Around this time of the year, 96 years ago, two women were sentenced to death, raising debate among Egyptians on whether it was appropriate to execute women.
Today, it's hard to find any Egyptian who has never heard of Raya and Sakina, Egypt's most infamous serial killers who cast terror into the heart of the people of Alexandria in the early days of the 20th century, just after World War I.
While the authorities of the British occupation in Egypt were overwhelmed by public opposition to the colonial rule, the rule of law and order had markedly suffered and deteriorated allowing brutal thieves and killers to thrive. Naturally, as a result, countless crimes and criminals went unpunished.
Raya and Sakina were two sisters who hailed from a small village in upper Egypt before moving to the coastal city of Alexandria. The two sisters, with the help of their husbands and two other men, killed 17 women in the Labban district of Alexandria over a period of two years starting in 1919.
A century ago, female involvement in murders was unheard of
To begin with, the sisters had a really bad reputation due to their involvement in prostitution. Since prostitution was legal under British rule, Raya and Sakina managed to open several brothels where they hired two men as their guards. These two men would later become members of their brutal gang.
Their gang was made up of six people who managed to kill their victims without being caught despite committing their crimes in houses surrounding a police station.
The police in Alexandria received numerous reports of disappearances of individuals. All the reports had something in common, the missing people were all women and they were all wearing expensive gold jewelry. Many of the reports also mentioned that the missing women were last seen with either one or both of the sisters.
Back then, women were simply above suspicion and female-perpetrated crime was something that was unheard of. The fact that the sisters were seen with some of the victims was not sufficient evidence for the police to consider them to be strong suspects. With the increasing number of reports, they were questioned but everyone still failed to confirm their involvement in the disappearances.
The crime scenes involved four houses
The discovery of the remains of Raya and Sakina's victims happened by chance. In December 1920, a police officer discovered human remains on the side of the road near the sisters' residence. The completely dismembered body was damaged beyond recognition, except for its long braided black hair.
In the same month, a landlord of a house that was previously rented by Sakina reported finding human remains beneath his floor while digging to fix a water pipe. The police officers removed the tiles from the floor and found two bodies.
A short while later, a police officer noticed an exceptionally strong scent of incense coming out of Raya's house on a daily basis. When he asked about it, she replied that she is simply trying to get rid of the smell of the brothel customers, as they would drink alcohol and smoke inside her establishment.
Her answer made the officer even more suspicious and he noticed that the floor tiles in a certain part of the house were newer than the rest of it. The new tiles were removed, and at once the smell of decomposed bodies rose from below. After digging deeper, corpses of two women and remains of a third were discovered.
Shortly after that incident, the police decided to search all of the houses that Raya and Sakina had previously rented and lived in and found the remains of a total of 17 women. The crime scenes involved 4 houses in the Labban district.
A 9-year-old child was the key witness
After arresting the members of the gang, the police were able to secure confessions from all involved.
Raya’s nine-year-old daughter Badeia'a was a key witness in the investigations and confessed to seeing her family members suffocating women and burying them under the floor of their houses, where they would sit down, eat, and carry on with their lives as if nothing ever happened.
It's also worth mentioning that at the time, there was no record of murderers burying their victims under their houses.
And finally, after two years of reported disappearances of women, the police built a detailed picture of how the merciless criminals operated.
The criminal duo were the first women in modern Egypt to be sentenced to death
The two sisters were executed by hanging
The fact that two women were leading the murderers had crowds puzzled, shuddering, and horrified that Egyptian women could be capable of such horrendous atrocities.
After months of trial, on May 16, 1921, the death sentence was passed against the six gang members: Raya and Sakina, their husbands Hasaballah and Abdul Aal, and their guards Orabi and Abdul Razik.
The goldsmith who purchased jewelry of the victims from the gang was also sentenced to five years in prison.
On December 21, 1921, the two sisters were executed by hanging. They donned red execution garments which were specially tailored for them, as they were the first females to be handed with a death sentence in modern Egypt.
The following day, their husbands were executed
The story of the gang inspired many films, miniseries, and theater plays
These days, many Egyptian and Arab tourists continue to visit the Labban area to see Rayya and Sakina’s home and the neighboring old police station where the initial investigations took place.