Zero

The last few months rendered me mute for a while. Trying to take in all that has been happening in Egypt – the attacks, the killings, the arrests, the abuse of justice on every level possible – and do what little I could to work against it somehow crippled my mind and tied my tongue. Thoughts and ideas only hit against walls, and bounced back to lie flat at the bottom of my brain. It all felt unsettlingly familiar.

But here I am again, writing about the fight against sexual harassment in Egypt. There was a moment, around this time last year, when I thought we could be on the cusp of something great: I was hoping, dreaming, of a war. For months, independent volunteer groups had been battling mob assaults against women at protests in Tahrir – there had been blood, trauma, camaraderie, media and propaganda campaigns, drills, recruitment. What I wanted and thought possible was to take that ethos and expand it into something larger, that could ripple through society in various figurations, from the artistic to the militant, but always acting upon the same core idea: zero tolerance.

Zero, because years of being a woman have taught me that even though this might not be the primary way in which I define and see myself in any given situation, it is how most people around me will see me. And that the surrounding presumptions mean that I have to watch how I sit, dress, smell, talk, laugh, make eye contact, eat, pay, walk, smile and frown in an energy-zapping way that most men cannot imagine. That there is a spectrum between Manly/Bossy and Provocative/Loose on which women are constantly sliding. That it is easier to play by their rules than to try and shatter this way of seeing things, in which women are constantly spinning on an axis of male perceptions, needs, desires. That ignoring this ubiquitous lens will in no way protect you from it. That it is this way of seeing things which allows violence, and means that men in positions of authority such as Cairo University President Gaber Nassar will blame the target of a sexual assault for her clothing, whatever it may be.

I’m often told that things really are not so bad, that women should just get on with it. That at least now women can drive and work and travel and ask for divorce. A friend of mine broke her teeth when she was younger and she passed out on the street, literally fainted from a white rage after spending too long dodging and fighting a man driving a car who was masturbating and harassing her as she waited for a bus. I have been filled with shame after running into friends near my house downtown, where I was walking with my head to the floor like some downtrodden wretch, trying to tune out rather than shout or argue with a group of lewd men. A close childhood friend confided incest. Another friend confided FGM. So many confided rape. Things are not so bad.

My hopes for a feminist uprising to lurch Egypt forward in a messy, imperfect, but ultimately positive way now seem part of a different time, before the great recalibration of possibilities, plans, and tactics that last summer brought about. But more than any other fight or cause this is still the one that sits, unbudging, in my heart and mind. This is in part because it is deeply personal – but beyond this, it is tied up with every other battle for social justice that we will have to face. Military dominance, political corruption, and the ills of the justice system and capitalism are all inherently patriarchal, depend on patriarchy in order to survive.

Things are bad. Admitting that and allowing ourselves to see it clearly is the first step to finding change.

Margins, islands, and homes

I recently moved from downtown to Zamalek, which feels increasingly like an island playground/food court. Running errands, I elbow my way through crowds of preppy young people standing around in brightly colored shorts, waiting for a table at a café or a burger from one of the half dozen new burger places. Past some designer jewelry and furniture stores, I am waiting to cross a busy intersection when a woman sitting on the sidewalk and begging for money grabs onto my leg, pleading with me for change.

Anywhere else in the world this might alarm me; instead all I feel is a deep shame. Because all I can do is give a few pounds to this woman whose baby is crawling over her shoulder, his small face smudged with dirt, in an almost unbearably typified scene. Because I know that afterwards I will go and buy overpriced food and sit at my overpriced laptop and go about my day.

Cairo does this to me all the time; it hits me with my own privilege, constantly reminding me of how big the city’s cracks are, and how many people live in them. It’s an experience I recall having as far back as childhood visits to the city.

My recent apartment move brings up memories of my first move to Cairo, more than ten years ago now. Seventeen and about to start university, I moved into the student dorms on Maraashly Street. My university experience would be turbulent, as I pushed against my family and the restrictions of social conservatism, and struggled to find real engagement in a student body that seemed overwhelmingly vapid to me. In both areas, I reacted by distancing myself, dismissing entire groups of people and situations, convinced I had nothing to learn, nothing to gain. I thought I would just have to operate according to my own code, owing nothing to anyone outside of my immediate inner circle.

Despite this very adolescent self-insulation, I fell in love with Cairo, distinctly and unmistakably. Eventually I grew up a little and opened up to the world around me. The city charmed me with its vastness, its intimacy, and with how it could sometimes be so forthcoming and revealing, and at the same time, mean none of what it reveals.

Throughout, however, there was a lingering, mostly peripheral sensation that I did not belong here. Part of this has to do with possessing a female body; this in itself means that just being on the street is always some kind of battle, let alone being able to feel any inclusion in or ownership over it. But that is a whole other topic for a whole other post, career, or lifetime. Beyond femaleness, I had grown up elsewhere, my first language was English, and, importantly for many: I had another passport. I could leave at any time and go to any place that I wanted. I think this gives the impression that one has less at stake in a place, and cares less about it.

To say that the revolution removed this unease would be inaccurate. I think what it did was show me how the structures of political and cultural oppression that ran the country – the security state, patriarchy, deep classism, religious prejudice, racism, economic corruption – marginalized everyone in one way or other. The very concept of citizenship was legally and philosophically absent.

It also showed me communities of people who were working for everyone’s inclusion, who had opened up their lives to unknown change, and this made me less afraid to do the same. It showed me how impossible it was to be away from moments of transformation here, or even just moments of loss.

There was a lot of loss this past summer. There is a new struggle against marginalization, as we are all hounded by messages that Egypt is a homogenous, male, strong state and anyone who says otherwise is a traitor. It’s a struggle not to feel muted by ubiquitous expressions of support for the generals. But then I remember that people don’t always mean what they say, and that we are quite skilled at performing. And this one is an easy jig, with a catchy song to go along with it. More deeply, I think that supporting the military allows people to see Egypt the way they always wanted to: strong, united, and robust. Simultaneously, they can blame the Muslim Brotherhood for everything that they hate about our reality: corruption, poverty, bankruptcy, violence. It is a perfect delusion, and one that cannot last long past the honeymoon.

These days I walk around the island, between its begging women and the iPhones and hormones of its teenagers, and I think about choices. Choice of neighborhood, choice of city. It mostly feels like I am here by default  – how could I not be? Where else would I be? But the truth is I have chosen Cairo over and over again. I’ve learned not to care whether it would choose me, sincerity not being a strong quality of any megalopolis. It is home, from whatever margin. 

Dispatches

This is the third time I’ve tried to write something about these nightmarish days in Egypt. The words that come out have been too hollow and disconnected to share, but I’m trying again. I don’t have a laser-sharp analysis to provide, and I’m certainly not going to take a wild stab at predicting what will happen. My physical engagement with politics has been restricted to my own couch, or friends’, ever since June 30, when I half-heartedly went out to an anti-MB, anti-military rule march.

Egypt has given me a life-changing political education in the last two and a half years. When the revolution started I was personally burnt out, and so numbed by the necrosis that characterized political life in the last years of Mubarak that it was not until January 28th that I fully believed that people could change the country. My cynicism was deep and heavy to budge, but it evaporated over the course of those weeks and I’ve kept it sternly in check ever since; choosing, every time things got violent or dispirited or stagnant, to see the possibilities people were working for all around me.

It’s hard, now, not to feel like something has been stolen from me. As I write this, I am deeply aware of how many others have had the much more devastating  loss, the theft, of a loved one or a limb.

The past days have left me with a feeling of uselessness and alienation. I condemn both the Brotherhood and the security forces in their inter-locking cycle of violence and lies. There is no place for me in the street, or in a national conversation determined to start and end with chauvinistic nationalism. So I stay in and watch the city descend into silence, the streets emptying of life as military curfew approaches. On days like yesterday, I can hear gunshots, explosions, and the occasional surreal chants. Friends come and go, and we oscillate between collective media monitoring and outbursts of humor and distraction. So many have seen gruesome death, literally counting bodies and wading through blood in the course of their jobs. I wonder what this does to us, to what we know.

This is not the first time the state has pushed us to the edge, to where we can see the possibility and feel the fear of continuous violence and chaos. Churches are left to be attacked, buildings to burn, and brute force is being used in part, I believe, to provoke. It’s not the first time, but it might be the bloodiest and the scariest – and the one receiving the loudest applause.

Image

(Inverted eagles, symbols of Egyptian nationalism, on a public wall in downtown Cairo). 

I do not know how we will move forward from here, or when we will stop flaunting our cruelty as a source of pride. How will the hundreds of families that bury their dead ever find peace in a country whose authorities bully them into accepting suicide as the official cause of death before releasing the body? Whose media refuses to call those they lost anything but terrorists? Elements of the Brotherhood are using terror, and its leadership is criminal; but it is not a monolith, and innocent people have surely been killed by the army’s own terrorism.

In the meantime, I will venture out into the quiet streets, in search of glimpses of the city I first fell in love with.

No apologies

Egypt at the moment feels like a series of battles and struggles, separated by geography but all ultimately linked together, hurtling towards some unknown destiny.  People are dying, politicians are floundering. This post is about one fight: the one against sexual assault.

The fight to free people’s bodies from sexual violence is a global one. Everywhere women and men have been and are raped, assaulted, and threatened with violent sexual language and gestures. The motivations seem to be myriad: individuals, armies, and political groups do this to try to intimidate and control people, or simply to make themselves feel more powerful. The fight over the bodies of women in Egypt is the one I know the most intimately, and the one that I struggle the most to understand. Egypt’s darkness when it comes to rampant, daily sexual harassment has been discussed in western and local media.

Since last November, protests in and around Tahrir have been marred by large numbers of mob sexual assaults, which have in some cases involved the use of knives and other weapons against women and people trying to help them escape the assault.  Groups such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (Opantish, which, to be forthcoming, I am personally involved with), Tahrir Bodyguard, and others have been working to combat these assaults and to campaign against sexual violence on a broader scale. The attacks have been focused on Tahrir but we have reports of them occurring in other parts of the city and the country.The despicable statements by the Shura Council earlier this year about these violent attacks, which were largely characterized by victim-blaming, are evidence of the utter lack of responsibility or even acknowledgement by the state and political groups of this issue.

I do not know whether the assaults are premeditated or spontaneous. Even if groups of men plan to go out and attack women in this way, there is no doubt that the imbedded social perceptions surrounding harassment contribute to the growth of the mob.

June 28th saw a big rally in Tahrir demanding Morsy’s departure from power. I received calls after midnight with verified reports of cases of mob assault in and around Tahrir. The next day, Opantish and other groups were on the ground, and, perhaps due to the deterrent effect of their presence, there were no cases that we knew of. But I couldn’t help but notice, as I moved around downtown, that the language used by people in their verbal harassment was more violent than usual, and I wondered if this was a social side effect of the physical attacks of the previous night. (It is of course immensely depressing to analyze harassment in this relativistic way, as if the starting point is regular daily harassment with less unpleasant or threatening language rather than no harassment at all).

Yesterday, June 30th, some friends and I joined a march from Saray el Kobba to the presidential palace calling for Morsy’s departure and also rejecting military rule. The atmosphere was largely festive, with singing, chanting, banners and flags. After we joined other marches congregating at the palace we stood around drinking iced coffee in the shade, disoriented by the safe, upbeat atmosphere after days of anxiety and with the knowledge that things would surely be violent elsewhere in the country. I left to go to Tahrir and work with Opantish, which was operating that evening.

Like many, I was stunned by how Tahrir and the surrounding streets were carpeted by people protesting, mostly chanting against Morsy. I had not seen so many people out around Tahrir before, not in the 18 days that unseated Mubarak in 2011 or at any other time. Military helicopters frequently circled the square, at one point bizarrely dropping Egyptian flags onto the crowd in a blatant gesture of political partiality.

The atmosphere felt more threatening to me immediately after getting out of the taxi near Tahrir, at which point it was still daylight. I don’t understand what kind of subliminal group psychology contributes to this, but it seems like there is some consensus that Tahrir and downtown are areas where it is particularly ok to harass women. I don’t know if geographic locations develop  certain reputations, and therefore bring this behavior out in people.

I started my shift with Opantish at around 7 30 last night. We did not wrap up until after 3 in the morning. We received 46 reports of cases of mob sexual assault in and around Tahrir. We were able to intervene in around half, in coordination with other groups such as Tahrir Bodyguard. Some attacks involved the use of blades, sticks and other weapons. One case had to go to hospital and undergo surgery. Several others needed medical attention. Some volunteers were wounded. The square became undeniably unsafe for women.

This was the highest number of reported attacks that Opantish and other groups have ever received and verified. I shudder to think of how many women were attacked in cases we did not hear of.

The assaults are being distorted and used by political groups for their own selfish ends. The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters post footage of the attacks online and use images at rallies as evidence that the anti-Morsy protesters are all criminals and thugs.  Opposition forces are silent on the issue, or deny that assaults are happening altogether. Time and time again we have seen political opposition groups call for rallies in Tahrir and then do nothing to secure the space from systematic sexual violence. Opantish and other groups are attacked in social media by people who are convinced that we are fabricating the reports, or want us to keep them quiet so as not to create panic and scare people from going out into the square. As if acknowledging and trying to end the violence is what will discourage women’s participation, rather than the violence itself. Others say that this is not the time for this fight, for “women’s issues.” As if the use of life-threatening violence against human beings simply because they are women is something we can ignore until…what? Until we get another government to lead our patriarchal state institutions? Until the military steps in?

I am immensely encouraged by the men and women who time and time again have dropped everything to combat these sexual assaults, risking their psychological and physical safety and being creative, resourceful, and intuitive. I have to hope that there are enough people who see the process of social change as multi-faceted, more complex and more difficult than demanding the departure of a president or a government.

I do not know what political future Egypt will create for itself. Continued violence between the Muslim Brotherhood and those who oppose it, military intervention, a coup, who knows. I am only certain that  the fight against sexual violence and misogyny must be in the heart of the larger struggle for freedom. It cannot be tabled for later, it cannot be hushed up and ignored. We certainly will not allow it.

Waiting to rebel

On returning to Cairo I felt myself, while struggling with the physical difficulties of the city, brimming with positivity for it. There are a lot of interesting people doing interesting things in what is now an undeniably tremendous space for collective projects, campaigns, and interventions. After decades of living with the state’s failure to address fundamental problems with such negligence and corruption that the layers of crises grew dense and sticky, people are coming together and working on a plethora of issues including the environment, sexual harassment, and food security. Independent young people are doing their jobs and the supposed job of the state, with creativity and heart.

Egypt charms us with this sense of possibility, a charm made all the more compelling when we remember the stagnation of the years before the uprising, a time which seemed at once frustrated and apathetic. And then, with a few clicks through social media links, the atmosphere darkens abruptly. Like thousands of others, I watched the footage of Shia men being beaten to death by a mob of horrifyingly normal-looking people earlier this week. I ill-advisedly watched this just a few minutes after seeing Mosireen’s video about sexual torture in Egypt, and felt myself enveloped in grief. People talk about becoming desensitised to violence after frequent exposure to it. I am yet to experience this.

In this dualistic atmosphere, I haven’t really known what to think of the Tamarod campaign for protests demanding Morsy’s departure on June 30th. Being generally supportive of demonstrations against violent and corrupt power, I was initially impressed by Tamarod’s ability to mobilize. The campaign seemed to capture people’s exasperation and anger at the regime and their desire for change. But the vagueness of Tamarod’s “post-Morsy” plans combined with their pro-army statements and the opportunists circling around the campaign is disconcerting.

I worry about the short- and long-term ugliness that could result from the Islamists’ sense of self-righteousness and existential threat, which will be inflamed by the attack on their long-awaited chance at  political leadership. I had been hoping we could let them permanently destroy themselves through the incompetence and short-sightedness of their rule. Sarah Carr lays out the dilemma pretty well here, and I find myself feeling conflicted in much the same way. But the movement on the streets has already started, and so I have to feel hope that the opposition’s numbers will be huge, and that the good guys will win with as little loss of life and eyes and spirit as possible. And then we can get back to the rebellious work of creating positive change in this place where everything suddenly seems so possible.

Egypt to Palestine

I am visiting Palestine for the first time. Coming here is something I’ve wanted to do since reading about the conflict and having Palestinian friends snapped me into some form of political consciousness as a teenager.

I’ve only been here a couple of weeks and had thought that I wouldn’t dare to write about something so politically and personally meaningful as the occupation after such a short time. What I didn’t know was that every aspect of life, every significant conversation, work of art, transaction or observation that is lived and felt is somehow tied to occupation. From the fruit you buy to the roads you drive on to where you can meet people.  I’d read this, people had told me, but I hadn’t fully absorbed it until I was able to be here.

Palestinians I meet express surprise that I am Egyptian. Very few Egyptians come here – they are not able to since there is no way to enter the West Bank without crossing the Israeli border, and Arabs are generally not allowed into Israel (by the Israeli government and their own).  Arabs are a noticeably absent demographic at large touristic and religious sites. The only reason I was able to cross the border is because I was accidentally born in the US, and became the only member of my family to acquire that blue passport. I played the role of a blithe, gum-chewing American tourist at the border to help balance my Arab features, and name.

Many people here say that they, or someone they know, have tried to travel to Egypt in the past year or two and were unable to enter. So Egyptians can’t come to Palestine, and Palestinians can’t go to Egypt.

Almost everyone I talk to asks about the situation in Egypt with genuine concern: كيف الأوضاع فى مصر؟    Is the country lost now that the Ikhwan are in power? Is there hope for the struggle against them? Are the Ikhwan able to go out and force their ways on people’s lifestyles?

On one of our first few nights here, a man in a bar asked if we thought that Palestine would be at the heart of the second, real, Arab revolution. This triggered more questions: Do Egyptians think about Palestine, do they connect the occupation of this land with their own struggle against cultural, political, and economic oppression? Isn’t our freedom inherently connected, as people in this region which is dealt with by governments and international brokers as a string of military investments, oil contracts, and power balances?

outside a bar in Ramallah

outside a bar in Ramallah: “we are hungry for freedom”

I’ve spoken to Palestinians who are still dedicated to liberation and whose activism, sometimes at the cost of their health, careers, and passports, cannot be dismissed. But there is a sense of resignation here; people say that nothing is happening, that nobody wants to fight. A shopkeeper in Ramallah (apparently the most depoliticized city in the West Bank) asked me how people in Egypt have the energy to go out and fight all the time, to protest, to deal with instability?

This all makes me aware of the advantages we have in our struggle, in Egypt. We have our mobility. Our security forces are often at odds with the ruling government. We have a population that is large, and that is still angry. Perhaps it’s also simply an issue of timing – the fight in Egypt is young, it is not one we have inherited from our parents or our grandparents. We can still dictate the narratives.  We have a plethora of frontlines, of causes, and while the problems might all share the same roots there is perhaps more traction to be gained from fighting a single cause in Egypt than here, where all roads lead to the dead-end of occupation. Of course this is not to say that there is no value for that kind of activism in Palestine, just that it might be easier in Egypt for issue-based action to have a broader impact or overlap with other initiatives.

So my friend and I speak positively of Egypt here, when we are asked. We tell people that the fight is ongoing, that the Ikhwan won’t last, that things can change and that people have a sense of this. We tell them that the Ikhwan cannot control Egypt the way Hamas tries to control Gaza; we are simply too many.  I thank people when they inevitably tell me they love Egypt. I tell them that we love Palestine, that I feel lucky to be here. And I think that rather than Palestine being at the center of the next widespread Arab struggle, as the man in the bar said, perhaps it is now Egypt’s turn.