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!

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.

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!

What happened to our revolution? Women in Egypt

With flights booked and interviews provisionally arranged, it’s on. I’m going to Cairo.

I’ll be taking risks and digging around for answers to the questions women in Egypt are asking: after fighting alongside men of Egypt in the revolution of 2011, how come women are now being left in the cold? How can anyone justify the discrimination against women – particularly female protestors – and their freedoms seen most recently in the Abbaseya protests? Why is sexual assault of women by police going unpunished?

The well-documented “virginity tests” carried out by police against female protestors last year have received widespread media coverage and have been condemned by women’s rights groups. Yet in March the military court passed a sentence clearing Ahmed Adel, a doctor of charges of carrying out virginity tests on women activists, indicating that violations of women’s human rights are remaining unpunished in the region.

More recently, the National Egyptian Women’s Council has come under intense criticism for its decision not to support female protestors detained after anti-military demonstrations last week. 11 activists and one soldier were killed in clashes between anti-military protestors and soldiers outside the defence ministry in Cairo, with hundreds more injured. Among those detained were numerous women, who allegedly suffered abuse at the hands of police during their incarceration. The Council’s announcement that it would not support the women provoked widespread condemnation of a body many women feel to be unrepresentative of their concerns and well-being.

With presidential elections rapidly approaching, military authorities remain apprehensive of the potential for further violence as citizens express their rejection of martial law. Following last week’s conflict, a city-wide curfew was enforced, resulting in a relative lull of tension. Yet with the prominence of Islam in politics looking set to increase in the upcoming elections, women’s fight to secure civil rights and live free from gender-based discrimination could soon escalate. Misogynist attitudes severely limit the chances of Bothaina Kamel, Egypt’s first female presidential candidate, securing the public vote, and from other female MPs from gaining fair representation for women in Egypt’s political future.

In my documentary, I will investigate these pressing concerns as extensively as possible. I’m under no illusions about some of the risks this will involve, and I’ll take necessary caution to stay safe and avoid angering the authorities. I’m nervous, daunted, and so excited. Everyday I’m securing more and more interviews with such a diverse range of men and women with different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences with gender-based discrimination. So far, these include feminists, bloggers, belly dancers, academics and more. I’m even having good fortune in finding men to interview, which I thought I’d be hard-pressed to achieve! I’ll keep a record on this blog of all the developments. Watch this space.

Sri Lanka

After meaning to watch it for almost 9 months, I’ve finally watched Channel 4’s shocking investigative documentary: Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.

I’ll be honest: my understanding of the conflict in Sri Lanka – and of the country as a whole, for that matter – was very limited beforehand. So I won’t pretend to be an expert after watching one documentary and doing a little speed-reading.

Watching it did, however, bring me to ask some very uncomfortable questions. How has the international community let this one slide? How did it allow tens of thousands of civilians to be caught up in a conflict not their own in the first place? How, and why? Why, why, why?

I’m not a cynic by nature. In fact, I’ve recognised for a while now that in many ways, I’m really quite naive about the world. I grew up with a vague idea that at the end of the day, there were enough good people in power to counterbalance all the bad ones, and make sure things turned out all right in the end. But gradually, I grew up. And I continue to grow up. And that process has involved recognising that most things in life come in shades of grey.

Simplicity is golden. It is a luxury, it can be elusive. Simplicity can be misleading. Crude simplifications of complex situations can justify extreme behaviour, if one side represents right, and the other, wrong. Simplicity breeds ignorance: a polarised view of the world.

Yet without simplification – a clear idea of right, wrong, good, bad – everything blurs and runs. Order becomes chaos, courage and conviction dissolve, morals seem pointless, and people lose hope. Alliances are formed and battles fought around the simple principle of good versus bad, despite the fact that there is always a history to any battle of alliance which tells a much hazier, more convoluted, story.

Now, all this is nothing new. But it’s a trail of philosophical thought that taps into everything we think, and everything we do. It’s easy to simplify, and it’s awkward to empathise. It’s harder still to draw the line between simplifying and oversimplifying, to know when to pass definitive judgement and when to empathise. I have always kept my convictions quite fluid, purely because the more that I learn, the more slippery those convictions become in my hands. History teaches so many sides to so many stories. Yet we also see simple cycles repeating themselves over and over.

The idea of simplicity is a fascinating paradox. We base our lives (and our religions) around simple principles, without which we’d be lost. That’s one of the reasons atheism is scary: it centres around the idea that there is a vast unknown that cannot and may never be explained. That there’s no point to life, beyond the little goals and milestones we set up in our own universes. But this is also quite liberating, isn’t it? That there are no real limits, and that we were all just lucky enough to evolve and survive? It’s scary, and brilliant. Just like life is simple, but complicated. Full of paradoxes.

…Anyway, that’s quite enough from me.