Dec 20, 2011

When Women Are Undressed!

In the post-revolutionary Egypt, several women were undressed, whether willfully or against their consent. A varying degree of uproar usually ensues. It’s really curious to witness the frenzy that happens when women clothes are dropped.

The West (with all the implications and connotations of this word) and Western media, obsessed as it with the oppressed Arab/Muslim women, is usually enthused to cover and report on what happens to women in the Arab world; demanding their liberation; lamenting their marginalization. While here, the obsession with female body overrides the debate, making it skewed, if not outright unfair.

The first such incident was the sexual assault on Lara Logan in Tahrir on the day of ousting Mubarak. International media were all over it. Logan went on 60 Minutes describing her ordeal. The media here largely ignored it; either too overwhelmed with Mubarak stepping down and the prospects for a new Egypt, or using the same excuse of “Let’s not tarnish the national image”.

In March, we had the infamous virginity tests that were conducted by the military.  There was definitely a case of shock when such news came out. Not as much hype as there is now because back then lots of people were still in denial about the fact that the military is against the revolution. They just didn’t believe our honored army would commit such a crime. Some others thought those girls had it coming. “Who told them to go protest and spend the night on the street anyway?!”

Later on in May, there was a fiasco of another sort. Religious frenzies, aka the Salafis, well known for their strict interpretation of Islam and limited worldview, were on the hunt for yet another woman named Abeer. A Christian woman, had fled her Upper Egyptian village and left her family behind for a fling with a Muslim man. She converted to Islam in order to be able to get a divorce and marry the Muslim. The Salafis presumed that Abeer was held in a church in Imbaba which resulted in an ugly flare of sectarian violence and led to about a dozen dead and hundreds injured. This incident exemplified how women become tools of asserting power by religious factions; and how controlling women’s sexuality and mobility can be a strong driver of sectarian violence.

Moreover, similar honor-motivated protests were organized by Salafis in order to save women alleged to have converted to Islam. Most of the protesting centered around a woman called Kamilia Shehata. These protests were named “I want my sister Kamilia”, a famous humorous phrase that is now commonly used to mock Salafis and their obsession with their alleged sisters.

The failure of Salafis & other Islamists to produce a proper response, when female protesters were subjected to abuses at the hand of police and military forces, were the center of criticism of many secular/liberal revolutionaries. Those revolutionaries who are struggling to present themselves to the mainstream non-political majority. The word secular has become so stigmatized that most activists chose not to use it. The word "liberal" became all too common to refer to anyone who's not an islamist. The outcry of the liberal/secular against the violence of female protesters was all too real, but the use of that card to trump the islamists was always interesting.

When Salafis chose not to put the photos of female parliamentary runners and decided to replace them with either flowers or their husbands' photos, they received harsh sarcasm from the "liberal" front, for their lack of respect for women. But how did that liberal front really deal with women issues? Did they really advocate for women inclusion everywhere? Women were also excluded in most liberal political forces.

In November, when Aliaa El Mahdy took her clothes off, took a nude photo and posted it on her blog, the international attention reached unbelievable levels. Her controversial act was the talk of everyone and again the media was all over it. Was it a feminist act of rebellion or a miscalculated risk? Regardless of its meaning or motivation, Aliaa's act became the battlefront of debate about women liberation; the limits of freedom; the timing; the reputation of the revolution; the rampant double standards and hypocrisy of the society that rushes to see her naked body yet condemn her act.

Again, the "liberal forces" were confused, if not dismayed, by Aliaa's nudity; either denying her freedom of expression or claiming it compromises the struggle of "liberal forces" to maintain their image. The buzz would have continued, and Aliaa's life would have been more endangered, if it wasn't for the violence that erupted again at Mohamed Mahmoud street and the first round of parliamentary elections. The international and national spheres found other things to worry about.

Most recently, the famous photos above made headlines in several international and local media outlets, and became the heart of another debate. The woman who was brutalized as a punishment for her bravery to protest in the cabinet events became a sensation, not because she was aggressively beaten up or insulted but because her body was exposed.

The angry reaction that immediately followed based the criticism of the military violence on the shame they have caused by exposing her body. It is quite understandable that this act of exposition is associated with shame and violating "honor" more than anything else. But I can't help but wonder, whose shame it is when a woman's body is exposed! Why has it become such a horrendous act? Because we see women's body as a sacred untouchable that should not be violated? What is more violating here, the shame brought about by her brutalization or that caused by her bodily exposition? Which is more shocking, the emotional wounds that she'll have to endure or the fact that world knew the color of her bra?

However, the women march today at Tahrir was a real positive move. Thousands of women from all walks of life, in all sorts of dress showed up in solidarity and to protest the flagrant military violations. The photo below is particularly striking and interesting. This woman is basically saying: "nobody has the right to judge us or question our honor". As the chants said "Egyptian women are a red line", women expressed that any violations of Egyptian women should never be tolerated. It shows that despite the shaming and the victim-blaming, women still reclaim their right to protest and express themselves.

"your eyes are cheap"

It is amazing how women's bodies have such a revealing effect. They can show exactly where people stand on matters like freedom, autonomy and shame. Women's bodies have been the battlefront of so many battles before and will continue to be, but the hypocrisy it reveals never ceases to be powerful.

Nov 8, 2011

Refugees in Egypt, a forgotten issue!

In Egypt, several issues do not have enough attention. Refugee issues in Egypt are not usually publicly discussed and even if this happens, it hardly goes in the right direction.

Due to its position, Egypt receives a lot of refugees and asylum seekers who aim to stay in Egypt or only to transit until they leave to another country. Those refugees and asylum seekers leave their countries for various reasons, such as fleeing war and armed conflict, political instability or prosecution. They come from different directions; the majority of which come from Sudan followed by Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea and other countries. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are approximately 40,000 registered refugees in the country, from 38 different nationalities. Not all refugees are registered with UNHCR however, so the real number is very much higher and may reach millions. 

Recently, Youm 7 newspaper carried a daring and shocking investigation in Sinai and revealed the horrors that refugees are subjected to there. The investigation shed light on the African refugees who seek to enter Israel through Sinai are subjected to torture, rape and killings by organized criminal groups in Sinai. Those criminals engage in organs trafficking taken from the refugees’ bodies. The details and images were really harrowing and definitely caused a controversy.

CNN also made a report called "Death in the Desert" about the same issue which caused an international media buzz.  

The investigation stirred many reactions. Some Egyptian media reported on it. African media in Sudan and Eritrea also reported on it and human right groups there called for further investigations and for the Egyptian state to interfere to protect the lives of those refugees. Egyptian human rights groups also called the results of the investigation a scandal and demanded immediate intervention. UNHCR also “expressed concern” over the reports and claimed that they haven’t received any previous complaints regarding the issue.

Egyptian human rights organizations have raised concerns about torture, rape and human trafficking of African refugees in Sinai before, but officials didn’t want to admit it or take any actions.  The situation seems to continue as it is and our government doesn’t want to intervene to stop this tragedy.

Unfortunately, we have a bad history in dealing with refugees in Egypt. Refugees leave their countries running away from wars, prosecution or dire economic conditions to face other hardships in Egypt. Egypt has signed 1951 Refugee Convention, but it had reservations and there’s a de facto ban on accessing employment and formal education for refugees. Obviously, Egypt already has a struggling economy and high unemployment rate which makes it hard for our government to provide services to refugees.

The Sinai horrors are not the first of a kind for refugees in Egypt. In December 2005, Egyptian security forces attacked a protest camp that was set up by Sudanese protesters in Mostafa Mahmoud Square which caused the murder of about 30 refugees including women and children, other were also deported and detained, which was also reported on in the Egyptian blogosphere. 

 Egypt also uses shoot-to-stop policy at Israeli borders to kill African refugees trying to cross the border to Israel with a death toll amounting to dozen of refugees. 

Sadly, it's not just the state that discriminates against but it permeates into daily life events and African people in Egypt suffer from incidents of racism and discrimination

This tragic situation cannot continue any longer. Immediate action must be taken from the government to stop those grave violations. It's horrible that those men, women and children flee their country to save their lives and find themselves in equally dangerous conditions or worse.More attention should be directed to refugees and their situation to end the dire condition that they suffer from. 

Oct 27, 2011

Another Khaled Said in Egypt

Another horrendous incident happened today in Egypt. I don't know when those times of torture and violence will end. Essam Ali Atta, 23 years old, is one of the many thousands that were subjected to military courts despite being civilian. Those military courts started early on after the beginning of the revolution. Until now, justice is lost despite the outcry from different groups in Egypt.

According to his family, he was arrested last February as he was witnessing a street altercation. He was sentenced two years in Torra prison. His devastated mother told me today that she was trying to get him a phone SIM card as he wanted to have an operating phone inside the prison. Apparently this motivated his torture but circumstances are still not clear.

Here is a GRAPHIC video I took of martyr Atta in the morgue at Kasr Al Aini hospital:

His mother also said that he contacted them asking for help and he said that he was being tortured in prison by inserting a water hose into his anus and mouth. I went to the morgue in Kasr Al Aini and his face had blood from his mouth and also secretions were coming out of his nose and mouth. His family were really in a miserable condition. They were expecting that he might get out of prison soon as they were trying to annul the verdict and get a retrial.

Some people say that he must have been a criminal since he was sentenced by military courts. Needless to say that military courts lack many decent justice considerations as they lack independence, a mandate for fair trials. Also, regardless of Atta being a criminal or not, this would never mean that he deserves to be tortured and murdered. He was already doing his time. If he committed any violation, there should be a fair punishment that does not involve humiliation, torture and definitely not murder.

Finally, Khaled Said being tortured and killed at the hands of the police was one of the main drivers for the revolution. When will our leaders learn their lesson?! 

Sep 15, 2011

AIDS and the revolution

Although I have written about HIV/AIDS in Egypt before, and despite the general attitude of avoiding this heavy subject, there's always a need to address it and discuss the situation of HIV/AIDS in the new context of Egypt.

January 25th revolution was basically about dignity and freedom. People revolted because they felt they're living under a police state that violated and humiliated citizens. I thought at some point after the revolution we would be facing the social challenges, but we found ourselves facing another form of dictatorship by the now ruling military. It's a difficult battle but hopefully it's the state of revolt will linger on and we achieve our demands.

Unfortunately, on the front of HIV/AIDS, there were negative developments. Last July, the ministry of health decided to stop the operation of a big a project by a coalition of civil society organizations working to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and particularly the stigma around this disease which is the main obstacle to making achievements in this regard. This step came shortly after a big press conference by this coalition of organizations where reports and facts regarding HIV in Egypt were presented and discussed The press conference also witnessed the first "coming out" of a person living with HIV in front of media cameras without hiding his face.

You may be wondering why the ministry of health took this backward decision. The general sense is that it's because this coalition of NGOs were raising the issue, spreading the word, and empowering the voices of people living with HIV. This probably made the ministry unhappy and they wanted to tighten their control of media information and the general situation of AIDS in Egypt.

In a recent interview on HIV/AIDS, I spoke of stigma especially from health service providers (the ones who should be best equipped to deal with people living with HIV).

It's a very grim reality that even healthcare providers exercise the worst forms of discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS. Yes, the disease is linked to certain misconceptions about sexual behavior. Whenever we organize events to raise awareness on HIV, I ask participants about what transmits the virus. The most common answer is illegitimate sex! Unfortunately the amount of disinformation/lack of awareness is huge.

Sadly people continue judging to judge others based on assumptions.  Some people like to play God's role and punish others for their certain behaviors!

A recent report entitled Combating HIV/AIDS Related Stigma In Egypt available in Arabic and English  tells of the situation for people living with HIV/AIDS in Egypt and their grievances. The number of people living with HIV in Egypt is estimated to be 11,000 people. Some other estimates say that the number must be much more in reality. The stigma around the disease causes fear and mistrust, so people don't end up getting proper info or receiving already available services such as testing and counseling.

As the report shows, stigma and discrimination is rife in different sectors. It comes from healthcare providers, the government, the media, the workplace, religious leaders, and sadly family and friends. Each of those sectors exercise their stigma turning the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS into living hell. 

For me, HIV/AIDS is not just a health problem. It's a multifaceted societal problem where stigma and discrimination are key obstacles. We all have to speak up against the stigma, break the taboo, grant people's dignity no matter who they are; that's perfectly in line with the values of our revolution.

Aug 17, 2011

Cottonil: The Underwear Controversy

Ramadan is here and already half way through. While some Egyptians think of it as a month of religious observance, family gatherings or festive meals; Ramadan can also be seen as the month of televised invasion!

Each year, all TV channels race to catch TV viewers’ attention with loads of TV series, comedy and talk shows. But in between all those shows, the thing that viewers see the most, and recently discuss the most are the ads in between.

TV ads have got people talking, facebooking and tweeting enjoying them, making fun of them or severely ridiculing them. The advertisement that caused most controversy was definitely Cottonil ad for promoting male underwear and boxers, a first of a kind in Egypt! The humorous ad begins by saying that boxers are like you friends; some make you comfortable, some are too sticky and other make you look better! The rather “sexual” innuendos plus the specter of young men in sagging jeans apparently provoked some conservative nerves.    

I think the discussion about this ad is particularly interesting. It has provoked some discussion about media, youth, fashion, and even homosexuality!

Some people saw the advertisement as a sign of media irresponsibility saying that the ad is inappropriate and rude especially in Ramadan and that it offends families watching TV together. Part of this argument is about appropriate dress; i.e. what is considered decent clothes and what’s not! In a country where religious conservatism is on the rise, talking about freedom of dress won’t get you very far!  A lot of people are concerned about what “message” their children would get from seeing young people with low hanging jeans!

The other part of this argument is about the fact that people are seeing Egyptian boxers ads for the first time in their lives. Something about the fact that it’s an ad about underwear seem to irrationally provoke many people. The humorous innuendos did not sit well with a certain mindset that is uncomfortable with the human body and especially because underwear are somehow linked to… genital organs!! Despite the criticism, the ad has a lot of positive reactions and a lot of people found it funny and praised its boldness and creative idea. The reactions reminded me of a quote I heard in a play I saw in Rawabet a while ago. "Why are we all shy of talking about underwear although we're all wearing it?!" 

The arguments propagated by the critics can be contested.  Don't young people already know about the trend of wearing sagging pants? Don't we see that in regular life every day? Why should we pretend that it doesn't exist; or should we always act as ostriches do? Why would we want to limit the freedom of choosing what people wear? If women can have the right to show their cleavage and legs, why can’t men show their underwear?! Most importantly, why do we feel an urge to control what people wear?

Interestingly though, some of the young people reacted to the ad saying it's "a gay ad"! I wonder why such comment was made. Is it because it's an advertisement for male underwear? Or is it because it portrays male friendship and intimacy? Does seeing males touching each other amount to being gay?

Although a lot of people in Egypt tend to think that homosexuality is a foreign concept, I think that this homophobia is the foreign concept. After all we have a culture that didn't see a threat or problems in male friendly intimacy and until now we can see men kissing on the cheeks, hugging or even sometimes holding hands, something that doesn't really happen in most of the "Western countries"! Our perception of masculinity is confusing to me. What kind of man do we accept and what other kind we call sissy? What are the criteria!

In the end, I believe that media is more of a reflection of society’s attitudes and beliefs. Analyzing what we see on TV and how we react to it is an interesting and worthy process. After all, resolving issues begins with a quiet and open debate. 

Jun 1, 2011

عذرية وطن

قتل الجيش فرحتنا عندما سمعنا عن الانتهاكات والتعذيب الذي تعرض له المتظاهرين من الشباب الذين قاموا بالثورة وشاركوا فيها أساسا بسبب انتهاكات الشرطة والتعذيب والملاحقة التي تعرض لها العديد من المصريين.

لم أنكر أقوال النشطاء عندما عرفت بقيام الجيش بعمل كشف عذرية للمتظاهرات اللاتى اعتقلن يوم 9 مارس الماضي ولكن تأكيد الخبر الذي نشرته وكالة CNN  على لسان أحد قيادات العسكر المجهولين  فتح الجرح مرة أخرى وزاد مرارتنا وأوجاع ثورتنا.

تأتي كشوف العذرية كجزء متأصل من ثقافتنا وعاداتنا التي تختزل شرف العائلة في غشاء البكارة فكشوف العذرية لا يمارسها الجيش فقط ولكنها تمارس أيضا منذ القدم في صورة الدخلة البلدي، وحتى في الأسر الأفضل قدرا من التعليم والثقافة يستخدم العروسين الملاءة البيضاء (المحرمة) لإثبات شرف العروس وأنها حافظت على بكارتها حتى ليلة الدخلة، وتحتفظ العديد من النساء بهذا الدليل لبقية عمرهن، بل يتم عرض هذا الدليل في طقوس احتفالية على الجماهير المهتمة حتما  بهذا الحدث.

وحيث أن الرجال لا يملكون غشاء بكارة فهم لا يتعرضون لكشوف عذرية، غير أن ثقافتنا دائما ما تكيل بمكيالين وأصبحت المعايير المزدوجة هي السائدة، فالرجل الذي لديه علاقات نسائية يتفاخر بها والعائلة تضحك (الولد كبر) أما الفتاة فتنصح منذ سن مبكر بالحفاظ على ساقيها مضمومتين عند الجلوس كرمز على العفة والشرف.

ونحن هنا لا ننادي أن تتخلص النساء بغشاء بكارتهن خارج إطار الزواج (وهي حرية شخصية على أي حال) ولكن أين المساواة؟  ماذا يحدث عندما لا تنزف الفتاة في ليلة دخلتها بالرغم أن ذلك قد يكون عائدا لأسباب بيولوجية ترتبط بطبيعة غشائها؟ كم فتاة فقدت حياتها بسبب ذلك؟ هل هناك اختبار عذرية للرجال؟ لو اعترفت فتاة لزوجها بقيامها بعلاقة قبل الزواج هل يثق بها بعد ذلك؟ وماذا لو حدث العكس؟

استخدم الجيش هذه المنظومة المختلة للقيم لكسر عزيمة وكرامة المتظاهرات بل وكان العذر أقبح من ذنب (حتى لا تدعي الفتيات أنه تم اغتصابهن). ألا يدرك من قام بهذا الانتهاك أن ما حدث لهن على أيدي أطباء رجال وعلى مرأى للجنود نوع من الاغتصاب في حد ذاته؟ ولماذا يسمحوا لأنفسهم بإصدار الحكم على أشخاص بحسب عذريتهن؟ وهل هذا يدل أن المتظاهرات المشاركات في الثورة كلهن منحرفات أخلاقيا؟

على أية حال فإن هذه ليست أول مرة تقوم السلطات بفحص الأشخاص للاستدلال على سلوكهم الجنسي والذي هو من أدق الأمور وأكثرها حساسية؟ ذكرتنا كشوف العذرية بالفحوص الشرجية التي تم عملها للرجال الذين تم القبض عليهم في كوين بوت تلك القضية الشهيرة التي أثارت الرأي العام في 2001 وعرفت بقضية الشذوذ الجنسي. لماذا تسمح الدولة لنفسها بالتدخل في تلك الخصوصيات؟ ألا تدرك أنه ليس دور الدولة التدخل في كيف يستخدم الأفراد أجسادهم؟ 

لماذا تستمر تلك الرؤية الضيقة للشرف؟ فالشرف هو الصدق والوضوح والأمانة والإخلاص وغيرها من الصفات ولكن مجتمعنا يحرض على الكذب والتدليس والنفاق والمعايير المزدوجة. مجتمعنا يحكم على الآخر بدون الاكتراث لمعرفة الدوافع والأسباب. مجتمعنا لا يقبل الآخر كما هو ويصر أن نكون كلنا نسخ متشابهة عديمة التنوع والتمايز. 

لقد حان أوان ثورة الفكر.

May 28, 2011

Sexually Harassing Egypt's Revolution

Why is sexual harassment denialism so strong in Egypt? Is it not the right time to discuss it because we are having an unprecedented peaceful revolution? Or the patriarchy runs so deep to the point we ignore horrible incidents of mass sexual harassment?

During the revolution days, everyone was talking about how Tahrir Square was free from any sexual harassment. I wondered how anyone could really verify such a statement! We have rampant sexual harassment issues yes, but we still have the culture of silence and shame around it. How many girls and women would actually go and report sexual harassment?

During one of the famous 18 nights of Tahrir sit-in before toppling Mubarak, I was there with a friend of mine who told me she got groped by a guy selling balloons, we chased him and took him to the public committees’ guys that were organizing the flow into the square and they kicked him out of the square.

I don’t mean to say that Tahrir was full of sexual harassment and truly Tahrir witnessed a great state of harmony and positive interaction during those 18 days. I am thinking that denying the sexual harassment during those days may be because we are a conservative culture after all and we’re trying to prove that the mixing of men and women in Tahrir days and nights was innocent and “patriotic”.

Yesterday was an important day for the revolution. Protesters took Tahrir square again to assert revolution’s demands. Islamists groups decided not to participate yesterday so it was a test for liberal and secular groups to organize in the streets. It was considered a success given the thousands that showed up, but it was marred by a horrible incident of sexual harassment of the famous diva Sherihan.


Sherihan was an actress and performer loved by Egyptians particularly during the 80s and 90s. She suffered a severe car accident in mid-90s and it was rumored that it was a chapter of love and power saga that involved Alaa the elder son of Mubarak. She magically recovered and came back to the stage, only to suffer cancer a few years later and move away from the artistic scene. Sherihan was one of the few artists who participated in the revolution unlike many artists who withdrew from making a political stance.

My mother told me that this sad video was screened on TV that shows the horrible incident. The setting around her doesn’t look like Tahrir, some reported that this happened as she was leaving Tahrir yesterday.

What really angers me is the lack of attention such incident got and some of the horrible comments of victim-blame that I always hear when sexual harassment is brought up. Some wonder why she went out of her home! It makes me wonder how deep the denialism about gender inequality is in our country. Even activists refrain from mentioning the incident. Is it because they didn’t know? Or is it an attempt to maintain the silver-lining of the revolution? Is not really important to talk about now? Or is it deep-hidden patriarchy?

But the answer won’t be simple and many factors come at play here. What if this happened to one of the famous activists of the revolution? Does the revolution have an authoritarian system that controls who is important and who’s not? What if the victim of mass harassment was an unknown person? Would it get reported at all?

Lara Logan 
When Lara Logan was sexually assaulted in Tahrir right after Mubarak was toppled, Western media was all over covering her story. Western coverage was very uneven as well with some victim blaming and Islam bashing too. But Egyptian media failed to report on it. Is it because we deny sexual harassment? Is it because she’s a foreigner? Or we were simply overjoyed by Mubarak’s departure?

In gender battles, other factors interfere such as race, age, class, and power. I think we really need to think about these questions and recognize our prejudices. This is how we push the revolution forward.

May 23, 2011

Dear SCAF, man up and handle some criticism!

When I first heard about the call to dedicate a day to blog criticizing the violations and the abuses by Supreme Council of Armed Forces, I didn't really think it would pay off. The day has kicked off and so far 160+ posts have been written. This has both inspired me to write and confused about what more I can add to what they have already said.

The SCAF claims to have sided with the people from the very beginning of the revolution. I wonder if that claim can really be validated when we look at the current context. The SCAF has controlled the media; tortured and detained people; militarily tried civilians; let thugs terrorize innocent citizens; witnessed sectarian violence rise without really doing anything about it; and the list goes on and on. This either shows that the SCAF never sided with people, or is really clueless about how to handle our country. Maybe the SCAF found itself in a situation that has to be controlled and so they wanted to minimize the damage going on for their interests so they decided to take power and start a poorly-enacted play!

So far the SCAF has shown little tolerance to criticism and some activists have been tried with a very interesting charge, namely defaming the army!

However, this can be somehow seen in positive light. I remember the day when we were never able to criticize the army or even talk about it. The army's taking over has made its performance an easy target for criticism and appraisal, a precedent in the last few decades. Only Maikel Nabil took the lead in breaking that taboo during Mubarak's rule and started his struggle against militarism and compulsory recruitment of Egyptians into the army. Maikel is paying the price for sharing his opinion about the army and now spending a 3-year sentence in jail. 

I cannot really predict what's going to happen next. However, I can hope for things to get better. As long as the Egyptians are aware of what's going on and still able to criticize their surrounding then what's next is going to be fine. We can do it!

Apr 30, 2011

Opportunistic Islamists and women rights in transitional Egypt

As the revolution managed to throw down Mubarak’s dictatorship, women rights activists find themselves facing yet another threat to the status of women in Egypt. Activists have long been fighting the bureaucracy and the patriarchal culture, now they’re facing a brand new enemy.

Multiple protests have been recently staged in protest of the parents contact law which regulates the rights of divorced parents to see their children. The law allowed women to have custody of their children upon divorce up until the children turn 15 years old then gives the children the right to choose their parent afterwards.

The protests were organized in several places such as The Ministry of Justice, the Azhar, and the Journalists Syndicate with hundreds showing up in protest of this particular law. Several new movements have organized the protests such as “Saving the Family” “Egypt’s Men Revolution” movements and they included hundreds of fathers. The protests also included many Salafis, (members of a hardcore Islamist group).

According to the protesters, the divorced fathers can only see their children for 3 hours a week in a public place and if the mother decline holding the visit, there are no legal punishment for her. The protests called for a chance for the parents to see their children for a longer time and to change the age of mother’s custody to 9 years for girls and 7 years for boys.

The organizers and participants of the protests accused two institutions, namely the National Council for Women and the Ministry of Family and Population of corrupting the social life in Egypt and demanded prosecution of different female figures that were previously responsible for these institutions including Suzan Mubarak.

The dangerous thing is the language used during the protests calling for an Islamic state and full implementation of the Islamic law as they called for scrapping what they called “Suzan Mubarak laws” in referral to women-promoting laws introduced during Mubarak era after years of campaigning from civil society activists, but it’s now carrying the stigma of the old regime. The protesters described these laws as corruptive of family nature, increasing divorce rates, and promoting women’s promiscuity!

In reaction to the protests, the grand mufti of Egypt has announced that this law will be reconsidered according to religious jurisprudence. Also, the Justice Minster’s deputy has also announced that the contact law will be amended so that fathers can host their children up to 48 hours; and banning the travel of children from divorced parents unless both parents consent.

These statements have outraged women rights activists calling these demands for revoking the laws as opportunistic and unfair. They argued that despite the flaws, these laws did their own good and helped promote women’s status in society. It’s also argued that these laws were imposed on the society as a whole as there was no proper legislation process in place during the old regime’s rule. The activists demanded the laws remain in place until the legislative bodies in Egypt restore their function and have a proper process of debate and discussion.

While I was always critical of the way such women rights institutions worked whether in terms of corruption or the way they used to introduce laws without properly addressing the community’s culture and concerns, many of the laws that were introduced under Mubarak’s rule as important and necessary steps towards women and children’s rights. Different rights were granted by these laws, such as facilitating women’s ability to get divorced, to pass on their nationality to their children, to issue birth certificate for their children even if the fathers decline paternity, protection against FGM, rising the age of marriage to 18 years old.

The deeply seated patriarchy in our culture causes many to see some of the rights in negative light and feel they’re corruptive of society. The association between institutions that created these laws, whether governmental or NGOs, to foreign donors enforces the negative image they have in some corners of the society.

It is notable to note that patriarchy here isn’t attributed to Islam as many in the West like to believe. It permeates in all layers of Egyptians, whether Muslim or Christian, however patriarchy usually uses religion as an excuse to perpetuate its values.

These laws and issues affect the society in so many ways. I am hopeful that this critical transition period will not cause any compromise in women’s status. Rightly, this is not the proper time to change any laws as we do not have a parliament yet. I am hopeful that the New Egypt would allow for more discussion and debate and that more moderate voices will join and support promoting the rights of women in Egypt.

Apr 17, 2011

Prophet Mohamed and Child Marriage?

Today, I was in Cairo University participating in a youth event for NGO employment and volunteering opportunities. I was happy to see so many youth interested in the reproductive health awareness initiative we’re doing. We were distributing booklets and flyers about those topics and things were going great and smooth until that guy showed up.

One of the flyers was on child marriage explaining the social and health implications of such practice. I never thought it could provoke people because family planning and HIV were the foremost topics that do. The guy asked me how come I want people to delay marriage until 18 while it is completely natural, and his own sister is married at the age of 12! He went on to say that old people used to marry at this age and no one ever complained, wondering why we want to change “the nature” of the society. He even said he’s engaged to a 15 year old and they are about to marry soon. He said that the practice is common in his hometown (rural lower Egypt) and that they marry without issuing official papers until they turn 18 then they declare it legally.

Away from rural Egypt, I took the discussion to twitter, I was even surprised by another Egyptian living in Canada who found increasing marriage age to 18 was exaggerated and unnecessary. He said that early marriage has no health or psychological implications. He even said that world suffers from many problems because of delayed marriage! It’s scientifically known however that early marriage jeopardizes the health of both mothers and children, causing more risk of abortion and maternal mortality.

Back to the rural person, what made me unable to argue with him was the fact that he used Prophet Mohammed as a justification for early marriage as it is known that he married his wife Aisha at a very young age. That was basically why he believed such awareness efforts were corruptive of “good societies”. He said he saw Prophet Mohamed as a role model for life and that all Muslims should take this view. While I tried to argue that there’s no comparison between that day’s society and ours, etc it evidently seemed useless.

This conversation made me think of culture and how it impacts people. While this person is educated, he still thinks that all those practices are natural and pose no health threat. He places no value to science over what he was raised to. Is it that his perception of health concepts is limited? What about the rights of those girls? Their right to freely choose their husbands, to finish their education, and to happily live their adolescent years. These are all necessary factors to form a woman able to raise healthy children.

Yes, the conditions rural Egyptians live in are different and women carry more responsibilities from an early age which make them mature earlier. The community there sees women’s sole function is to marry and raise children; however I can’t help but see it as a violation of these young girls to develop themselves fully.

I’d like to think that these two guys were an exception, however studies show that 11% of currently female youth in rural areas were married before age 16, and 30% before 18.

There is a law against marriage before age 18 and awareness efforts taking place, but these kinds of attitudes have to be dealt with carefully since they’re deeply embedded in the culture. Religious leads have to play a key role in countering such beliefs and attitudes.

Child marriage is obviously declining in Egypt, there’s more to be done, much more!

Apr 1, 2011

The Shackles of Virginity

Egypt and a lot more Arab countries are now witnessing an unprecedented case of vibrancy and mobilization in what is called the Arab spring. As I said before such state of revolution are not only political, but transcend it to personal barriers as well. It is at times like these when we should reconsider where we stand and where we want to be in the future.

Patriarchy is one of the biggest problems we have and it affects the lives of women and men alike. Women are controlled in different ways. They have limited options; their bodies are under control; which manifests itself in various forms, ranging from dress style to female genital mutilation.

Another way to control women's sexuality is keeping their virginity. An incredibly huge amount of pressure is placed upon women to stay virgin. Society has constructed several methods to make sure that women stay virgins until marriage.

In Egypt, a practice called dukhla baladi used to and still exists in some parts of the country, especially remote rural areas. On the wedding night, the bride and groom are accompanied by members of their family. The bride is usually held down and a woman inserts her finger in the vagina after folding her finger with a piece of cloth to receive the blood that results from the breakage of the hymen. This blood is usually called the blood of honor.

Although this practice is on the wane, other practices exists to ensure the virginity of female on their wedding night. The bride prepares a white piece of cloth, commonly called al-mahrama, is placed beneath her during the first intercourse.. The blood received on the cloth is later displayed to family members of the husband and wife, as a proof of virginity.

What's interesting is that it doesn't only place pressure on women, but also on men. It proves the man was virile enough to do his task. It is not uncommon that men do not perform well on the wedding night due to all the pressure, the lack of experience and sexual education.

Sometimes the girls do not bleed, not because they lost their virginity but because the hymen could be elastic or has pores which allows penetration without significant bleeding. This could cause serious troubles. In many cases the bride is taken to a gynecologist to check on her hymen and if it was "used" before. This test can determine the bride's fate forever. Either her dignity is restored or she's tossed to a life of shame, and in some cases it results in "honor crimes".

I was struck when I talked to family members that this tradition is alive and well, even among upper class and educated people, perhaps more commonly in Upper Egypt, where more conservative gender values exist.

What struck me though is to find origins for such practice in the Jewish tradition. In The Bible, Deuteronomy 22: 13-21 recounts how men should handle whether finding out their wives were virgins or not. It also mentions using a piece of cloth to prove the bride's honor but in this case, it is shown in front of the elders of the town.

What disturbs me most is the extent to which such personal and delicate affair can become the center of attention of the whole family. Such interference undermines the will of the newly married couple and can sabotage their private relationship. I personally believe that these matter should be only handled within the couple themselves.

Society should realize that it is not the hymen that determines honor. Honor is a broader concept that entails honesty, integrity and trust. Women can have sex without losing their hymen. Also, The society must stop the double standards about male and female virginity. While female virginity is a necessity, men are forgiven if they have pre-marital sex.

It is now up to the young generations to revolt against those traditions and choose to have their private sexual life, away from the interference of the old guardians. They should be able to discuss and share their feelings and concerns.

Once again, revolutions are not only political, but also personal!

Mar 18, 2011

Do We Know How to Handle Sexual Harassment?

News came out yesterday about a draft law that has been proposed by the government issuing harsher punishments for those who commit sexual harassment and rape crimes, up to the point of death sentence.

The new law tackles various points: adding telephone and the internet to different media through which harassment can occur; and giving more conditions when rape convicts get harsher punishments such as reconsidering victim's age and cases where the victim has been raped by more than one convicts.

This is a reminder of a similar law which just passed a few days ago for combating thuggery. The news of that law was alarming to me as well as many other human rights activists. The move towards stricter law for thuggery was met with a lot of criticism. Just before this particular law was passed, the military forces cracked down on Tahrir protesters, many were detained and tortured. These protesters were claimed to be thugs which puts us at a dilemma of how to determine who's a thug and who's a protester, especially because we are at a time where military courts (where people do not enjoy their full rights of fair trial) have been handling these cases.

Back to sexual harassment, it is quite obvious there's a problem with the way we're dealing with this issue. The phenomenon which began surfacing rather recently in Egypt is rampant. But is issuing stricter punishments the solution for this multifaceted problem? Here's why I don't think so:

I find the process highly questionable. The ministerial council pushes for more punishments for sexual harassment and the supreme military council is happy to enforce these, because this is the language the military best understands. In normal circumstances the ministerial council can propose draft laws and submit them to the parliament to discuss them further. Either way there need to be more public debate about it.

Photo Credit: Amr Nabil/AP/File

Drafting laws without counseling civil society bodies or human rights experts is pretty concerning. These laws have to be compatible with human rights law, and there need to be clear definition and good consensus on what sexual assault entails.

I am more concerned with how to enforce this law, rather than the punishments themselves. There are big question marks on how to get these cases reported? We have a culture of silence about these crimes. It's hard for people to report them because a huge stigma can be placed upon them. Most women who face sexual harassment or even rape never report it to the police or even to their families because their lives can be devastated.

We have this culture of intimidating criminals by increasing punishments. I don’t really believe it works. To be able to overcome a societal problem, we need to handle its underlying causes. All those handling those crimes need to be sensitized about it and fully aware of its implications. By engaging different people in the process of ending the phenomenon of sexual harassment, real achievement can happen on that front.

Mar 8, 2011

Faggots for Whores? Or What happened to Women March in Tahrir

Although I am still deeply agitated over what happened today at the women march today in Tahrir, I have to give my personal account as a male who went there to support women’s rally for freedom and democracy.

First, since the call for the march on Facebook, we have got a lot of negative comments either being sarcastic of the whole thing or others who want us to postpone it for later. I am really trying to comprehend the “Let’s save it for later” argument. Is it really concern for stability? Or is it internalized patriarchy that sees women issue as trivial?

So we get together in Tahrir, a few hundreds of women and men. We started to distribute flyers mentioning our demands which were:

I know the demands would be controversial and we expected strong debates at the protest, but what happened in reality was much worse than any of us expected. 

The flyer had the following demands:

1. Women's participation in shaping Egypt's constitutional, legal and political future.

2. A new civil constitution that respects citizenship, espouses equality and abolishes discrimination.
3. Amending laws so that it give full equality and rights, including personal status law.
4. Not allowing women's reproductive role to take over her participation in public and private life.
5. Establishing law for criminalization of violence against women inside and outside their home.
6. The constitution must allow women to run for presidency.

We started chanting for women rights. Just as we started chanting a group of couple hundred men started gathering and then started the chant race! They said: The man is a man and the woman is a woman; you are the children of Suzan Mubarak; Go home women!

We tried to chant back singing the national anthem and saying “Men and women are one hand”. They seemed very provoked by our mere existence and their looks were full of sarcasm and ridicule. Apparently the possibility of women running for presidency was beyond their misogynous ego.

The shocking part is that they used Islamic chants against us saying “Women’s voice is a shame”, “why didn’t God send female prophets?” This was quickly followed by rounding us up and pushing against us and ugliness followed. Women and girls were groped, their hair got pulled; dirty harassers hands were all over their bodies. I did my best to protect my friends and we got into physical and verbal fights.

I was called a faggot defending whores. I was told I wasn’t Egyptian for doing this.

So now. Some accuse us of being too controversial. Some accuse us of using the wrong time and place to voice our grievances. Until when would we remain silent? And till when we will be too shy to call for women rights? I am not sorry I called for justice. I am just really appalled but what my friends had to go through. We managed to get our voices heard for once, and it won’t be the last time.

I hope what happened today will shed some light on the unacceptable attitudes towards women. More men need to speak out for women too. This will definitely help our cause.

 The battle is hard. Mubarak’s regime and authoritarianism destroyed people’s sense of diversity. It may take years to actually change attitudes. I think we are up for it though. 

Mar 7, 2011

Egyptian Women Are Coming!

Tomorrow is the International Women Day, but let’s forget international for now and look at what’s happening in Egypt.

Egyptian women have been a crucial part of the revolution, even by helping planning when Asmaa Mahfouz called for protests and spread it through social media. Women fought against the regime alongside men and fell victim to brutality and murder at the hands of police and thugs.

Now women are moving, sobering up and breaking the taboos of patriarchy and organizing a protest in Tahrir for democracy and women rights. The initiative didn’t come from NGOs or any institutions, but was called for by men and women; activists, academics, civil society workers, and others. Jan 25 revolution proves to be breaking more barriers than previously thought.

Women demands range from abandoning FGM and sexual harassment to being able to run for president. Some demands stir controversy more than others though; especially when women call for ending polygamy or equal inheritance! The demands are also political asking for more representation in government and parliament. 

Controversy also comes from different grounds. Sally Zahran whose photo became one of the central images of revolution martyrs and whom I personally saw perform in a beautiful piece called Cairo Complaints Choir, caused a debate when some people asked for avoiding using her photo with her hair uncovered and spread another one of her wearing the veil. Also, people debated whether Sally died in Tahrir or not, and her mother appeared on TV to say that she fell out of balcony after a fight with her family when they ordered her to stay home and avoid protesting. The true story will never surface I guess. 

The fact that all that controversy was focused on the beautiful daring Sally reveals a problem and discomfort with free women like her. Would the same happen if Sally was a guy?

So far the event seems to be stirring debate, mostly among women themselves who are debating whether women are oppressed or not, and whether they should go out to call for their right nor not, and when. This is all healthy and hopefully a step towards the long awaited new Egypt

Feb 22, 2011

Conversation with a nun!

A few days ago I had a conversation with a Coptic Christian nun. We work together and we meet every now and then. This conversation is particularly important for me as I always felt that the polarity is more obvious when it has Muslim-Male on one side and Christian-Female on the other side!

No one can deny that the situation in Egypt sectarian-wise was deteriorating. A year ago a Christian friend of mine said “It’s like everyone is holding a knife behind his back for the others now”. This mistrust wasn’t only among people of different religion. It was a general state of mistrust fueled by the oppression and frustration we were living in Egypt particularly under Mubarak’s rule.

Also, no one can deny that Christians in Egypt were suffering from unequal treatment; they have restriction to build churches and incomplete access to jobs particularly related to academia and the military. However, Muslims also suffered as long as they are not privileged through socioeconomic or political status. Moreover, there are other minorities in Egypt whose voices were unheard. These are the voices of the people who didn’t belong to the three Abarahmic religions recognized by our state (Islam, Christianity & Judaism).
Monastery in Egypt

I met the nun a few times before, but we never approached politics or the situation of Christians. I was glad she opened up thanks go to the Jan25 revolution that liberated people from their state of fear and created a sense of solidarity.

She recounted her experience with the notorious State Security Investigations aka Political Police famous for crushing opposition against the regime, and for torturing and intimidating people. It also made a lot of community and charity work impossible. She was organizing an event to raise awareness of FGM which hosted a group of experts including an Islamic scholar to weigh in and show the Islamic stance against FGM. They forced her to go the police station at midnight so they can investigate about the event. In order to force her to come, they arrest a priest who works with her. It was more of an ordeal for her because she just underwent foot surgery.

We discussed constitutional article 2 (which says that Islam is the religion of the state) and expressed how it makes them feel as 2nd class citizens; we also talked about how ridiculous it is to have ID cards which mentions religion of the holder.  

What was interesting to me is that she totally believed that the government was responsible for fueling those sectarian clashes to perpetuate the regime’s stay in power, and to divert people from the political corruption going on.

 It was refreshing we agreed on most things. I felt relieved that we opened up about Christian fears and concerns. I usually felt a degree of tension in our previous dealings. I do hope that the Egyptian solidarity continues to grow.

The solution to sectarianism in Egypt begins with truly acknowledging the problem and working diligently on guaranteeing religious freedom for all.