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.

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/

nellyali

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…

View original post 1,011 more words

Is this Egypt?

Here’s a link to my published article on the sexual harassment of women in Egypt.

Thank you so much to everyone who shared their stories with me. This really is only the beginning!

🙂

http://www.fairobserver.com/article/natasha-smith-is-this-egypt

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!

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.