Update, Thursday, Jan. 17, 11 a.m. ET: This story was originally published on Jan. 14 and has been updated to reflect the universities’ decisions.
If you’re a woman living in Egypt, a school can apparently expel you for hugging a man, even if he’s your boyfriend.
That’s what happened to one woman who was caught on camera locking arms with her boyfriend in early January, France 24 reports. On Sunday, Al-Azhar University in Cairo announced she would not be allowed to return to class after supposedly ruining the institution's reputation. Her boyfriend, a college freshman at Mansoura University identified as Mahmoud, was suspended for two years, for breaking “university values and morals,” according to the Guardian.
After public outcry, the two universities that expelled the Egyptian couple are allowing them to return to school, Yahoo reports.
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In the viral video, Mahmoud presents his girlfriend with a bouquet of flowers and she reacts with a brief embrace, which offended school officials. People on the street cheered on the special moment.
Al-Azhar, where the woman is a student studying Arabic, is considered to be one of the world’s highest Sunni Muslim cultural authorities. Under strict Sunni Muslim beliefs, unmarried men and women are forbidden from making physical contact. As a result, men and women who attend Al-Azhar are separated by gender.
Ahmed Zarie, a university spokesman, told Agence France-Presse the video created a “bad image” of the school.
Al-Azhar authorities retaliated against the young woman — even though the proposal was filmed at Mansoura University, nowhere near the school.
Conservative cultural norms are observed throughout the country. Interactions between unmarried men and women are frowned upon by many, and as one Twitter user pointed out, men and women receive difference consequences under law. For instance, polygamy is only legal for men, and 26% of women will experience domestic violence — but it isn't criminalized.
Zarie said the young woman had the option to appeal the school’s decision, but recently the country has been extremely harsh on “provocative” women.
A hug would land a (Female) university student in jail for 2 years in #Egypt because hugs are against the morals, values & traditions of Egypt... Apart from the fact that the whole thing is a farce.. Why punish the woman & leave the guy? She didn't hug herself, did she?! https://t.co/WhhYEb8k4Y— Marwa Farid (@MarwaMfarid) January 4, 2019
Recent polls in Egypt found that 74% of men and 84% of women believe "women who dress provocatively deserve to be harassed."
“It is currently more dangerous to criticize the government in Egypt than at any time in the country’s recent history,” Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International's North Africa campaigns director, said after police jailed women’s rights activist Amal Fathy for speaking out against threats to women’s safety.
“Egyptians living under President al-Sisi are treated as criminals simply for peacefully expressing their opinions," Bounaim said.
Despite the risks, Egyptian women joined the global #MeToo movement against sexual harassment in 2018.
Attitudes towards gender equality seem to be slowly changing. Both universities had a change of heart after the public expressed sympathy toward the couple, according to the Guardian.
So Egypt's Al-Azhar university expelled a female student for hugging a male friend !! 😲— tonny (@tonnyaujongole) January 14, 2019
Mansoura University, where the now viral video of the two embracing was filmed, announced Tuesday it would let Mahmoud, back in. The student apologized, vowed not to disobey the rules again, and committed to the school’s morals, before school officials opted to let him continue his studies.
By Wednesday, Al-Azhar University, also revoked its decision. Ahmed al-Tayeb, a high-ranking official at Al-Azhar, advocated for the young woman by arguing that she didn’t know better because of her age.
Their respective schools aren’t letting the young couple off the hook completely — they both will not be allowed to take their first semester exams instead. The controversy has not only stalled their academic careers but has also harmed their relationship.
"We were supposed to be engaged but after what happened her parents are refusing this completely," Mahmoud told channel MBC Masr by phone.
Some social media users applauded the reduced penalties, according to the Guardian, but others are disappointed the schools aren’t honoring cultural tradition.