Fighting for Women's Rights in Egypt: An Interview w/ Gihan Abouzeid
Gihan Abouzeid is an Egyptian human and women's rights activist. In addition to two books, she has written for several newspapers and scholarly journals. Abouzeid is also a member of Ana El Hekaya, a Cairo-based feminist theater group that tells the stories of everyday Egyptians during the 2011 Revolution. She was active in the uprising herself and continues to contribute to Egypt’s social movements. Abouzeid is currently editing a book of women's experiences during the 2011 revolution, which should be completed later this year.
David Zlutnick interviewed Abouzeid while she was recently in the Bay Area, and the two discussed the latest events in Egypt, challenges for social movements following the 2011 revolution, and in particular concerns over women’s rights and efforts to promote and empower women in Egypt. The above is an edited selection from the conversation. What follows is an edited transcript of the full interview.
Berkeley, CA. June 21, 2012—
DZ: Could you start out by talking about your personal experience during the uprising last year? What was that like to have things change so radically in such a short period of time?
GA: I think I was just like one of many Egyptians who got very emotional by the big events. We were able to say “no” for the first time in our lives, and against the big head—against Mubarak himself, against the president, against the regime. So that moment was very exceptional for everyone, and particularly for activists and for people who were already working or had any interest in change in general. So I just was one of those people so I went to [Tahrir] Square. I was actually playing two roles; I was observing and watching people, watching what’s going on around me, and who’s there, and gender issues, and ages, and different social classes. So I was there as almost a researcher, and at the same time I was also there as an Egyptian, as a citizen. I think I spent a few days at the beginning—I couldn’t believe at the beginning, “I’m here in the square, I’m talking loudly. We’re saying ‘no’ to Mubarak. We are asking him to leave.” Particularly the first day, it was like a dream.
And I kept asking people, “Why are you here?” I kept asking people as if I’d like to hear my voice through other people. And everyone said, “It’s enough. Enough!” So the word “enough” was very important there… And what pleased me was to find a lot of women there. I thought I would meet just middle-class, educated women, but I met all the classes you can imagine—illiterate women, poor women, women from small villages. So I mean everyone who was there had an issue and a reason why they were at Tahrir Square.
Before we started you mentioned that you saw people change personally during the eighteen-day uprising. Do you have any examples of people you know or met who had a real fundamental transformation during that time?
I saw, of course, a very radical change, for example, on the relations between Muslims and Christians. They were very close to each other, they were very supportive. The usual fighting, we didn’t see it all. And after awhile—in Islam, you know, the very important Friday prayer, for every Friday prayer when we were at Tahrir Square, we saw many Christian guys and girls hold each other’s hands and stand up around the Muslim men who were praying there just to protect them and to keep the space just for them. So it was a very important picture.
Another point, another observation I saw, [was] the relations between men and women. I think you might have read that we didn’t see any [sexual] harassment at that time in the square. We didn’t hear—didn’t see any insults, any bad words. But also—most importantly—the division of labor there. Usually the division of labor is very traditional. So, for example, some people were taking care of the cleaning of the square. No one asked women to clean the square. Actually most of the people who cleaned the square were youth, were men. So me personally, of course I was very happy to see that. I took many pictures of them! Because for me it was just a nice—Distributing food, for example, who will distribute food? [Typically] just girls. [In Tahrir Square] we saw most of them were men. So at the same time, girls were there at the frontline, shouting back, printing, translations, leading sometimes, journalists and photojournalists—all the other services... But also after the eighteen days, I saw and I felt—for me personally, I changed. I see myself in a different way.
I didn’t have a good relation with the street, for example—with the Egyptian streets. Usually I preferred to reach the point that I want as much as I can by car and minimize my walking distance, as much as I can. But now I enjoy walking in the streets. Because of course walking in the streets was a bit hard [because of] harassment—not for physical security, but just for harassment. Now, harassment has come back, but now I am a different person. Now I stop and talk to people, and talk to guys, and ask them “Why are you doing that?” And most of the time I don’t need to shout because they just get surprised and they apologize. So now I’m not the same person, I don’t just listen to anything and just go or feel shy or just ignore what I’m hearing. Now I’m facing [it]. And I have wonderful memories in Cairo, in the streets [during the uprising], so I’m not ready for anyone to hurt my fantastic memories and my political memories for any silly behavior. So I stop and talk to them, and this is a radical change for me to be able to do that without fear.
You’ve been a women’s rights and human rights activist for many years now. How have the events from last year changed the work you were already engaged in?
Yeah, this is a very good question. I think now, the general environment is helping. I mean, on the community level—I’m not talking about the political level, I’m talking about the community level. Because unlike before, now many girls are ready to get involved in politics, to get involved in community—to change the community, to do something to keep the momentum. So at the beginning, or before the Revolution, I mainly focused on gender issues, or division of labor and all these issues. But now I think my work is getting more in the direction of working directly in politics, for example, to support—or to increase—women’s power in political parties.
As I said, the environment now is more ready than before, because before it was really hard to find just two, three girls ready to [engage]. Now no, we have many, many ready to [engage] and many [ready] to do something. So with others, actually, we’re developing a curriculum for youth to help them to get more involved in a good way with enough theoretical background in politics to understand what’s going on. So I think we might be able to do something and to change, but of course it will take time.
Could you speak about women’s rights in Egypt prior to the Revolution? What were the concerns and what were the changes that you wanted to see happen? And where were there breakthroughs as well?
If I was to list [the concerns], number one would be the cultural issue. Cultural issues—or culture in general, Egyptian culture—are very harsh on women, oppress women. And in terms of freedom, in terms of expression, in terms of mobility, in terms of a lot of things. So my work, most of the time, was on changing the culture, developing new attitudes toward women, toward discrimination. One of the main problems, for example, is to see discrimination in the education system, to see discrimination in the media itself, to see discrimination in the public institutions, like clubs, like any community union, and so on.
One thing people are seeing every day is sexual harassment. Because the community’s culture has a tendency to isolate women, and to isolate women under many reasons. From their perspective, one of them is “protecting women,” but protecting women from who? Protecting women from men. And why do men have to be attackers to protect women? Why don’t both of us [men and women] do something together? So the main issue was to educate more about the culture that isolates and excludes women…
This culture, the worst point here, is we see this culture applicable on the policy level. And this is very hard. When we see the negative side of the culture on the policy level, that means that we didn’t have women in the parliament—or not even the parliament, in the elected institutions—all the elected bodies. For example in the parliament of 2005, [women] were less than 2%. The last election, after the Revolution, [women] were less than 2%... The same on the economic level. Women’s participation in the labor market is also very [low]. So we have almost 24% of women working in the market. Most of them they are working in the informal sector. So have a lot of issues to achieve, actually. And the situation post-Revolution still needs a lot of work. I mean, the revolution wouldn’t change some essential issues like that quickly.
You’ve already mentioned sexual harassment a few times so far. It seems to be an ongoing issue, one that has received some attention in the international media. I have heard of some campaigns by women’s groups to congregate in Tahrir Square in protest, and they were met with violent attacks and further harassment. What efforts exist to address sexual harassment?
This movement to combat sexual harassment started before the revolution—years ago. And most of the project focused on changing the community attitude through different campaigns. Most of the campaigns also focused on media and used universities and the schools and the streets and many public places. This campaign is still going on and some organizations are mainly focusing on that. But after the revolution, we started, for example, observation. We have a hotline now, we have observers to record how many cases and have the police [address] them…
We already submitted to the parliament before the revolution, and the one after the revolution, a [legal] project to criminalize sexual harassment and all types of violence against women in general, including domestic violence and community violence—sometimes scholars add sexual harassment under community violence. So we sent the law [to parliament] and the project was already developed by some feminist organizations, and [parliament] didn’t look at it and they didn’t send any comment—[both] the parliament before the revolution, and of course with the Islamist-dominated parliament after the revolution, of course they didn’t answer back.
But we will keep trying. But the biggest point now is we are not alone. Some young youth who were not involved at all in [these campaigns], now they are. Before you arrived I was reading a very nice article—but unfortunately [for you] in Arabic—about a new group in Alexandria. Their goal is “Alexandria without any sexual harassment.” So those young groups, and those young youth, they were not involved in those issues at all. So we can say now that there is more awareness about human rights and about the ugly face of sexual harassment.
The new campaigns have started to focus on men. Before we were focusing on “Take care of yourself, get away.” Now it’s “You are a man. You are a respectable human being. You can protect”—not only protect, “You can just be a good person.” So I think the campaigns after the revolution now are doing very good, and with more young people getting involved I think we will achieve more in the coming years.
In addition to sexual harassment, another problem is that of sexual assault on protesters by the police and military, both during and after the revolution. One of the more well known cases of the latter is that of Samira Ibrahim and her challenge to the so-called “virginity tests”—basically sexual assault by a military doctor. How pervasive is this type of behavior by the Egyptian authorities, and what attempts are being taken to counter it?
After the very brave activist, Samira, after she went to the court and she lost the case—she lost the two cases. The first case was against SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], the military council. The second was against the doctor who [carried out] the tests. She lost both of them, but the good news is that we were able to get a decree that this harassment, or this practice, would [be banned] from any security institution—meaning the military and the police as well, because the police were also doing this. But since no one was talking about this before, we as Egyptians didn’t know about it. I’ve been working in this field for 20 years and I didn’t know about it. Just all of us, we got the information after Samira raised her case. So when Samira raised her case, we knew not only about her case, but about the history of that [practice], and of course we discovered that it happened all the time by both of them—by the military, by the police. And now, based on the law, they won’t do it anymore, and they haven’t been doing it after the law up until now. So that was the main benefit actually of having that [Samira’s case].
But how many aside from Samira [also went through this]? When they arrested Samira and the group, and they examined the “virginity test,” there were 17 girls—seven of them were married and ten were girls—so they excluded the married women and they tested the ten girls. So the ten girls got exposed to the “virginity test” during that time, and the only one [to come forward] was Samira, and then recently after that another girl went through the same process and she was able to show herself as well.
The bottom-line with the “virginity test” is to humiliate the woman, and disregard her. This is the bottom-line. When they do such practice, even with other girls—What I’m writing now, when I interview them, almost all the girls have been exposed to sexual insults after the revolution, because there were many clashes after the revolution. And all of them [heard] very bad words from soldiers. So the bottom-line here is this is a sensitive point here in the culture—in our culture. So how you break them, how you send them to their home and don’t see them back—this is what they are thinking about—humiliate them. And not only—Based on the culture, when you humiliate the girl, you humiliate the man behind her. So it’s actually humiliating the whole society—humiliating the family, humiliating the tribe, humiliating the whole society. Because this culture, if you humiliate the girl you humiliate her brother, her husband, her father. So it’s a very deep practice.
Do you see there being a revitalization of the predominantly secular, liberal, even radical left political formations that primarily initiated and drove the 2011 Revolution?
Yes, we have many actually, and some are very promising. Hundreds, hundreds. Some of them started during the eighteen [day uprising] or some of them after. Some of them are new. And the very positive action taken—a lot of them are actually controlled and led by young youth. So they are learning and practicing and exploring. They are trying and developing their ways, and collecting and understanding more mechanisms of action… But as anyone can imagine it will take time. It will take time until all of these groups are getting together and getting closer to each other and work for only one objective. It will take time to see a serious change.
What future do you see for Egypt at this particular juncture? What are the central issues that need to be addressed in Egypt at this point in time, and how would you like to see them addressed?
I would like to see serious and new changes in our laws. For example, number one, I’d like to see a free, liberal, secular constitution. I know that won’t happen. But this is what I’d like to see and what I’m working with others to do. We don’t have a big hope for the short-term, but we might be able to do something in the long-term. But not in the short-term. So this is concern number one: to have the constitution. And based on the constitution to have more objective laws on all levels; to have less discrimination between women and men; less discrimination between urban and rural; less discrimination between poor people and people from other classes; less discrimination between people we call “healthy” and people with disabilities. There are many, many types of discrimination, and none of them are addressed. And on top of that, of course, discrimination against women…
But about the future? The future will bring of course serious challenges on the major level, but on the minor level will bring also some good actions like what I said: more young people will be involved in politics and fighting against all the bad practices in general including harassment and violence and so on. So more people will get involved in general. But until we have the majority of people, it needs time.
David Zlutnick is a documentary filmmaker and video journalist based in San Francisco. He currently produces media through Upheaval Productions, including his last feature documentary Occupation Has No Future: Militarism + Resistance in Israel/Palestine (2011), among others. Follow him @DavidZlutnick.