Support Groundbreaking Reporting on Women
Logo Logo
Economy & Labor , Health , World

The Middle East Has a ‘Sextortion’ Problem

by Hashed Mozqer December 20, 2023

Co-published with Foreign Policy

After her husband moved to Saudi Arabia for work, 27-year-old Fadya Salman started sending nude pictures of herself from their home in the Yemeni capital Sana’a. It wasn’t the same as being together, but it helped keep their bond alive.

Then her phone got stolen. The thief threatened to publish the photos online unless Salman——whose name has been changed here to protect the safety of this story’s sources—went out with him. She had become a victim of what authorities in many countries call “sextortion”—the act of threatening to share nude or explicit images unless demands for money or sexual acts are met.

Salman refused. Eventually, her family learned what had happened, and in 2022, she was murdered. A childhood friend who asked not to be named said her younger brother had killed her under pressure from their father in a so-called honor killing. A criminal investigation officer in Yemen confirmed that she had been killed, though no charges have been brought, as is often the case with such killings.

“It was a nightmare,” the friend said while describing Salman’s ordeal. “When a woman is put in a situation like that, she’s on her own. She can’t trust anyone to help her. She can’t go to a male relative because they’ll assume she’s to blame, and another woman won’t be able to help.” 

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and its international law enforcement agency warned this year that sextortion is becoming a global crisis. Deep-rooted patriarchal traditions have made women in the Middle East and North Africa particularly vulnerable to this blackmail, activists say. While the bulk of cases are never reported to authorities, a 2019 survey by Transparency International found that one in five people polled in Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine had experienced sextortion or knew someone who had—among the worst rates in the world. 

Widespread societal attitudes that place the burden of preserving familial honor on women often prevent victims from seeking justice. Instead, as in Salman’s case, the blackmail can have tragic consequences. 

Such strict societal codes are particularly pronounced in Yemen, which ranked last in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index for 15 consecutive years (from 2006 to 2020) and has a troubled history of so-called honor killings. 

Amaal Aldobai, a Yemeni women’s rights activist and head of the Centre for Combating Violence Against Women, said that women are easy prey for perpetrators of sextortion.

“If a woman falls victim to sextortion, she cannot tell her family because they will sentence her to death instead of getting justice,” Aldobai said.

While some women are lured into sending private images by promises of marriage, Yemeni activist Mokhtar Abdel Moez said that the majority fall victim to gangs that hack into women’s phones and coerce them into prostitution or paying a large sum of money.

“This results in hundreds of cases of divorce, murder, and suicide every year,” he said. “What is incredible is that, in some incidents, women gave in to coercion and were forced into prostitution to avoid the publishing of images that are not even scandalous yet are enough to lead to their murder merely for being in a strange man’s possession.”

Abdel Moez is the founder of Sanad, a nonprofit organization in Yemen that supports cybercrime victims through a network of around 400 volunteer digital experts. When he began the group in March 2020, he didn’t expect to find so many cases of sextortion.

Sanad has received about 17,000 reports of cybercrimes since its launch, 6,000 of which were reported in 2023. Abdel Moez estimates that about one in four are cases of sextortion.

Official figures are far lower. An official at the Ministry of Interior in the Houthi-led government in Sana’a, who asked not to be named as he is not authorized to speak to the media, said that 114 electronic crimes—including sextortion—were reported in 2022. 

Yemen’s Saudi-backed administration in Aden keeps no tally of reported sextortion cases, but multiple officials said they had received dozens of such reports, mostly targeting women. 

Fearing their families’ wrath and distrusting the two rival administrations fighting over power, vulnerable victims instead seek out activists such as Moez and his team. When they receive a report of a crime, the team at Sanad works to identify and contact the extortionist to try to persuade them to hand over and delete the blackmail content. 

Egyptian activist Mohamed El-Yamani started a network called Qawem (or “Resist” in English) in 2020, after a young woman took her own life out of fear that her ex-boyfriend would expose private images of her.

Egypt ranked 134th out of 146 countries in the 2023 Gender Gap Index, and El-Yamani says his group has received reports of more than 100,000 cases of sextortion since it started. But he believes that this is only a small fraction of the crimes committed. 

El-Yamani said that Qawem has successfully intervened in 4,000 cases, using a network of volunteers to dissuade each perpetrator by tracing his location and threatening to expose his actions to his family, friends, and colleagues. Realizing that the victim has support is often enough to deter blackmailers, but if it doesn’t, Qawem encourages victims to report the perpetrators to the authorities. 

In one case, El-Yamani said, images of a girl from a prominent family in Egypt were published online, showing her without a headscarf. The girl had refused to accede to the demands of her blackmailer, who wanted money and video calls with her. When the content was published, she was accused of recklessness and made to stay home from school.

El-Yamani said Qawem managed to defuse the situation by tracking down the blackmailer and getting him to apologize and remove the content from the internet, while also convincing the girl’s father to allow his daughter to return to school.

Egypt, El-Yamani added, is a regional leader in tackling the problem. Authorities have created digital investigation units throughout the country to handle such crimes, and they have passed laws to ensure that the identities of victims who come forward remain hidden. Qawem-style interventions would be much harder in countries such as Yemen and Syria, he said.

“Many women in these countries would rather deal with their sextortionists secretly, regardless of the consequences, as their families would hold them responsible for not protecting their family’s honor,” El-Yamani said. 

Experts say that the patriarchal nature of family relations in some Middle Eastern countries has contributed to the problem.

“One common factor in all 3,657 cases that approached us is the victims’ blind trust in the perpetrator, due to them lacking the feeling of being loved and embraced in their own surroundings,” said Zainab al-Aasi, a Syrian psychiatrist and the founder of a nonprofit called Gardenia that offers legal and mental support to female victims of sextortion.

In Yemen, there are no laws addressing sextortion, said Fawzia el-Meressi, a board member at the Yemeni Women’s Union, a nonprofit. Even if there were, she argued, such crimes against women would not stop; they are the result of a patriarchal system that “creates a huge void between her and her male family members, which is exploited by criminals.” 

Omaima, 21, whose name has also been changed for her safety, connected online with a man introduced to her by a friend as a researcher for a women’s health organization. The man offered payment for information about her life—a persuasive offer in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, where 80 percent of the population depends on humanitarian aid. 

At first, Omaima responded to the questions he sent via WhatsApp, sharing details about her relationship with her husband and pictures of her without a headscarf—a major taboo in the strict Muslim society that she is part of.

Then the questions began to take on a sexual nature, making her feel uncomfortable, she said. But after she began to ignore him, the man threatened to send the photos to her husband, carrying out the threat when she refused to engage. 

Her husband divorced her. “He didn’t even hear me out,” Omaima said.

This piece is published in collaboration with Egab, a group that works with journalists across the Middle East and Africa

Get our groundbreaking reporting on women

Get The Fuller Project in your inbox weekly
Get The Fuller Project in your inbox weekly