An old, but still relevant, Sexual Harassment Article #endSH

I graduated from university in June 2009, and since I was studying journalism we were asked to work on a magazine as our graduation project. Each student had to work on an investigative piece as well. This was my work (and I got an A by the way… then again my university isn’t exactly known for its high educational standards)

This article was aiming to look at sexual harassment as a societal issue, the background on it and what is being done to counter it. Many initatives have come up since then, but unfortunately even though this was written two years ago, the situation remains the same. This is my contribution to blogging against Sexual Harassment Day.

 

Sexual Harassment; End the Epidemic NOW!

As a woman, have you ever walked down Egyptian streets and felt many pairs of eyes undressing you? Have you ever heard obscene comments about what someone wanted to do with your body? Have you ever gotten touched or groped  simply for walking on the street? As a man, have you ever thought that this is something your friend, mother, wife, sister or daughter is subjected to almost on a daily basis? In Egypt women regularly find themselves in these situations where they feel oppressed, powerless and objectified. Along the years this problem has been growing in both numbers and severity. In Egypt, 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women have been sexually harassed, but only 2 percent have reported it.

 

Severity of harassment; the question why?

The severity of the cases grew from random men or a small group of friends harassing women to mass sexual harassment cases. In the Feast holiday after Ramadan in 2007 downtown Cairo saw its first case of mass harassment where hundreds of men walked around harassing, touching and undressing women in the streets. During the same holiday the following year in Gamaa’et El Dowal Street, one of the biggest and busiest streets in Mohandessin, the same incident happened with an even larger number of men.

The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) conducted a research on Sexual Harassment called “Clouds in Egypt’s Sky” that included a sample of 2020 Egyptian men and women from Cairo, Giza and Qalubiya. The results showed there are many forms of harassment taking place daily including touching, inappropriate noises, ogling of women’s bodies, verbal harassment of sexually explicit nature, stalking or following, phone harassment and indecent exposure. The results also showed that 46.1 % of Egyptian women and 52.3% of foreign women are exposed to harassment on a daily basis.

A twenty-three year old woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, shared an incident that happens often: as she walked on a busy street in Dokki and man on a bike started masturbating as she walked past and called her to come over.

Roughly, 49 percent of Egyptian and 51 percent of foreign women showed in the study that women of all ages are subjected to harassment while a majority of the male sample indicated that women in age groups 19-25 years old are the most susceptible to sexual harassment. According to the ECWR, the difference in men and women’s answers are likely related to their personal experiences.

In the study, it was clear that sexual harassment is not class-based and that women of all socio-economic classes are subjected to sexual harassment.

Most Egyptian people surveyed thought that women dressed in short skirts and t-shirts with bare arms were more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment while 44 percent of foreign women thought that unveiled women dressed modestly and veiled women were also likely to be harassed.

However, many people still think that how a woman is dressed has nothing to do with why they are being harassed and they attribute the problem to socio-economic conditions, sexual frustration and a general lack of respect for women.

In January 2009, a group of female students studying at the American University in Cairo (AUC) decided to try a social experiment where they dressed in black Neqab (covering they bodies and faces in loose black cloaks) and walked around some main streets in Zamalek and the downtown area by the Nile. Areeje Hindi, one of the participants, confirmed they were still subjected to harassment. (This was when the idea to dress up in Niqab as an experiment came to me for the first time by the way, I didn’t do it until April 2011 though)

“They were harassing us mainly talking about our eyes ‘what are these pretty eyes’ [Some men said]. We couldn’t believe that even though we were completely covered they still managed to find the one thing that was not and comment about it” Hindi said. “In spite of our attire we were being harassed like everyone else.”

“Even though we felt more protected walking in Neqab than we do wearing our normal clothes, my friends and I found it very disappointing that we were still harassed… What more can we wear and do?” Hindi wondered.

In the ECWR’s study examining if what women wear determine whether or not they are harassed they found that most Egyptian people surveyed thought that un-veiled women were more likely to be harassed. Despite the fact that women’s testimony, like Hindi’s, showed that veiled and women wearing the Neqab were harassed as well.

These results illustrate the contradiction of the society’s belief that what women are wearing is related to them getting harassed and the reality of what happens.

Yehia Wahdan, Member of Parliament told British television show Every Woman “the internet is [now] in every home, each home has a satellite dish, the whole world is accessible to us. There are things you see such as video clips or films that are imbalanced and it can confuse someone who is not ready for it. When they see naked women they will want to release their frustration”

In a similar interview, Abier El Barbary, a psychology professor at AUC said, “I think it is a multi-fasted problem and I think that frustration definitely does play a part in it, but it is a much bigger picture and much more complex than that.”

El Barbary explained that it is not just computers, the media and video clips but it is more about the fact that Egypt is going through a transition from the old school of thought to the more globalised and westernized school of thought. As a result there is a lot of exposure all around that people are having a hard time dealing with.

Here is the video where these quotes are from for more info and analysis of the problem

When asked about the root of why she thinks men harass women, Noha Roushdy, the first woman to file a sexual harassment case against an Egyptian man in court and win, told Daily News Egypt, “Everyone [attributes] harassment to repression, but I think it is oppression,” she says. “In psychological analysis, repression leads to depression and passiveness. There is political and economic repression [here] and no one has started a revolution. It [just] turns into more passivity. But the idea of oppression is what brought harassment out in society. Oppression makes people aggressive. Each oppressed person has an ambition to oppress someone else to feel a balance, to not feel weak. So the regime oppresses the people and the people are split. So the man will oppress the woman [whom] he feels is less than him. So I believe people are passive because they are repressed, but they are harassing others because they are oppressed.”

 

Effects of Harassment on women

According to the ECWR’s study, sexual harassment has many negative psychological, physical and economic effects on people subjected to it. Many women confirmed they got headaches, difficulty sleeping and bad dreams as well as a constant deep sense of violation, anger, pain, embarrassment, inability to act and sometimes depression.

One girl who chose to remain anonymous expressed that after a few incidents with harassment her trust in strangers and men decreased greatly, “I have become very paranoid about everyone around me and checking that they are not looking at me in a sexual way or touching themselves or trying to touch me,” She said, adding that this led her to avoid walking on the streets and sometimes even getting in taxis alone.

The economic and social effects of harassment included that 9.5 percent of Egyptian women and 22.4 percent of foreign women found that sexual harassment affects their productivity at work and the productivity of students at school. These negative effects include their lack of concentration and not being able to recall things they study. It also gave them a sense of insecurity and lack of confidence with dealing with the opposite sex.

Another girl who chose to remain anonymous said that being constantly subjected to harassment did not necessarily have a direct impact on her productivity in her studies. However, the constant fear of being harassed and the frustration felt at the whole situation sometimes got to her while she was trying to study, making it very hard to concentrate.

 

Harassment and Tourism; Is there a connection?

“I would definitely say that sexual harassment changes my perception of the Egyptian culture,” Lizzie Walmsley, a twenty year-old British girl who has been living in Cairo for three months said.

“Women have been strong enough to take the Pharaoh throne thousands of years ago and yet in Cairo today, a woman is unable to walk around the streets shopping for more than 10 minutes without some comment from a man about the way she looks or the what he wants from her. From the varied ages of the men/boys who are responsible for my experiences I’d suggest it’s a fairly integrated part of the Egyptian male socialisation and yet I have not met all Egyptian men. I had an image of Egypt as one of the most civilised societies the world has ever seen; and it was, a long time ago. Knowing some men think so little of women makes me think Egyptian culture has uncivilised itself” she added.

Similarly, Nehal Saad, an established Egyptian English language Tour Guide, always warns the tourist groups she accompanies about sexual harassment. She advises women to dress modestly but makes them aware that they will probably get subjected to it no matter what they decide to wear.

“Often tourists get offended from the common mentality that just because a woman is a foreigner she is easy and they also get in situations where they get groped. At the start usually they find it funny and flattering that they have that attention but most of the time it turns into harassment and they get a very negative perception of how Egyptian culture is.” Saad explained.

Egypt offers many historical, cultural and recreational touristic attractions to people worldwide. Around 15 percent of Egypt’s national income comes through tourism. Unfortunately, even though Egypt was once known as one of the safest and most hospitable tourist destinations now the Egyptian reputation of sexual harassment is starting to affect the industry and the way foreigners view Egyptian culture.

In the ECWR study, the sample included 109 foreign women who were living or travelling in Egypt for different purposes. The study showed that 66 percent of these women confirmed that their encounters with sexual harassment left a negative impact on how they viewed Egyptian society. Also, 7.3 percent said they would not return to Egypt because of it and 4.6 percent declared they would not advise their friends to visit Egypt.

 

Egyptian criminal law and sexual harassment

Within the current Egyptian Criminal Law there are three articles that can be applied in the cases of sexual harassment.

One of the laws is “Insulting” which is article 306 of the penal code. This law covers all types of insults including cat-calling and verbal harassments on the streets. It is considered a minor crime and tried in a partial court which has only one judge. The sentences of breaking that law range from a fine of LE 100 to one month in prison.

Another law deals with “Indecent Behaviour”, which is article 278 of the penal code. This is covered by one article in the section on sexual crimes and can be applied in cases of indecent exposure, following someone and stalking. It is considered a serious crime and is tired in the larger criminal court with three judges. The sentences of breaking this law range from a fine to three years in prison.

Another law that can be applied is “Sexual Assault”, which is article 268 of the penal code. It is considered a sexual crime and applies in the cases of touching and other physical harassment. Like the latter, it is tried in the large criminal court with three judges. When this law is broken sentences range from three to fifteen years in prison.

Such laws are not void of criticism, however. Problems and criticisms of these laws include the fact that it is difficult to prove harassment unless the harasser is taken to the police station on the spot and witnesses are willing to testify with the victim harassed: otherwise a case cannot be filed.

Other criticisms include that there is no direct law in the penal code specifically related to sexual harassment. According to ECWR’s research and analysis, the lack of direct mentioning of sexual harassment in the law results in a lack of awareness of its existence, as well as a lack of recognition of the problem, which makes it almost impossible to enforce.

The ECWR, media outlets and other groups have been pushing the parliament to discuss the problem openly and add a penal code directly relating to sexual harassment to the penal code.

 

Noha Roushdy: The social pioneer

Noha in the trial, Taken From Zeinobia's Blog

On June26th 2008 at 5:30 pm, Noha Roushdy, a twenty-seven year-old woman, and her friend were walking down a main street in Heliopolis when a man driving a car stretched out his arm, grabbed Roushdy and dragged her along with him before he let her go. Both girls, in spite of shock, chased the car and Roushdy jumped on the boot of the car to stop him while her friend went to get the police.

Even though many people on the street urged Roushdy to let the man go asking her to have some sympathy, judging her for being harassed, she insisted on taking the man, Sherif Gomaa Gibrial, to the police station to file an official complaint. A man on the street helped her take him to the station where the police at first were not helpful and refused to file a complaint without Roushdy’s father present.

Later in October 2008, Roushdy won the case she filed against Gibrial where he was sentenced to three years of imprisonment and fined LE 5,001 on Sexual Assault charges, surprisingly enough during the first hearing of the case. Roushdy refused to accept the civil damages of LE 5,001, saying that she was not looking for the money, and it was not her goal to give the aggressor’s family a hard time.

From that point Roushdy’s case attracted a lot of media attention with some people condemning Roushdy’s actions to take the case to court and sympathising with the man, while others were idolising Roushdy for standing up for her rights and defying the norms. This case stirred public opinion and made it easier for sexual harassment to be discussed as an issue giving the space to women and movements to act against it.

“ECWR believes that this sentence will restore confidence in the legal system’s ability to defend women subjected to such crimes, in every step of the process — from filing police reports, to investigation, to sentencing. Women can now rest assured that their rights will be protected,” a statement from the ECWR said.

 

Spreading awareness to make a difference

Ali Azmy (azmy.me) at the IWD Protest March 2011

Many different movements have recently started discussing the problem of sexual harassment in the media even though it has been considered a taboo to even talk about it in social circles in the past.

The ECWR, established in 1996, with a goal to work on developing women’s legal and political rights, is one of the leading organizations actively working on the problem of sexual harassment. The ECWR organizes a campaign against sexual harassment through increasing public awareness in the media to apply pressure on the Ministry of Interior to enforce laws protecting women and adopting a new law specifically for protection against sexual harassment.

The ECWR conducted various researches on the effects of sexual harassment on victims, tourism and on women’s participation in the society. Their most recent research “Clouds in Egypt’s Sky” proved to be a success providing people with accurate results of how the problem is escalating day by day.

According to Rebecca Chiao from ECWR there has been a lot of development in the problem, “We have been running our campaign since 2005. When we started, we couldn’t even say the words ‘sexual harassment’.”

Nehad Abu El Omsan, the chair of the ECWR told Women News Network, “Now [women] are freer to talk and every one of them knows she is not alone and it is not her fault. This encourages the society to understand the situation and think about how to solve it.”

With facebook’s growing popularity as a social networking site, various groups started using it as a platform to channel their message across reaching various groups of people.

One of the first emerging groups is “Stop Sexual Harassment in Egypt” which was part of the “Bussi Project” (Look (to female) Project) established in the American University in Cairo (AUC). They started the group to provide women with the space to share their stories and encourage people to not only speak up but act on the issue. They organized different lectures, seminars and events at AUC and outside to bring people together and help find solutions to the problem. They also keep people updated with the ECWR’s research and movements on the issue.

“We also create a voice for those who feel voiceless through our annual play in which we collect true stories from women in our community,” said Yasmine Khalifa, a member of the Bussy Project Club.

“[The play] educates the audience about the issues women go through but at the same time it is entertaining, which makes the audience more receptive to hearing some of the stories they normally would not.” She added.

From there also came many other groups encouraging women to act on sexual harassment, in an attempt to change women’s perception of their situation as victims who do not have the power to do anything about it to citizens who have the power to use the law to protect their rights. There is an Arabic group called “H’atta law El Bent Ala’aa Malt” (Even if the Girl is Naked) which advocates that women have the right to wear what they want and that gives no one the right to harass them. The group uses a sarcastic tone in addressing the issue of sexual harassment on the street and in the work place.

Other groups have taken a hands-on approach to the issue, like “Ma’an le Qanoun Yah’my El Mara’ men Khatar El Tah’arosh Al Gensy” (Together for a law to protect the woman from the danger of Sexual Harassment). This group is working alongside the ECWR with a goal to produce a petition with a million signatures to the government demanding a new law to protect women from Sexual Harassment.

Another project being worked on by the ECWR and NiJel, a movement started by three American people who saw that we can use maps to tell facts and stories of communities, is the “HarassMap”. This project is a blog with a map where women can report where they have been harassed via SMS and it is uploaded on the blog, showing how severely harassment takes place all over the city and the need of a new law to protect women. It will also help demonstrate to officials where further protection is needed. [Update: This project was later taken on by a group of volunteers and outside the ECWR umbrealla]

Sawi Culture Wheel Anti Sexual Harassment Poster 2009

Sawy Culture Wheel also participated in spreading awareness on sexual harassment by placing signs in the Egyptian streets warning men that if they failed to take action to prevent harassment, their mother, sister or daughter could be the next victim. May 18, 2007, was declared “The Sexual Harassment Awareness Day” by Sawy Cultural Wheel in cooperation with the ECWR. Almost 1000 people showed up at the event where they invited the media and bands to perform to attract youth.

Media outlets have also taken part of the trend of calling upon women to stand up to sexual harassment. Community Times, Egypt’s number one information magazine in English, in April 2009 started dedicating a section each month publishing stories from readers to highlight the epidemic of sexual harassment in Egypt. Following Community Times’ initiative What Women Want magazine decided to participate in that too.

Kelmetna, Egyptian teen magazine, also launched a campaign aiming to spread awareness on sexual harassment with the male readers especially with a slogan of “Respect Yourself: Egypt still has real men”.

A group of advertising and public relations students at Modern Sciences and Arts University (MSA) decided to launch a campaign promoting the establishment of a law protecting women from sexual harassment as their graduation project. They also organized an event promoting the new law protecting women against sexual harassment in the Sawy Cultural Wheel in June 2009 featuring bands and guest speakers. “We believe in the cause and are personally affected by it. Another thing that made us want to run this campaign was that more than 60% of people did not know their rights and did not know that they can report harassment. We wish to empower women through it.” Said Amina Basiouny one of the members of the group.

It is obvious that this problem is not going unnoticed by the public and that many diverse bodies are doing a lot of work to make the problem noticed as well as getting the government to deal with it. Social change is not an impossible task, but it is up to people to make it happen and take initiative because if we do not, then who will?

A day in Niqab in the midst of the Cairo Salafi movement [Part 2]

The day started as any other. It was a Friday, and I headed down to Tahrir Square in Cairo to participate in the protest to “Save the Revolution”. I bumped into my friend from university, Amina Ismail, there who told me she was going to dress in Niqab and attend a Salafi conference and asked if I wanted to join. I ended up having one of the most interesting days of my life.

There is a lot to write about it, so this post will be divided into several parts.

Part 1: A day in Niqab

Part 2: The Salafis are taking over Egypt (omg!)

As we drove through the city, three girls in Niqab, listening to hip hop music on the way (music that neither of us normally actually listen to) we were headed to Amr Ibn El-Aas Mosque on Friday April 1st to attend the Salafi Conference.

Driving through Masr El Adima neighbourhood, we stopped by a local Cafe (or Ahwa) to make sure we were headed down the right path, as soon as I lowered the window the man said “Yes, yes, you’re on the right track, keep on driving”. Apparently it was evident to the man where we were headed.

The Salafi Movement Conference

Upon arrival at the mosque, the first thing we saw was a huge sign at the entrance “Egypt is an Islamic country, not a civil one nor a military one” along with another that read “There is no separation between the state and religion”. Red flags went up in my head. We walked into the mosque, took off our shoes and made our way into the women’s section. As we sat there, all we could do was listen to the speeches being made by the sheikhs. We couldn’t hear half of what was being said due to the fact that the speakers used were terrible and the amount of children running around and playing did not help. That is why some of the information I will share from what was said at the conference is first hand information I heard there, while some will be gathered from news reports about the conference and attributed.

This conference was called “The Salafi Movement Conference” and hosted some of Egypt’s most prominent sheikhs in support of the Salafi movement including Mohamed Ismail El Mokadem, Said Abdelazim, Yasser El Borhami and Ahmed Farid.

Abdelazim mentioned that Egypt should be run according to the Sharia law, he went on to say that not only Egypt but the whole Arab world should be run by Sharia and should not be split into different states. He discussed that the way the Arab world is divided is due to European colonization and is not based on more than that. He said that we should all live according to Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) way of life. According to Ahram Online, Abdelazim also mentioned that the media had a huge attack on the Salafis in the past weeks and mentioned that they need to get their sources and information straight before they publish any information about the movement. Sheikh Berhamy also mentioned that there were rumors that the Salafis were to attack unvieled women and destroy moslaeums built in mosques and called them lies. He said the Salafi movement strives to change people’s attitudes through preaching and not violence.

Sheikh Abdelazim discussed the vote on the constitutional amendments and made a statement that the result turning to “yes” proves how strong the Islamic movement is. Even though it has been argued that most people who votes yes did so for the sake of “stability” or for their own valid political reasons rather than anything to do with article 2 of the constitution which states that Egypt is an Islamic country and that the Sharia law is a main point of reference. An article that was not even up for referendum. He labeled possible presidential candidates Mohamed El Baradei and Amr Moussa along with prominent business man Naguib Sawiris as “Liberals” who were campaigning for the “No” vote.

What now?

A Sheikh and Priest walk through Tahrir on Friday as a symbol of National Unity. Photo by Deena Adel

This information is not new in anyway. We all knew that the Islamic movements in Egypt want Egypt to become an Islamic state, governed by Sharia law. Just like the liberals want Egypt to become a secular state, just like the socialists want Egypt to become a socialist state. With the January 25th revolution, all these different groups that were previously suppressed by the government started appearing in the media and going public with their message. Then again, isn’t that what we were fighting for? Freedom of expression and liberation? We all knew these groups existed, and they have a voice. Some of them are extreme, yes, and any violence should be punishable by law. Then again its up to us to form groups, movements and parties to represent us in the political arena. The brotherhood, the Salafis and other movements should have a voice, as they do represent a certain amount of the population. Other ways of thinking should be represented and be part of legislation and decision making as well. As long as we will hopefully have a constitution that protects our freedoms and rights as citizens of this country, no matter our gender, religion or beliefs, then there is no fear of the “Isamic Monster” the old regime used to keep convincing us that their oppression would be better than these extreme Islamic movements.

I leave you with this video from the Bassem Youssef Show  (Arabic) Egypt’s very own Jon Stewart. In this episode he disucsses the Constitutional Referrendum that took place last month. This somehow was one of the main events that shed a lot of light on the Salafis in Egypt, and made it seem that 77% of Egyptians voted yes because the Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood pushed them to do so. Whereas as I mentioned above many people voting yes, were voting yes for political and economic reasons. He satirically shows that we have many different, and mostly opposing opinions and political ideologies in Egypt, and of course we’re at a phase where they are clashing because for the first time in decades they have the freedom to speak and act somewhat freely. However, we will find a common ground between the islamists, liberals, conservatives…etc where we can all co-exist freely, just like we did in Tahrir square just a few months back.

A day in Niqab in the midst of the Cairo Salafi movement [Part 1]

The day started as any other. It was a Friday, and I headed down to Tahrir Square in Cairo to participate in the protest to “Save the Revolution”. I bumped into my friend from university, Amina Ismail, there who told me she was going to dress in Niqab and attend a Salafi conference and asked if I wanted to join. I ended up having one of the most interesting days of my life.

There is a lot to write about it, so this post will be divided into several parts.

Part 1: A day in Niqab

Part 2: The Salafis are taking over Egypt

I have always struggled with where I stand on Niqab. On one hand, I consider myself quite a liberal individual and a supporter of women’s rights and equality, so the idea of Niqab always made me uncomfortable. Why would a woman choose to be invisible, not to have a presence, and confine herself in this role? I would ask myself. However, I’m also a supporter of freedom of choice, and the freedom to live one’s own life as they please. So if a woman chooses this, then shouldn’t I be the first to respect that choice and let go of my prejudice? A constant struggle in my mind.

As I started to put on the Abbaya (the black loose curve free dress), the veil and the mask, I was already confused. My veil kept falling apart since I lack the skills to keep it on as I’ve never put on a veil in my life. The Burqa’, which is made up for four layers, two meant to be pulled back, and when in the front they show your forehead and completely cover your eyes. While the other two, are the ones below the eyes meant to cover the rest of the face. Every time I would bend down, or whenever some wind came along, the top two layers would cover my face and in the midst of confusion I’d tell my friends “I can’t see a thing, HELP!”, which they found hilarious every time.

Wearing the Niqab in Tahrir Square

As I walked through Tahrir, a place I’ve been frequently visiting since January 25th and a place where I’ve always felt the most free, all of a sudden a whole new set of feelings washed over me, none of them associated with freedom. I felt hot and uncomfortable. I couldn’t really see properly, and could only smell cloth. I bumped into people I knew, and my initial reaction was to go say hi when I caught their eye. But wait, they had no idea who I was. It was like my entire identity was erased. I was no longer Rowan as I’ve always known her. I was another person. A person who is ultra-religious. A person who chose to hide her identity in public. A person who chose to only be seen by family or another woman. I was someone who always dressed the same. It felt strange knowing that I had on my everyday clothes underneath, knowing that I’m still me, but no one sees it but myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt less special. Even when I went home later dressed like this, my mother didn’t recognise me, not even when I spoke.

As sexual harassment (including groping, cat calling and stares from men) is so common in Egypt. And since I experience  it a lot in the kind of clothes I wear (that are not inappropriate or anything, really) I had heard that women in Niqab still experience harassment, less than us, but it was still there. I was very curious to see peoples’ reactions to me, particularly men’s. In all fairness I didn’t get harassed.  People’s reactions however, were another story. Some completely avoided looking at me or catching my eye, almost as if in fear of me. While others would just blatantly stare right at me in disbelief. There were some who just reacted to me in the same way they probably would have if I was myself though.

What struck me also, was the expectations that are put on a woman in Niqab. My friend Deena, also in Niqab, had her professional camera as we walked around, and was taking photos of the small protest in solidarity with the third Palestinian Intifada. I thought she looked so weird, and so did people around us, who would just pass by and stare. A feeling of guilt swept over me for feeling that way though. I mean, just because a woman chose to wear Niqab, does that mean she has no passions, no interests and no hobbies but praying, reading Quraan or getting married and having babies? I hated myself a little for feeling awkward to her taking photos with that camera. At the same time, I questioned whether it was a fair prejudice to make since the Niqab is not just about what you wear, but rather a series of life choices that come with it. Like when my other friend, Amina decided to put up the Niqab in the middle of Tahrir because she felt too hot and suffocated. A woman and a man sitting next to us on the curb started arguing with her on how she’s misrepresenting Niqab and that she has no right to do this. As we walked away from them, with Amina complaining that they had no right to butt in and tell her what to do, I found myself questioning out loud whether I agreed or disagreed with them. Another mind-boggle.

An intriguing situation happened to us while we were at the Amr Ibn El Aas mosuqe listening to the Salafi sheikhs (of course listening, not seeing, as we were sitting in the women’s section of the mosque where we had speakers that had horrible quality, not to mention the insane amount of kids running around and playing). As we sat there, a woman approached us and asked the three of us “How old are you girls?” and we answered “23”. She explained that she wanted to find a bride for her 38 year old brother, and asked if we knew a “pretty bride” (aka 3arousa Amoura) like us but a bit older. I found this peculiar. She knew nothing about us. All she could tell was that we were religious. And that was apparently all she was looking for in a bride for her brother. I was struck with how different people can be. I cannot imagine anyone looking for my life partner on my behalf. Not to mention that the search would be based on only one aspect I might add.

At the end of the day, I don’t know if I can extract lessons learned from this experience to share. All I can really say is that walking in another persons’ shoes has never felt so real.

Keeping the pressure for Radwan

We’ve all seen from recent events around the Arab world that authoritarian regimes tend to cave to pressure (unless they are Gaddafi, but he is a madman not just a dictator). This is just what Radwan’s family and friends are doing to free him. With a successful social media campaign, many Egyptian activists on their side and regional as well as international media attention they are definitely playing this right.

Muhammad Radwan, is a 32 year old Egyptian and American engineer. He’s been living in Syria for almost a year running a company his father owns shares in. Last Friday, Syria saw another eventful day in a series of days of an uprising. Radwan being the curious person he is, and according to his mother due to his love of taking pictures and most recently tweeting, he was last seen at the Ummayid Mosque where he made this last tweet.

The “Confession”

A day later we find him on television making this “confession”:

He says that he was in touch with a Colombian that was referred to him by a friend because he was looking for someone to talk to in Syria. He said he agreed to send this person pictures and video for 100 Egyptian Pounds per picture and the price of the video hadn’t been decided. They asked him on a completely different note if he had ever been to Israel, and he admited to going and meeting a friend there. He also explained that he asked them not to stamp his passport and went through Jordan.

There are so many things wrong with this “confession” that we just have to believe that the authoritarian Syrian regime made him make this bullshit confession, just like Gaddafi’s regime made another Egyptian volunteering in Libya confess to being with Al Qaeda and coming to disrupt libya:

1. Radwan is a well paid engineer, if he were to help a journalist or give photos he wouldn’t do it for money or he would charge A LOT of money, not 100 LE which is the equivalent of 15 USD.

2. According to his cousin Tarek Shalaby, this Colombian works for “Radio Colombia” and Tarek was the one who put them in touch. So this guy works for Radio, therefore he would not ask Radwan for photos nor videos as they are of no use for him.

3. According to Radwan’s family, he has never been to Israel. And even IF he has, Radwan is a traveler, and he would have gone to see Jerusalem like any other tourist does.

The Social Media Campaign:

On Twitter and Facebook, Radwan’s family launhed a massive social media campaign to raise awareness about their detained cousin. Very quickly the world caught on and to date there are over 5000 likes on the Facebook page and constantly updated tweets following the hashtag #FreeRadwan. These initiatives may seem small compared to someone like Reuters covering this story. However, let’s not forget that the January 25th Facebook event came before the cameras. And social media is definitely a very powerful tool in rallying people.

Media Coverage & Free Radwan Rallies

Radwan’s case, thanks to its strange nature and the efforts of his friends and family, has recieved  a lot of media attention. However, a lot of the media coverage, labels the video above as a confession to selling photos to Israel or confession to being a spy. Whereas, it actually is not what he said. The Syrian regime put it in that context, but he actually confesses to nothing. He only says he’s been to Israel and planned to send photos to Colombia. All of a sudden you find news stories saying he confessed to selling the pictures to Israel or that he is accused of being a spy.

Around 100 protesters outside of Syrian embassy in Cairo

More photos of Protest in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo on Flickr.

Even with the somewhat exaggerated media, it is definitely helping his case. There have been protests staged to free Radwan in London, Texas and Cairo. In the Cairo protest, we stood silently in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo with flowers, posters indicating our one demand. After about an hour or so, the Syrian embassy opened its door to as many protesters as can fit in the courtyard and the ambassador and some officials came out to speak with Radwan’s mother and the protesters. He tried to explain that Radwan confessed, and that they need to go through with the investigation and promised Radwan’s mother, Maha, that if he was innocent the ambassador himself will go to her house and appologise. The protesters were not happy nor satisfied with what the ambassador had to say, except for one who kept praising the ambassador. Only later we found out she belonged to a certain state owned newspaper. (Side note: Reporters should really keep their opinions to themselves, especially when they work for state media.)

Here is a report from Ahram Online on the protest.

Radwan, the dude

Often described as a traveler, Radwan was born in the US, brought up in Saudi Arabia and has been traveling all over the world, most recently after saving up for years working he ended up on a long term trip to South America before moving to Cairo for a few months and then heading up to Syria last year. He’s one of those characters that is just living in his own world. Always has very interesting thoughts to share, has a mind of his own and often ends up misplacing things. I haven’t known him for long, met him a couple of times before he headed to Syria. It was when he came back on Friday the 28th and stayed till about a week after Mubarak was outsted, where I got to know him. We spent our Tahrir days in ‘Bansyon El Horeyya‘ also known as the ‘Freedom Motel‘ where Tarek had been camping for days. We also live quite close to each other so we went home together with others almost daily, and that took a while since every two minutes we were stopped by the neighbourhood watch and asked to show our IDs. Radwan is just a lovely person, he’s not a spy, or trying to create any sort of chaos. He’s a regular, politcally aware individual, who like his mother puts it “was in the wrong place, at the wrong time”. Oh yeah, and he has pretty eyes (like really pretty).

If you can help Radwan, in anyway you can please get in touch. Any pressure on Syria whether through contacts there, media pressure, foreign actors… etc. can help bring an innocent man home to his family and friends. His father is in Syria still trying to see him or get him to talk to a lawyer with not much luck. He really needs any help he can get.

Radwan on Friday January 28th Protesting in Cairo - Photo by Hossam El Hamalawy

The Future: Arab Revolutions and Arab Unity

The domino effect

Ever since Tunisia’s uprising started, we’ve seen many across the Arab world. Egypt followed Tunisia’s uprising on January 25th, and 18 days later successfully toppled the thirty year dictator Hosni Mubarak. During the Egyptian uprising we’ve seen similar ones in Jordan, successfully removing their government, Yemen, where the struggles continues till now. The day after Mubarak stepped down we saw uprisings in Algeria, Bahrain and Libya. Later we saw uprisings in Iraq, Iran and even reaching China and Vietnam. All these uprisings continue to achieve goals and demands the people are making to their governments, and will hopefully lead to these countries being run by their people in a democratic fashion. Democracy as a concept is often precieved as a western invention, but actually, ruling one’s self through representatives and elections has been done across the centuries and it ensures decision making is done by a majority and not a few ruling the destinies of millions.

Agree with his policies or not, Ex-Egyptian President Gamal Abdelnasser, called for a unified Arab rule since the 1950s. Based on Social equality and sovereignty. His vision never saw light, and unfortunately was toppled by two Egyptian rulers, Sadat and Mubarak, who had different agendas of allying Egypt with the west. We have been witnessing similar examples of power trips, selfish acts and greed across the leaders of the Arab world. This lead to an Arab population that was oppressed, suffocated and with the majority of their populations living in dire conditions and struggling to put food on the table.

Below is a video of the Egyptian Poet Hesham El Gakh in the ‘Prince of Poets’ Competition that gathers poets from across the Arab world. In this poem he preforms in one of the early rounds of the competitions he discusses how the people of the Arab world are united, and how our leaders are separating us using football clashes, religion and cultural differences. He talks about how we are all one, and how we all belong and own all of the Arab world. (Sorry, there was no translation of the poem available for non Arabic speakers, But the goal of the poem is above)

 

What we are seeing happening across the Arab world from uprisings and revolutions are the Arab people, fueled by decades of anger, hurt, betrayal, hunger and a vision for a better future for all the Arab world, their individual countries included. Unity means strength, prosperity and independence.  For centuries the Arab people have suffered western imperialism, and when we got rid of that, we suffered western cultural and economical imperialism facilitated by our very own leaders.

Now is the time of change for all the Arab world. One by one we are toppling our oppressive leaders and regimes. I believe the next months will show the world many uprisings and revolution across the Arab world. 2011 only started less than three months ago and we’ve seen two so far successful revolutions and almost a dozen uprisings that will hopefully lead to revolutions.

Below is an image I got off of my good friend Ali Azmy’s blog, showing a visual representation of Arab revolutions and uprisings:

Revolutions and uprisings in the Arab World

The Arab people are united, and once we are the decision makers in our countries, we will unite, it is inevitable. And that will completely change the world as we know it today. And if we look at the bigger picture, if the Arab world unites, then this would mean no borders, sharing of resources and open relationships with the countries around. It will mean there could be a new power in the world, that emerged after years of living in oppression. If this union proves to be strong, then maybe we are one step closer to having a world where we are world citizens. It has already started. To close this blog post, you can find below a video my friend Tarek Shalaby made about his trip with a few Egyptian friends and a British friend to Libya during the uprisings to transport aid to the wounded. Even in the midst of our own revolution many Egyptians went to Libya to help and offer support, while others collected donations and bought supplies. It’s bigger than one’s country now. It’s a global movement. Now the wave is in the Arab world, who knows where it go in a few months. Freedom is contagious after all.

Power to the people, power to the peaceful.

 

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