative (because they are not doing their job to uproot the causes that breed such aggression)? Nothing changes about our reality, the state stance is ornamental, and we only experience more violence. 

Feminist advocacy and mobilizations aiming at ending gender based violence should expand beyond the binary understanding of gender, center survivors/victims, and work more on preventive measures instead of only mitigating the aftermath. We should ask ourselves, what do survivors need to be able to go about their lives? How can the state address the needs of the families of the victims? Why are the streets and universities not safe? Will they be safe by having more police there? Is the police really protecting us? How do we make it not happen again to any person?

Feminist organizing spaces should allow room for deeper discussions and collective reflections on what justice really means. We should be able to stay in conversation about how angry we are and at the same time skeptical of how criminal justice operates in Egypt and across regions.