Thank you.

I apologise to anyone who felt offended after my boyfriend’s well-intentioned post asking for donations towards my future documentary. I promise it was done with the purest of intentions, even though it may not have appeared that way. I am sorry that it was misinterpreted as an attempt to exploit the situation (and the situation of so many other female sufferers) for financial gain. James was simply responding to multiple suggestions from friends and strangers alike to set up some kind of fundraising scheme. As has been reported, I am a student journalist. I therefore have had minimal funding, no production team, and this is the first documentary I was making in order to complete my postgraduate study. That is why funding is an issue. But I have since removed the post to avoid causing further offence and provoking misinterpretation. I do now believe it was a naive and unprofessional move to allow the donation request to be posted. I do apologise – I am trying to make all the right decisions and respond in the best way to all this, but it is quite difficult.

A huge thank you to every single person who has offered such immense love and support since I submitted my first blog post. I genuinely never imagined it would receive such media attention – I simply hoped to spread some awareness among my social media contacts. In all of my interviews and reports, I have tried to remain honest and emphasise that my intentions are not to profit from this experience, but instead to spread awareness and help to bring positive change for other women affected by sexual harassment in Egypt and elsewhere. I feel it’s no longer really about me; it’s about what good can come out of this.

I understand many of the criticisms that have come my way. I understand that I was naive and, arguably, stupid to have been near Tahrir Square. I take full responsibility for poor judgement in this respect. However I did not simply march into Tahrir Square with a camera held up high; I was so captivated by the atmosphere on the bridge that I just kept walking, and tried to turn around as soon as I released how close to Tahrir Square I actually was. Again, my lack of spatial awareness was my own mistake, as I was not familiar with the area. I had felt so safe on the bridge surrounded by women and children, and I wish I had turned around as my friends and I had originally planned, before we became caught up in the wonderful, celebratory atmosphere.

I understand why many people feel I am foolish to plan to return to Egypt. But I will take a long time to prepare for my next visit, will set up a wide support network to ensure my safety, and will never take the kind of risks I did last Sunday again. Moreover, I feel a sense of duty to bring something good out of all this, and I feel that I am now in a privileged position to produce a documentary that offers a deeper insight and can really make a difference to the situation by spreading greater awareness. I also want to meet with women  in Egypt who have experienced, and continue to experience, horrific sexual abuse, so they can finally make their own voices heard. I do not wish to hog the limelight; I want to  highlight the suffering of many, many other women to a UK (and hopefully even wider) audience.

So thank you to everyone who has offered love and support. And an overwhelming thank you to all those who helped me that night – I probably would not be here without you. You are the true heroes.

Thank you so much to those who offered donations before I removed the post from this blog. I hope to maintain your interest as I move forward and continue with this documentary. God bless you all.

“Please God. Please make it stop.”

I have been forced to leave Cairo prematurely following a horrific sexual and physical attack in Tahrir Square.

The atmosphere was one of jubilation, excitement, and happiness as I walked, accompanied by two male companions for safety along Kasr El Nil bridge. I had had an awful day, caused by problems in personal relationships, so I was so happy to be in such a wonderful environment, getting such amazing footage. Women, children and fathers smiled, waved, and cheered happily at the camera, calling out the widely used phrase “welcome to Egypt! Welcome!”. Fireworks lit up the sky. It was a moving and captivating experience.

Just as I realised I had reached the end of the bridge, I noticed the crowd became thicker, and decided immediately to turn around to avoid Tahrir Square. My friends and I tried to leave. I tried to put my camera back in my rucksack.

But in a split second, everything changed. Men had been groping me for a while, but suddenly, something shifted. I found myself being dragged from my male friend, groped all over, with increasing force and aggression. I screamed. I could see what was happening and I saw that I was powerless to stop it. I couldn’t believe I had got into this situation.

My friend did everything he could to hold onto me. But hundreds of men were dragging me away, kicking and screaming. I was pushed onto a small platform as the crowd surged, where I was hunched over, determined to protect my camera. But it was no use. My camera was snatched from my grasp. My rucksack was torn from my back – it was so crowded that I didn’t even feel it. The mob stumbled off the platform – I twisted my ankle.

Men began to rip off my clothes. I was stripped naked. Their insatiable appetite to hurt me heightened. These men, hundreds of them, had turned from humans to animals.

Hundreds of men pulled my limbs apart and threw me around. They were scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way. So many men. All I could see was leering faces, more and more faces sneering and jeering as I was tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions.

I shouted “salam! Salam! Allah! Allah!”. In my desperate state I also shouted “ma’is salaama!” which actually means “goodbye” – just about the worst possible thing to say to a horde of men trying to ruin me. I might as well have yelled “goodbye cruel world! Down I go!”

A small minority of men, just a couple at first, tried to protect me and guide me to a tent. The tent was crushed, its contents scattered into shards all over the ground. I was barefoot as they stole my nice new shoes. I was tossed around once more, being violated every second. I was dragged naked across the dirty ground. Men pulled my blonde hair.

The men trying to protect me tried to guide me into another tent. I was able to scramble onto the ground.I sat with my back against a chair and surveyed the surging mob. Although a few men tried to form a human shield around me, offering me rags to cover my bruised body, men were still able to touch me. There were just too many.

I felt surprisingly calm. I understood what was happening and just transcended into a detached state of mind. I gazed around at the bared teeth and raging eyes. The tent began to collapse and I was cloaked in a huge sheet. I was struggling to breathe. One man lifted a tent pole and attempted to strike me with it.

At this point, I said aloud to myself, calmly, over and over, “please God. Please make it stop. Please God. Please make it stop.”

I’m not religious. But at times of desperation, we all feel compelled to appeal to some higher power to save us. It’s human nature. The need to feel safe and loved is what compels many to reach for religion in the first place.

An ambulance forced its way through the crowd. It opened its doors, and was invaded by tens of men. It closed up and drove away.

I began to think, “maybe this is just it. Maybe this is how I go, how I die. I’ve had a good life. Whether I live or die, this will all be over soon. Maybe this is my punishment for some of the emotional pain I’ve caused others through some foolish mistakes and poor judgement recently. I hope it’s quick. I hope I die before they rape me.”

I looked up and saw a couple of women in burkas scattered around. They looked at me blankly, then looked away.

After 5-10 minutes, my friend managed to convince people inside a medical tent to form a pathway through the crowd to guide me into the tent. During transit I was mauled and invaded.

I reached the tent and saw my friend Callum. Muslim women surrounded me and frantically tried to cover my naked body. I fell to the ground and apparently temporarily lost consciousness.

The women told me the attack was motivated by rumours spread by trouble-making thugs that I was a foreign spy, following a national advertising campaign warning of the dangers of foreigners. But if that was the cause, it was only really used as a pretext, an excuse.

The men outside remained thirsty for blood; their prey had been cruelly snatched from their grasp. They peered in, so I had to duck down and hide. They attempted to attack the tent, and those inside began making a barricade out of chairs. They wanted my blood.

Women were crying and telling me “this is not Egypt! This is not Islam! Please, please do not think this is what Egypt is!” I reassured her that I knew that was the case, that I loved Egypt and its culture and people, and the innate peacefulness of moderate Islam. She appeared stunned. But I’m not really a vengeful person and I could see through the situation. This vicious act was not representative of the place I had come to know and love.

After much heated debate, it was decided that Callum and I would leave separately to avoid attracting attention. I was disguised in a burka and men’s clothes and ordered to hold the hand of an Egyptian stranger who would pretend to be my husband. I was terrified but I could see it was the only way out, and had to decide to trust him.

He pulled me through the crowds out of the back of the tent. He told me: “don’t cry. Do not cry. Look normal.”

I was barefoot, dodging broken glass and debris, trawling through mud and dirt. My inner reserves of strength kicked in, and I stopped crying and just thought “keep calm and carry on.”

My trousers had clearly belonged to someone much fatter, and were falling down.

I thought I was being led to an ambulance, or to hospital. The man sat me down by the side of the road, still ordering me not to cry. Eventually, his friends turned up, with Callum. They explained that they couldn’t take us to hospital since they might be arrested if they were seen with us.

One man helpfully suggested: “you want to go to McDonalds? Get some food?” I declined this generous offer of culinary compensation for the evening’s events. Surprisingly, I wasn’t really in the mood for a Big Mac.

Callum and I went on our way. We eventually hailed a taxi. Upon reaching a government hospital downtown, we tried to explain the situation. People stared at us blankly, sloping around the corridors. We were turned away and told to go to a nearby hospital instead. Nobody would take us; we just had to walk there.

Upon arrival, I was eventually ushered into a small cubicle. Two men asked “are you pregnant? Married? A virgin?” They seemed displeased by my response of “no”.

They led me back outside to sit with Callum. I was refused examination and treatment. Eventually I decided I’d just have to check for damage myself. I went to the bathroom and couldn’t believe the reflection. I was dirty, wounded, with hair like a tramp and eyes wide with shock.

For 2-3 hours, people strolled past us, a couple of them making vague attempts at phonecalls to the embassy. At every stage, Callum did everything in his power to speed up the process and talk sense into everyone. It was thanks to him that the people in the medical tent saved me. He effectively saved my life.

Somehow, we ended up with the embassy thinking we were at the police station, the hospital staff not realising we were still at the hospital, and the police thinking we were…god knows where.

I was sat in a room full of men. One of them seemed to be taking a photo of me. I’m not sure why, as I wasn’t exactly looking glamorous. It all made my heart race.

It was Callum’s phonecalls (he had to use other people’s phones as both of ours had been stolen) that bore fruit. Finally our friends turned up with a lady from the embassy. I was taken to a private hospital where a doctor’s first question was “are you married?”, which is of course the most important question to be asking a victim of mass sexual abuse.

He and a female nurse (who only reluctantly kept me covered up) looked briefly at the damage and just wandered off, saying that because I didn’t have internal bleeding, they couldn’t do anything. A useful trip, that was.

Finally, I was taken home by my friends, and put to bed. I didn’t want to tell my family right away, as I knew it would destroy them.

Yesterday, I had a proper examination and darted around sorting things out, spending an eternity giving a police report. People with me were reduced to tears, but I didn’t real feel like crying. People kept telling me “you’re being so brave”, but I just felt like getting on with it. Maybe it’ll catch up with me in a few days, I don’t know.

A few things yesterday made me realise the impact this has had on me. During the examination, which was carried out by a woman, I was crying and shaking. To have someone touch me so soon after the event was terrifying.

Later, I couldn’t bear to be around groups of Egyptian men. And when it got dark, I panicked, and couldn’t bear to look any man in the eye. I clung to Callum all day. As we drove around Cairo, I couldn’t help but think “of all the people we’ve driven past today, one of them must have been in that crowd of hundreds last night. Just one.”

I am determined to continue with my documentary at some point. I have no equipment, (not even any of my photos) am nervous about the possibility of not getting my insurance to cover all the equipment and everything taken from me, and no money to resume the process. But I’ll get there. I have to find a silver lining to this experience. I have to spread awareness; it is my duty to do so. I have to do this; I will not be driven into submission. I will overcome this and come back stronger and wiser. My documentary will be fuelled by my passion to help make people aware of just how serious this issue is, and that it’s not just a passing news story that briefly gets people’s attention then is forgotten. This is a consistent trend and it has to stop. Arab women, western women – there are so many sufferers.

I am determined to return to this wonderful country and city that I love, and meet its people once again. I am determined to challenge the stereotypes and preconceptions that people have of Arab women back in the UK and the US. I have so much to say, and I will say it, in time.

So, to anyone taking risks, whether in the UK or worldwide, please, take care, and don’t make the same mistakes. Don’t be swept up in a wave of euphoria. Don’t let anything cloud your judgement. I was not focused enough because I was distracted by the wonderful atmosphere which was cheering me up after a difficult day.

But don’t let yourself become a victim. Don’t let bad experiences ruin your life and determine your future. One of the worst things two nights ago was that I had never felt so powerless. I had no control and I was violated. But now I can take control and rebuild my confidence, and learn from my experience.

Nothing, and nobody, will hold me back. When I’m ready, I’ll finish this. The show must go on.

Thank you very much for reading.

Refugee Week

My latest Fair Observer article: an insight into the plight of victims of war as refugee week commences on June 18.

Background

The United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) defines Palestinian refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, [and] who lost their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” including both Arabs and Jews. Combined, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and Israel’s invasion and occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the 1967 six-day-war prompted over 1 million Palestinian refugees to flee to neighbouring states.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) have since offered aid both to displaced Palestinians and their descendants. As of 2012, there are an estimated 5 million registered Palestinian refugees, many of whom struggle as second-class citizens in Arab states.

Following its liberation from a seven-month Iraqi occupation in March 1991, Kuwait expelled 450,000 Palestinian Arabs. The expulsion was in retaliation to the decision of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to align himself with Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait in August 1990. These refugees sought shelter in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and other Gulf states. The majority have not returned to Kuwait and have struggled to settle elsewhere.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq triggered widespread outbreaks of violence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 4.7 million Iraqis have since been displaced or have fled to Jordan, Syria and other Middle Eastern states to escape continued bloodshed. The volatile security situation prevents millions of expatriates and those internally displaced from returning home.

The Rwandan Civil War of 1990-1993 reflected decades of ethnic tension between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. After government-backed militias carried out the genocide of the Tutsi population in 1994, Tutsi rebels fought back and defeated the Hutu regime. This drove around two million Hutu refugees to flee to neighbouring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Congo in what is commonly known as the Great Lakes Refugee Crisis.

The international community responded with one of the largest ever humanitarian relief efforts. However, when Hutu troops infiltrated and militarised the camps to attack the Tutsi-led Rwandan Popular Front government, many aid organisations withdrew their support.

The Rwandan government continues to push for a UN-backed programme to repatriate Rwandan refugees.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo became embroiled in the Tutsi-Hutu conflict after thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees escaped to Congo following the genocide, allied themselves with Mobutu’s government, and began attacking Congo’s Tutsi population. Rwandan-sponsored Tutsi rebels then instigated attacks against the Congolese government and the Hutu population in the east. Recent reports indicate that several thousand Congolese refugees have crossed over to Rwanda and Uganda in the past two months alone to escape sustained conflict.

Why is Refugee Week Relevant?

Refugee Week is an annual celebration of the continued cultural, academic, and artistic contributions of refugees to the United Kingdom. It was established in 1998 to counter increasing hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers in Britain. Though a national event, the integration and treatment of refugees is of international relevance.

The 2011 Libyan civil war drove approximately 750,000 thousand refugees to Chad, Egypt, Tunisia, and Mediterranean countries – often to a hostile reception. Many have since returned willingly to Libya, despite continuing violence.

The ongoing conflict in Syria, meanwhile, drives tens of thousands of civilians each month into refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The International Committee of the Red Cross warns that 1.5 million displaced Syrians are still in desperate need of extensive humanitarian aid as thousands more stream across the border.

The commonality of the hostile reception received by refugees in host countries highlights the global need for greater understanding of the mutual benefits – cultural and economic – that integrating refugees can have for host countries.

A warm welcome to Egypt, even in difficult times

I have been in Egypt for only 2 and a half days, and I have already been embraced with open arms. Despite the frustration and anguish of Egyptian people – particularly since the most recent news that the SCAF is basically undermining a democratic outcome of the elections by wrenching legislative and military control – I have found nothing but kindness, warmth, and hospitality from all Egyptians I have met.

Times are tough here in Cairo. Many people are tired, hungry, and struggling to get by in a fractured infrastructure. Tourism has plummetted and people are divided over Morsi vs Shafiq. Yet everywhere – in the streets, on the crazy roads and motorways, Egyptians smile at strangers, reach out to help each other at every opportunity, and laugh together.

Everywhere I look as I step outside and ride around in taxis, there is something incredible to see. I find myself snap-happy with my camera, desperately trying to capture the weird and wonderful atmosphere of the place as I pass by. I’ll upload some of my photos as soon as possible.

I’m also so frustrated that I’m unable to film any protest sites, or anywhere where security forces are present, to document what is happening. I passed by an endless row of military tanks last night that I could never have filmed amid rumours of ‘foreign spies’ disrupting the peace and fomenting revolution. It’s really stifling my journalistic appetite!

What continues to amaze me, though, as I’ve expressed, is that the people of Cairo remain unified despite adversity. It’s been such a long battle, yet the Egyptian spirit is strong and not vengeful.

I really hope I can continue with all the filming I have arranged and that the tensions will not make this impossible; I’m so attached to this documentary and to challenging many Western stereotypes of women in the Arab world. I can’t wait to meet so many different types of women (and men) and gaining so many different insights into life for women in Egypt.

Cairo calling…

After months of planning, the day is finally here. This afternoon, I will start my journey to Cairo to film my documentary on what the future holds for women of Egypt. It feels very surreal; I’m nervous, daunted but so very excited about embarking upon my first documentary. I’m also really looking forward to working with Rainlake Productions to get footage for their documentary on women’s roles in transitioning democracies across the Middle East.

This is a real adventure, a unique experience that I’m sure will be full of surprises and mishaps. But I feel ready to face the challenges that await me in Egypt, and I will remain vigilant in terms of my personal safety and security at this time of great uncertainty in the region.

I feel so passionate about the story behind my documentary. I want to help bring women of Egypt back into the media spotlight, to hear their stories and predictions, and to help to make their voices heard. I can’t wait to meet the variety of individuals I have scheduled interviews with, including belly dancers, singers, writers, a human rights lawyer, a female business leader, the founder of a major Egyptian women’s magazine, activists, and even the former female presidential candidate Bothaina Kamel. It’s going to be fascinating to hear such diverse perspectives.

I hope to post regular updates here throughout my stay in Cairo, so stay tuned.

Wish me luck!

Forever sidelined?

Tensions in Egypt are reaching boiling point. Egyptians are understandably outraged by the verdict in the trial of Mubarak and his government associates, which has absolved members of his government of blame over the killing of around 850 protestors. Although Mubarak has been sentenced to life imprisonment, many Egyptians feel he should have been given a death sentence.

This takes place against the backdrop of continuing civil unrest over the election results. Many Egyptians feel cheated, as they are now forced to choose the lesser of two apparent evils: either take the risk of returning to Mubarak-style government under former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, or gamble on theocracy from the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Mursi. By the time I arrive on June 15, I anticipate widespread protest (which is more than likely to turn violent) and a very tense atmosphere as the election run-off takes place on June 16-17.

Mursi has assured that, if he is elected president, the MB will retry Mubarak and his associates – a potential vote-winner that may distract people from apprehensions over the possibility of repressive theocracy under an Islamist government. Moreover, incentives for those Egyptians seeking change to vote for Shafiq are rapidly dwindling as he maintains his support for the Mubarak verdict and dismisses calls for his removal from the race on grounds of his ties to the old regime.

The battle for justice and for a political settlement that satisfies all Egyptian citizens is unifying men and women of various ages in protest. However, as noble as this defiance may appear, it concerns me that the social, cultural, personal and political rights of women in Egypt are once again being sidelined as the above controversies take centre stage.

Questions like ‘will there be more women in parliament under a MB government?’ and ‘will the MB condone or even support a resurgence of female genital mutilation if they come into power?’ are no longer attracting the same amount of attention now that more pressing questions, such as ‘how serious will Egypt’s civil unrest get?’ and ‘will young revolutionaries boycott the elections?’ take priority. This is understandable. Yet women are central to every political development taking place. As Mariz Tadros notes: “the political battles over who reigns over Egypt are not only being fought over presidential and parliamentarian seats, but also over who can claim more control over a woman’s body.”

I fear recent history looks set to repeat itself:

1) Egyptian women will protest alongside Egyptian men.

2) When the heat dies down, men will wrench control away from women, turning their hopes for equality to dust.

Despite feeling nervous about embarking on my documentary, as events unfold, I become evermore confident that I am taking part in something critical to Egypt’s future: the fight for gender equality after decades of discrimination and various forms of abuse, and the battle to make women’s voices heard as the struggles between men take centre stage. Moving commentaries like this one from Lorna, a belly dancer who will feature in my documentary, on the situation for Egyptian women from different social classes fuel my determination to do justice to this very pressing issue.