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!

“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.

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.

Lebanon: caught between a rock and a hard place since 1967

Here’s my latest article for Fair Observer: a context piece on the complexities of Lebanon’s modern history from independence to present day. From the Israel-Palestine conflict to Syria’s civil war, Lebanon has found itself embroiled in politico-religious tensions between other Middle Eastern nations for decades.

A background summary of Lebanese domestic and foreign affairs since the end of French colonial rule.

Background

Lebanon has been the battleground for some of the Middle East’s most bitter conflicts. Yet, it has also enjoyed periods of prosperity. Over the past four decades, animosity between the country’s Christian and Muslim populations and influxes of Palestinian refugees has embroiled the country in major internal and external clashes involving Israel, Palestine, and Syria.

Lebanon declared its independence in 1941 following 21 years under the French mandate. In 1943, an unwritten National Covenant laying out the structure of the state distributed parliamentary seats on a six-to-five ratio in favour of Christians. This distribution was based on a 1932 census, when the country had a Christian majority. No census has since been taken, prompting repeated calls from Lebanese Muslims for a new census to bring proportionate parliamentary representation for the increased Muslim population. In 1989, a Charter of National Reconciliation finally redressed the balance of Christians and Muslims in the National Assembly, abolishing the six-to-five ratio.

The 1967 six-day war marked the onset of major conflict in Lebanon. Although Lebanon played no active role in the war, it became entangled in the conflict after Palestinian fighters began using the country as a base for anti-Israeli attacks.

Violent exchanges between Lebanese Phalangist militia and Palestinian guerrillas in 1975, dragged Lebanon into a protracted civil war. Syrian troops invaded in 1976 to restore peace and curb Palestinian groups, resulting in the killing of thousands of Palestinians.

In response to Palestinian assaults, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1978, but withdrew under UN pressure. However, the assassination of Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to Britain, by a Palestinian splinter group provoked a full-scale invasion in June 1982. The same year saw the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian civilians by the Lebanese Phalangist militia under the watch of Ariel Sharon, Israeli defence minister at the time.

The civil war ended in 1990 after many years of death and destruction.

Why is Lebanon relevant?

Domestic politics appeared promising in 1990, as Omar Karami forged a government of national reconciliation. The Lebanese government has since become increasingly unstable, with consistent power wrangling between a small cluster of politicians, along with religiously and territorially motivated assassinations.

The National Assembly ordered the dissolution of all militias in 1991, although Hezbollah was permitted to remain active and the South Lebanon Army refused to disband.

Israel has remained determined to end the threat from Hezbollah. This has involved the bombing of Hezbollah bases in southern Lebanon and an attack on a UN base that killed over 100 displaced Lebanese civilians sheltering there.

Meanwhile, Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

In February 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a car bombing, provoking anti-Syrian protests and increased demands for the withdrawal of Syrian forces. The assassination led to a protracted trial, first by the UN and later at The Hague, which indicted four Hezbollah members in 2011; Hezbollah claims the trial was manipulated by Israel.

As a result of anti-Syrian sentiment, Syria initiated the withdrawal of soldiers from Lebanon in accordance with a UN resolution in 2005.

Furthermore, the seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah led to the 2006 Lebanon war between the armed militant group and Israel. The war caused over 1,000 deaths, mostly civilians, and major infrastructural damage, displacing thousands. After 34 days of fighting, a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah was put in force on August 14.

Meanwhile, as Hezbollah and pro-government skirmishes in 2008 sparked fears of civil war, parliament elected army chief Michel Suleiman as president, ending protracted political deadlock. Politicians then set to work establishing a national unity government – a task successfully completed by newly elected PM Saad Hariri in 2009.

However, this unity was short-lived; the government collapsed in January 2011 after Hezbollah ministers and their allies resigned. A fresh government, led by PM Najib Mikati, awarded a majority of seats to Hezbollah and its allies.

More recently, the ongoing Syrian conflict spilled over into Lebanon earlier this year as several people have been killed in Tripoli in Sunni-Alawite clashes.

What happened to our revolution? A documentary on women in Egypt

In exactly three weeks, I’ll be travelling to Cairo to film my documentary on life for women in Egypt since the 2011 revolution. I’m nervous, excited, and wholeheartedly committed to producing a unique insight into this critical issue.

From the outset, I sought to produce a piece that was multidimensional and inclusive rather than focusing exclusively on a small cluster of Egyptian women’s rights activists or victims of discrimination. I wanted to feature an assortment of characters who would reflect the genuine diversity of women in Egypt. By using this strategy, I have secured a wide array of interviews with belly dancers, artists, writers, politicians, campaigners, legal professionals, and more. My only concern at this stage is fitting in so many fascinating people in such a short space of time.

Inspiration

Part of my inspiration for this project was Mona Eltahawy’s piece, ‘Why do they hate us?’, published by Foreign Policy. I found the forthright way she articulated her attitudes to be bold and daring, and it led me to seek different perspectives on the topic. I quickly became confident that this issue, though covered by international media, is certainly worthy of more in-depth analysis, as so many voices remain unheard.

This emphasis on untold stories made specifying my target audience easy: Unreported World felt like a perfect fit. Finding out that my application for a summer internship with Unreported World had been successful sealed the deal, as the internship in July will help shape my editing process in August.

Despite the bitter hatred directed at Mubarak’s regime from women during the protests, female representation in parliament has actually seen a drastic drop from 12% to 2% since his fall from power. This is a far cry from the gender equality and fair representation hoped for as women fought alongside men for change in January 2011. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces repealed a parliamentary quota that designated a minimum of 64 seats to women allegedly due to suspicion that it was manipulated under Mubarak to ensure women of his ruling party would be sworn into power. Sadly, the removal of this quota has led women to sit in only 9 out of 508 seats in parliament.

In terms of physical and sexual abuse, in March 2011, Samira Ibrahim brought a case against Dr Ahmed Adel for carrying out so-called “virginity tests” on women protestors. These tests were invasive, degrading procedures which violated women in order to prove that only unclean, promiscuous women camped out with men during the demonstrations. Although a court ruled these tests to be illegal in December 2011, the charges against Dr. Adel were dropped in March 2012 due to several witnesses retracting their statements at the last minute. This occurred in spite of the confession of a senior general that these procedures definitely took place.

These are just two examples of the whole-scale discrimination that faces women in Egypt and is provoking a tidal wave of resentment that is continually gaining momentum. If the new government fails to satisfy increasing demands for gender equality, renewed violent protests could well be on the horizon.

Progress

Virtually everyone I have contacted has offered been supportive, and has responded positively to my relentless pursuit of further contacts; I appreciate it must be a little annoying to be incessantly asked: “do you know anyone else who may be interested in participating in my project? Do you know how I may get in touch with X?”

As interviews began piling up, I realised I faced a new concern: narrowing the focus of my piece. In how much depth should I explore the role of Islam, and the different attitudes of women towards Islam as a liberating or oppressive force in their lives? (Check out this piece on MP Azza al-Garf for a fascinating insight into this debate.) How deeply should I analyse the historical context of women’s rights in Egypt? Should I focus more on women in Egyptian politics or victims of physical and sexual abuse?

Given the contemporaneity of the presidential elections, I’ve decided to place emphasis in my piece on what implications the newly elected government could have for women in Egypt. This does also encompass the issue of physical and sexual abuse, since this problem of systematic misogyny reaches far back into the Mubarak era and is still a political issue, given the fact that it is Egyptian police who have carried out abuse against women protestors since the revolution.

I received some great news a couple of days ago. Deb Bergeron of Rainlake Productions, based in New York, has asked to hire me to film shots for the company’s upcoming documentary on transitioning democracies in the Middle East while I’m in Cairo. Furthermore, I’ll be working with Fair Observer on my documentary, writing articles for the platform to log my experiences and observations.

Every day new developments prompt new observations and responses in blogs, features, and analyses across the web. I’ve offered a small sample of some fantastic links below – do check them out if you have a spare couple of minutes.

I’ll be posting regular updates about the progress of my documentary on this blog, so stay tuned.