On January 19, 2021, Egyptian security forces arrested a female pastry chef for baking sexually explicit cupcakes with icing shaped like genitalia. The arrests—which evidence the Egyptian governments’ increasingly repressive attempts to control public discourse in the name of “public decency”—have snowballed into a national controversy.
The cakes first attracted the attention of the Ministry of Youth and Sports on January 18 when images of a group of elderly women eating the cupcakes at a private birthday party went viral on social media. The government’s crackdown was swift and unyielding. “We will not be lenient,” said Mohamed Fawzy, the ministry’s spokesperson. Egypt’s top religious body, Dal al-ifta, also issued statements on Facebook: “Posting naked pictures, candy, holograms, and products with sexual expressions and fallen revelations is legitimately forbidden and legally criminal… [the cupcakes are] an assault on the value system and a crude abuse of society.”
The chef, however, claimed that she merely fulfilled the club members’ requests. After facing questions from the investigators, she was briefly detained and released on bail of 5,000 EGP ($318). The exclusive Gezira Club that hosted the party also launched their internal investigation that resulted in the suspensions of several partygoers.
The national scandal evoked conflicting reactions on social media. Some offered support for the government’s reaction and deemed the cupcakes as an attack on “family values.” Others defended the women, condemning the government and its strict code of conduct.
“There is a segment of society, with support of the state, that wants to eliminate any space for personal freedom in Egypt under the pretext of safeguarding Egyptian family values,” tweeted human rights lawyer Negad El Borai. Though Egypt remains a more liberal nation compared to its Arab neighbors of the Persian Gulf, Egypt has moved towards increasingly repressive and conservative governance in the past half-century. Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took office in 2014, the country’s legislatures have tightened their control over internet activities and placed strict surveillance measures on its populace.
Many who disapprove of the crackdown highlight the irony of the government’s delayed response in punishing sexual harassment, rape, and abuse. “People in Egypt [and in the media] really be upset about old ladies enjoying genital cupcakes for a birthday more than rampant sexual violence and harassment in the country,” remarked Mohamed Khairat, journalist and founder of publishing company Egyptian Streets.
The country has faced international condemnation for its constant arrests of women for “indecent” content. In September 2020, photographer Houssam Mohammad and model Salma al-Shimi were arrested because the latter wore accessories that resembled typical Pharoah-looks and posed in front of the pyramids. Egyptian media, which labeled the act “provocative and offensive,” later denounced the creative content of TikTok influencers Haneen Hossam, Mowada al-Adham, and three others for impropriety. Public displeasure mounted as all five faced charges of up to two years in jail. Only two weeks before the chef was arrested did Cairo’s Economic Appeals Court overturn the sentences, acquitting Hossam of all charges but upholding the fines for the other four defendants.In the wake of the cupcake controversy, human rights activist Haythem Abokhalil compared the forcefulness of the government crackdown to that of the country’s treatment of political prisoners. He remarked that while cupcakes topped with genital-shaped designs are forbidden, “it is allowed to strip, violate and electrify the genitals of political detainees under the pretext of preserving the homeland from evil.” Such cases, advocates like Abokhalil argue, are testaments to state-sponsored attempts to undermine women’s rights and freedom. Dubbing the arrests a “systematic crackdown that targets low-income women,” activists have authored and distributed online petitions in attempts to garner public support against related arrests. As national backlash and activists’ charges gain public attention, the Egyptian government faces increased pushback against its strict and selective enforcement of propriety. The January 2021 government crackdown on sexually suggestive cupcakes is just the latest of a series of government measures that evidence a burgeoning tension between tradition and modernity.
By Mia Xiao