One year on.

Events in Egypt are escalating so quickly that I’ve written about five different drafts of this blog post.

Q) As transformations in the country’s turbulent political sphere take centre stage in our global media, which issue has, yet again, been sidelined?

A) The most sickening, horrific abuse of human rights in Egypt: the use of sexual violence against women in Tahrir.

Morsi has been overthrown, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has stepped in to help provide “transitional government”, promising new elections on an as yet unspecified future date. The last time SCAF stepped in after Mubarak’s deposition in 2011, its apparent persistent attempts to cling onto power, along with its defence of horrific violence used against protestors during the revolution, provoked fear and cynicism from the Egyptian people until Morsi was finally handed the baton in June 2012. Morsi’s presidency brought disappointment, disillusionment, and immense frustration with suspected power-grabbing measures and an all-round failure to deliver on the promises of the revolution. With SCAF now holding the reigns once again, I fear that a safe and secure Egypt remains a hazy, distant prospect.

Where are the women of Egypt in all of this? She lies on the ground in Tahrir Square, covered in bruises. She shields her naked body from the clutches of mobs of men. She shivers, she bleeds. She staggers away with the support of brave men and women who fight back against the attackers. Unlike me, she lives not only with the memories, but with the knowledge that this has been done to her in the city she calls home, in the country she loves. This has been done to her because she went to Tahrir and protested for her human rights – utmost among them, the right to walk freely in her city without being raped or sexually harassed.

In the evening of Sunday 30th June, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault reported 46 cases of sexual assault on female protesters. In the four days of protest that followed, a total of at least 91 women were raped. One widely reported case is the rape of a 22-year-old Dutch girl by five men. Having undergone surgery for “severe” injuries sustained in the attack, she has, thankfully, returned home.

Unsurprisingly, her story hits a nerve. She was attacked almost exactly one year after I was, in the same place. I was making a student documentary; she was interning with an Egyptian news agency. We’re both 22. But her experience is more horrific than I can imagine, more damaging in so many ways than my own experience. It pains me to know that she’s just been through that. I’m trying to get in touch with her to give her the opportunity to contact me if she ever wants to.

More painful is the knowledge that while her story, like my story, has been told by news agencies around the world, scores of Egyptian women suffering these attacks see no reporters telling their stories. 

This is not a new phenomenon; Egyptian women have endured decades of systematic sexual violence. A UN Report published in May this year stated that 99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual violence. As regimes in Egypt have changed, sexual violence as a form of torture has not. Egypt endured the targeted tactics of Mubarak-era, government-paid “thugs” on women in public spaces. Egypt watched as women participating in the 2011 revolution, like Mona Eltahawy, were stripped and beaten in the streets, then detained and sexually abused. Egypt has been, and continues to be, riddled with men who verbally and physically harass women walking down the street – whether through catcalls, groping, or even gang rape. In 2012, the Ministry of the Interior reported 9,468 cases of harassment, 329 sexual assaults, and 112 cases of rape. The afore-mentioned UN Report found only 19% of women report attacks to the police. Nineteen percent - how many more thousands of cases are missing from the Ministry’s statistics?

And, finally, Egypt is now witnessing more sexual attacks on female protesters than ever before; the UN Report also notes that nearly 50% of women reported increased levels of harassment since the revolution.

One key question in all of this: why? Where does Egypt’s sexual harassment endemic really stem from? Many arguments circle the internet. Some blame Islam, some vaguely blame “Middle Eastern culture”. Click here to read a sharp and insightful critique of oversimplified interpretations of sexual violence in the Middle East.

The roots of Egypt’s sexual harassment endemic stretch deep into the fabric of Egyptian politics, history, and society, and are so tangled that it is difficult to find an easy solution. It stems from behaviours learned from fathers and brothers; historic abuses against women committed by members of authority – those figures children are taught to trust and respect; and from poor education that teaches impressionable young boys to grow into misogynistic young men. I have immense respect for men of Egypt who resist these pervasive cultural influences, and are instead supporting Egyptian women in their fight. All of this only scratches the surface of the roots and reasons for sexual harassment in Egypt.

Surely the key to ending an endless cycle of “like father like son” behaviour towards women is: EDUCATION. How can we educate in the modern world? We’re no longer confined by educational institutions or family influences; thanks to the internet, social media, and mobile technologies, we can learn, share, educate, and support each other on a global scale. This is exactly what groups like Sexual Harassment Action Group, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, Harassmap, the Whistlestop campaign, and so many more, are doing. Men and women are taking grassroots action to inspire people in Egypt and around the world to change life for women in Egypt. From protest marches to male metro patrols, these brave volunteers are often risking their safety to stand up for their sisters.

On a separate note, I am still going to make my documentary. The producer I have been working with is in Cairo now, filming, and I fear for her safety daily. She has taken this documentary down a slightly different route than I envisaged, and as a result, I have decided to push on and create my own, separate, documentary. But one thing I’ve come to appreciate is how much time this is likely to take.

In the past year, I’ve become far more experienced working in factual television, and it’s made me realise how inexperienced I was before and how much I still have to learn. I was a student last year, not a fully-fledged journalist. In order to do justice to this subject, and make a real impact, I need to make a quality documentary. Quality demands expertise, and funding. Securing funding and getting the documentary commissioned will require a high level of skill and a killer pitch, which will take time to develop. And, crucially, I can only return to Egypt to make this documentary with far greater security measures in place, and a stronger team so I am not going it alone.

So I am now committed to this project on a longer-term basis. That may sound like a cop-out, but it is not; my attitude is simply that if I’m going to do this, I must get it right.

I, along with so many others, feel global news agencies are failing to provide sufficient coverage on women of Egypt. So the responsibility to voice these women’s stories has fallen to volunteers running charitable groups. Please support these groups - links provided above - and search for more. And stay tuned as I develop the documentary, in which my aim is to actually help change the situation, not just to comment on it.

We live in a world where billions of women are subjugated through rape and sexual abuse. Women of Egypt cannot enjoy the simple right to walk down the streets and board public transport without facing harassment. Women of Egypt cannot protest without fearing for their lives. How can we claim to be making progress in this world when these most basic of human rights are continually violated?

This battle will be won by persistence and determination over time. The support of men of Egypt is critical. Backward, misogynistic attitudes must be undermined, the roots of sexual harassment and sexual violence ripped from the ground. Men and women of Egypt are already fighting bravely on the frontline; let us form their cavalry.

Street Children, Disability and Prostitution for Survival.

Natasha Smith:

A very well-written but shocking insight into one woman’s unimaginably vulnerable, isolated life, abandoned on the streets of Egypt. Reblogged from http://nellyali.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/street-children-disability-and-prostitution-for-survival/

Originally posted on nellyali:

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It was my third visit to the shelter. There was a happy atmosphere today which I later learnt always accompanied the arrival of a new baby. Shadia had come home with her new born after a C-Section the day before. I asked if I could go in to see her. I had never met Shadia before. I walked into the bedroom that housed 3 bunk beds and 6 single wardrobes, each padlocked. Shadia lay shaking in the middle of the well made bed. I panicked. I had never met someone with Parkinson’s disease before. My ignorance, both of the illness and of street children hadn’t prepared me that a child with parkinson’s could end up here. Shadia also had her left eye gauged out. But Shadia was beautiful.

I was new to my research with street children and still very unprepared for the heart ache that this work brought with…

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New ideas…

This is my first blog post in a ridiculously long time, so I feel quite sheepish in writing it. I’ve been thinking long and hard about how exactly to carry out the pledge I made last summer: to do my bit in the fight against sexual abuse against women, both in Egypt and around the world. Noble intentions, yes – but some serious planning and refinement of those ambitions is needed to really make that happen.

I hugely enjoyed helping Unreported World with the production of their 20-minute documentary, ‘Egypt: Sex, Mobs, and Revolution’ broadcast in November on Channel 4. As for my own documentary, I’m in regular contact with the producer who I’ll be working with, and progress is indeed being made. As I outlined some months ago, getting it funded, commissioned, and fitting it all in around the producer’s incredibly busy schedule will take time. But it will happen!

Anyway, whilst working on new TV projects has given me invaluable experience, I’m itching to do more for womankind. Particularly after being inspired by coverage of a new documentary, “Brave Miss World” – please DO look it up.

I, along with billions of people worldwide, was deeply shaken and disturbed by the horrific Delhi gang-rape case (and the more recent devastating rape and murder of 3 Indian sisters). My instinct was to blog about it. But then I thought…what can I say? What can I possibly write in a blog post that billions of people around the world aren’t already saying? I started to focus more on what I could do.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about what exactly to do. Sexual violence against women is such a truly global phenomenon that it’s difficult to highlight its occurrence in one part of the world without appearing to neglect all those women suffering in the Congo, in Syria, in Pakistan, in America, in France, in the UK…and in every country on Earth.

So, do I make a documentary on every country in the world? Do I gradually work my way through a list of misogynistic global hotspots? And, standing next to the plethora of existing NGOs and charitable organisations designed to fight the sexual abuse of women, what can I bring to the table?

I’ll stop with the (possibly irritating) rhetorical questions now and cut to the chase. As a British young woman, I’ve decided to hit home with this global problem. I want to develop my own documentary that will resonate with young men and women growing up in the UK. I want a UK audience to see that sexual violence and discrimination against women is as relevant at home as it is abroad – just in different ways.

So, my aim is to highlight to a UK audience that sexual abuse is not confined to far-flung countries like India, Syria, or Egypt; nor is it confined to the Jimmy Savile era, the horrors of which are, disgracefully, only now being brought to light; nor is it confined to abuses carried out by priests in the Catholic Church. Sexual abuse plagues the younger generation of Brits in a far quieter, subtler, yet equally deplorable way.

Needless to say, we all know that rape occurs in the UK – it affects nearly 70,000 women every year. But I really don’t think we’re open enough about it. To a degree, I don’t think young men necessarily realise that rape jokes might not count as “banter”, and I don’t think young women necessarily realise that they have a right not to laugh at them without being branded that most unfashionable of things: a “feminist”. I could go on to talk about the widely-discussed controversy over telling women “don’t get raped” rather than telling men not to rape, and the pervasive “blame the victim” culture, but I feel these points have been very widely discussed already on the internet (and I may end up ranting for hours).

I must, though, express my admiration for the Home Office’s anti-rape ad campaign. But what concerns me are the general attitudes of young men and women – towards rape and who is to be held responsible - that necessitate such an ad campaign.

Telling women how they should dress and behave to avoid rape – note Tory MP Richard Graham and Joanna Lumley’s blunderous comments - only serve to further inflame this debate.

To round up, I don’t want to give too much away, and it’s very early days for this project. I’m putting out feelers to see how this documentary could work, so please do get in touch with any feedback or further ideas.

Thanks for reading this delayed and horrendously long post!

Autumn Update

Autumn’s on the horizon and it’s looking all right.

Unreported World was brilliant. Worked with a fantastic, friendly team who integrated me into all the team discussions and welcomed my ideas. I’m itching to give more details of what I got up to while I was there, but that’ll have to wait until the new season is aired in about 6 weeks’ time, I’m afraid! All very hush hush until then.

As for the Egypt documentary, I’m compiling a trailer at the moment from the footage I managed to salvage from my first week in Cairo. I’ll post the trailer on my blog when it’s completed, so stay tuned! The trailer will be used to help pitch the documentary for funding from various organisations. This is going to be a very long-term project, as there’ll be many stages in the development of the documentary. I’m confident it’ll be worth the wait, though! The main thing is that the pre-production process is in motion.

Further updates to follow!

One more step in the fight against sexual harassment in Egypt

I have now completed my article and it will soon be published by Fair Observer, once the editors edit it and the web designers format it to look neat and pretty. Woohoo!

I have also been able to complete my MA unexpectedly in the past 2 weeks. I never imagined I’d be able to complete it this year after my attack forced me to abandon the unfinished documentary. I will admit, I am rather proud of myself.

It was quite a challenge to fit so many moving stories and viewpoints into such a tight word count. I soon came to realise that sexual harassment in Egypt needs much more extensive coverage, which has inspired my decision to create some kind of web resource for women to share their experiences of sexual harassment, and their ideas about tackling the problem. This will also provide me with room to share the stories I have already featured in my article in greater depth. The idea is in its infancy at the moment, but I’ll keep you updated.

It’s deeply satisfying to be connected to the cause of fighting sexual harassment. It’s raised my awareness of the plight of women in so many regions of the world who suffer in different ways every single day simply because they are women, which makes them vulnerable. I feel the plight of women in the Congo (who I will be running 10K for on Sunday), Egypt, India, Honduras and many other regions demands much greater media coverage in order to capture the attention of women in Britain and elsewhere. As cliched as it may sound, I have begun to feel a much deeper bond to womankind – a kind of sisterhood that motivates me to do much more to defend women’s rights globally.

I’ve now got a 10K run on Sunday that I am nowhere near physically fit enough to complete with ease; I anticipate that I’ll be crawling across the finish line. But the cause is so incredibly worthwhile and I’m very glad to be part of it.

Then I’m off to Oxford for my 2-week internship with Unreported World. I cannot wait. It’s going to be a fantastic experience – I’m sure of it. I’m so happy to be interning for a programme that I feel so genuinely enthusiastic and passionate about. I hope I can bring oodles of positive energy to the team without being annoying.

Today is a good day!

New beginnings

Things are starting to look brighter. After a month of recuperation and reorganisation of my plans, I’m feeling more optimistic about taking on new challenges and reaching different goals.

Until this summer, I’d been hurtling through life, always feeling I needed to work harder, be stronger, and push myself to the limit with bigger and bigger challenges. My mind never stopped fretting and stressing about whether I was good enough, clever enough, strong enough; whether I could really make my big ambitions a reality. I was overambitious. I was also cursed with ‘Invincibility of Youth’ syndrome, with symptoms including naivety, impulsiveness, recklessness, carelessness, idealism and underestimating danger and difficulty.

Since the attack, I’ve calmed down. I’ve slowed my mind down. I have a different perspective on life, and am rebuilding my life from the ground up. I live in the present, not the past or the future. I see things much more simply, and am enjoying a level of inner peace that I had never experienced until now. I’m much more content just to be alive. I am becoming a happier, healthier, and better person.

I have a lot to organise. I feel passionately about helping to combat the abuse of women both in Egypt and across the world – including the UK – and am trying to find ways to channel that passion into a workable strategy. This project will take time, and a great deal of planning, and I’m not sure exactly what form it will take. Only time will tell.

In September, I am due to undertake a 2-week placement with Unreported World. Undertaking this placement is a really big step for me, having struggled with symptoms of PTSD. But this is a step in the right direction. I’ll gain an insight into what it really takes to become a documentary filmmaker and to work on professional documentaries, from pre- to post-production. I’m very excited, if a little nervous.

Prior to this, I’ll be participating in the ‘Run for Congo Women’ 10K event organised by Women for Women International, who help Congo women survivors of rape to rebuild their lives. This will be my first fundraising event, and I’m so proud and excited to be taking part. Women and children in the Congo are in desperate need of such support, with thousands of women being raped every week; 2011 statistics showed 48 Congo women were being raped every hour. So again, this is a step in the right direction, a chance for me to do something to support women plagued with sexual violence on a daily basis.

This is only the beginning, but it’s a good start. After watching my world come crashing down 6 weeks ago, I’m now feeling better about what I can achieve if I set my mind to it. I have a new direction, a new sense of purpose, and a commitment to furthering the cause of women’s rights and freedom from violence and discrimination across the world.

As the old saying goes: when life gives you lemons…