Back with this and starting with a woman I should have written about long before.
After Samira Ibrahim, along with six other women, was subjected to a so-called “virginity test” last March, having been arrested in Tahrir Square, she bravely came forward and spoke publicly, and in detail, about what Amnesty International calls “a form of torture:”
“In the virginity test case, I was forced to take off my clothes in front of military officials,” says Samira.
“Secondly, the person that conducted the test was an officer, not a doctor. He had his hand stuck in me for about five minutes. He made me lose my virginity. Every time I think of this, I don’t know what to tell you, I feel awful. I don’t know how to describe it to you, ” she adds.
“I know that to violate a woman in that way was considered rape,” she says. “I felt like I had been raped.”
After initially denying that such tests ever took place, the Egyptian military later admitted that they had carried out the tests, with the bizarre justification that they were necessary in order to protect soldiers against allegations of rape:
“We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place,” he said. “The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and (drugs).”
In response, however, one Egyptian academic, Amira Nowaira, sounded a note of caution:
“Nobody had heard of the virginity tests before so it is good a court has said they cannot be used. People should be prosecuted but it’s going to be hard, even assigning blame will be difficult. Who is ultimately responsible?”
Last week a military doctor was cleared of the charge of carrying out virginity tests on female detainees — he had initially been charged with rape; had that charge dropped and was facing the charge of “public indecency” in this case — meaning that this torture looks set to go unpunished and no one held accountable.
In the press articles from the verdict Samira Ibrahim looks devasted, but her comments are defiant: On Twitter she wrote:
“No one stained my honor. The one that had her honor stained is Egypt. I will carry on until I restore Egypt’s rights.”
And at The Guardian confirmed that her next recourse is international law:
“I’ve decided to file an international lawsuit and it is my right as a citizen since my rights are lost here even though many military commanders admitted this happened and now they’re denying it.”
In speaking up Samira faced down the pervasive social stigma of a conservative society, not to mention the ruling military powers. She risked, and lost, an awful lot. Last week’s verdict can not be allowed to be the end of her struggle.
“We have a saying here in Egypt. There is a man behind every woman. Don’t worry.”
Ahmed’s words did not reassure me. He had been trying to bolster me after I had made a hesitant complaint – egged on by the other two women in the truck – about the police escort who had spend the previous night in the desert with us and our Bedouin guides. He had tried to take my hand and lead me down into a valley, further out of sight from the rest of the group. It wasn’t much but, coupled with knowledge of the well-documented rate of sexual harassment in Egypt, it made me something a little more than uncomfortable.
I have otherwise found myself almost relaxed among crowds and as the object of the stares, yells and catcalls of the men. I have shifted the hard-faced stare-straight-ahead stance of my first day or two to include an occasional smile at the occasional call that is just too ridiculous to be offensive: Hello, spicy girl!Egyptian husband for free! And in the market: Buy one get me free!
But I am shielded. I stick to the sides of the other two women, using them as a buffer. It is disturbing me and undermining my confidence in myself as an unshakeable independent woman. The few times I venture out alone I feel uncomfortable and forge straight ahead, (the same way I cross Egyptian roads) hurrying to get to where I am going, or back home, not pausing for two seconds even to catch my surroundings or let myself relax.
The volume of information available about Doria Shafik, activist, feminist and author, is disproportionate to the level of her contribution to the Egyptian women’s movement. In fact, much of her life’s work was confiscated and banned, and her name prohibited in the media following her February 1957 house arrest at the hands of the Nasser regime. Police stormed the offices of her magazine Daughters of the Nile, seized every issue and destroyed her own private papers. She remained under house arrest, in total seclusion, until 1975 when she committed suicide by throwing herself off a balcony.
Shafik was born in Tanta and raised in a traditional, middle-class family. Her childhood was comfortable but peppered with experiences that planted seeds of what her biographer, Cynthia Nelson calls “deep, personal feelings of outrage and indignation”.
“Doria grew up in a atmosphere where women, rich or poor, suffered in marriages and lived at the mercy of men and the “whims of his tyranny; a tyranny that had become second nature.”
Nevertheless, Shafik was able to take advantage of the expanded educational opportunities available to Egyptian women in the 1920s. She received a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne, where she gained a doctoral degree at the young age of 29.
On her return home, she applied for a teaching position at Cairo University but was rejected for being female. Instead, at the request of Princess Shuvekar, first wife of King Fuad I, she became the editor of the new magazine by the Daughters of the Nile Union, a women’s liberation movement.
While editing and writing for the magazine, Shafik intensified her activist work. She staged sit-ins to protest the British occupation; attempted to run for elections illegally (as a woman), and, most famously, in February 1951 led a crowd of 1,500 women to storm a session of Parliament and demand that the council take action on women’s issues. the following week Egyptian women were granted the right to vote and to run for political office.
“Our meeting today is not a congress, but a parliament. A true one! That of women! We are half the nation! We represent here the hope and despair of this most important half of the nation. Luckily we are meeting at the same hour and in the same part of town as the parliament of the other half of the nation. They are assembled a few steps away from us. I propose we go there, strong in the knowledge of our rights and tell the deputies and senators that their assemblies are illegal so long as our representatives are excluded, that the Egyptian parliament cannot be a true reflection of the entire nation until women are admitted. Let’s go and give it to them straight. Let’s go and demand our rights. Forward to the parliament!”
Following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, Shafik successfully campaigned to have the Daughters of the Nile Union recognized as an official political party – Egypt’s first women’s party. However, the changing political situation following the revolution did not favour her: in 1957, she organized an eight-day hunger strike to protest the Nasser regime. His response was her arrest, seclusion, erasure and, ultimately, her death.
In May 1923 at Cairo’s Misr train station (now called Ramses Station), on her return from the 9th Congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in Rome, feminist nationalist activist Huda Shaarawi performed her most famous act: she publicly removed her veil.
Shaarawi was born in Minya in 1879, the daughter of Muhammad Sultan, first president of the Egyptian Representative Council. She was part of the last generation of women to grow up in the segregated world of the harem. She recounts her story of this time in her published memoirs, The Harem Years. At the age of 13 she was married to her cousin, the political activist Ali Shaarawi.
The story of her youth is interesting to me in that through the screen of oppression — the harem; the arranged marriage — come signals of inspiration, which give me cause to reconsider assumptions of Middle Eastern women. She was well educated in the harem by Muslim women teachers who taught her Arabic, Persian and Turkish, and to read the Qur’an. Moreover, her marriage was one of respect. Her husband supported her feminist activism; often sought her advice, and would even have her sit in his place at important political meetings. After his death, she wrote in the Harem Years, she experience terrible sadness, yet also a feeling of freedom — a feeling she attributed to her dedication to the feminist movement, which had changed her life — as well as the lives of many other women.
Shaarawi’s early work was done at a time when Egyptian women were expected to stay out of the public gaze. She rejected this completely,beginning with doing her own shopping and organizing lectures for women, which brought many women out of their homes and into public places for the first time. Her early philanthropic projects included establishing a women’s welfare society, Mubarrat Muhammad Ali, and opening a school for girls to be taught academic rather than practical, traditionally female, subjects.
In 1914, she founded the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women, and in 1923, the Egyptian Feminist Union, which focused on gaining women’s suffrage, increasing education for women, changing the Personal Status Laws and raising the minimum age for marriage to 16. Egypt’s first secondary school for girls opened in 1927 largely thanks to the work of the EFU.
Sharaawi was also involved in the Egyptian nationalist struggle, and helped organize a women’s march against the British in 1919. Although she maintained ties with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance for years, it is said that she later became suspicious of western feminists. She argued for women’s equality by pointing out that women and men were equal in ancient Egypt and that it was under foreign rule that women had lost rights.
In 1920, she became the president of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee. Following Egyptian independence, when women were still denied suffrage and banned from attending the opening of Egyptian Parliament, Sharaawi led a delegation of women to picket the opening and submitted a list of nationalist and feminist demands, which were ignored by the Wafdist government, causing her to resign from the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee.
Sharaawi continued to lead the Egyptian Feminist Union, and did so until her death in 1947.
Today, January 25th, marks the one year anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian uprising.
During the events of last year, I took a particular interest in the commentary of feminist blogs. From that perspective, women were central to the uprising, standing side by side with male protestors in Tahrir Square, free from the fear of harassment that stalks (according to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights) four out of five women in Egypt.
It seemed almost utopian. With the toppling of the regime, women were released from harassment and oppression:
The centering of women’s role in the revolution was perhaps not as unlikely as commentators would have us believe; after all, women have held powerful positions in Egypt. Indeed some of those universal symbols of powerful, defiant women come from Egypt: Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Hatshepsut …
There are six weeks until International Women’s Day and in that time (and perhaps beyond) I want to pay my respects to those brave, defiant, badass Egyptian women that have touched me. Purely out of indulgence; I take pleasure reading and educating myself about wonderful women.
This series will take no particular order, but I want to start with a woman who has been fighting and shouting for decades. Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of feminist history will know the name ….
Nawal El-Saadawi: Author, doctor, director of public health, publisher of the feminist magazine Confrontation, feared by the government, and imprisoned by the Sadat regime. She was also, at the age of 79, among the protestors in Tahrir Square.
I first read her slim novel, Woman at Point Zero around the time I was beginning to take an interest in the sex worker rights movement. It was recommended to me by an activist, and it is plain to see why. For all its tub-thumping quotability — “Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the most cruel suffering for women.” / “A woman’s life is always miserable. A prostitute, however, is a little better off.” — The book takes a complex view of prostitution: at once showing the ways in which it can victimize a woman, and how she can find liberation and empowerment through the work.
The novel concerns a woman, Firdaus, a prostitute sentenced to death for murdering a man who demands to be her pimp. Her childhood history includes female genital mutilation, hunger, being orphaned, and a forced marriage, which brings with it brutal beatings. She enjoys a comfortable life as a prostitute — being very selective in the customers she accepts — but yearns for the respect she would gain by working in a normal, low-paying job. She takes such a job but soon realizes that “as a prostitute I had been looked upon with more respect … An employee is scared of losing her job and becoming a prostitute because she does not realize that a prostitute’s life is, in fact, better that hers.” She returns to prostitution, but then this would-be pimp ruins it for her.
She goes to her death without guilt.
The prose is heavy and points are hammered home, but reading her, I can barely restrain myself from punching the air and crying Yes! Perhaps she has to bludgeon the point home because she is saying things that, frankly, are unspeakable: do wives really want to hear that they are prostitutes too? (and, according to Firdaus, the cheapest kind.)
Firdaus hated the work of prostitution, but had reached the conclusion that she lived in a society where women were taken advantage of and mistreated at each and every turn. For her, prostitution carved off a little power for herself: “my insistence on remaining a prostitute, proved to me this was my choice and I had some freedom, at least the freedom to live in a situation better than that of other women.”
The book is eminently quotable. Moreover it speaks to modern concerns: anti-vice corruption (the police tell her that they have to protect “respectable families” from the likes of her — of course it was the “respectable families” who abused her) and do-gooder “rescuers” of fallen women (“the men I hated the most were those who tried to give me advice, or told me that they wanted to rescue me from the life I was leading.” )
Firdaus found freedom and empowerment in sex work. But she also found abuse and, ultimately, her death. I don’t think I have read such a conflicted account as that of Woman at Point Zero.
I am unlikely to go to see “The Iron Lady”. I grew up under Thatcher; young, but still. I don’t think I could watch an admiring portrait without a gnawing resentment. I’m Scottish and a lot of Scottish people resent her. Moreover, I begrudge her the title Iron Lady, with its connotations of strength, resilience and the reasoning (pervasive, I find, in the U.S.) that she is admirable and some kind of role model for ambitious women. I hate hearing her name invoked as some kind of feminist symbol. I think Lauren Laverne of Kenickie spoke for many of us when she called Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell “tory scum” for embracing Thatcher as “the original Spice Girl.”
Toni Bennett, an organiser with the Bolsover Women’s Action Group during the 1984/5 miners’ strike, said the film gave a false impression of Thatcher’s contribution to feminism.
She said: “The film suggests that Thatcher stood up bravely against a male establishment and was a women’s champion.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. Thatcher mobilised every arm of the state against the striking miners and coalfield women who were defending their jobs, their children’s futures and their communities.
“Anyone watching this film needs to be able to distinguish facts from fiction.”