In a small but well-lit room on the 3rd floor of the Supreme Council for Culture, the Woman And Memory Forum (WMF) is currently exhibiting the collection of pioneering leftist activist Wedad Mettri.
The exhibition includes a collection of mostly black and white photos, fountain ink handwritten notes taken at syndicate meetings and international conferences and a docile but firm voice in a short recording where the prominent social worker and feminist shares an account of her journey that started with her birth in Cairo in the late 1920s.
The exhibits tell the story of a woman who was born in a considerably conservative environment and who managed to pursue a path that was marked by a clear will to change, challenge and contest what she found to be unfair or discriminatory.
According to Maissan Hassan, programme manager at the WMF, the collection of Mettri was donated before she passed away in 2007 to the organisation that has for the last twenty years in a diligent endeavor to re-read history from a feminist perspective.
“Wedad Mettri’s collection is really informative not just about the account of this exceptional lady who managed to make so many changes on many social and in fact political fronts but also of the role of women in the making of Egyptian society and Egyptian history in the course of her lifetime,” Hassan said.
A dedicated social worker who was also an active communist and a resolved feminist, Hassan argued, the life and work of Mettri “as we get to learn from her exhaustive notes and the other items of her private collection” show that it was not always easy for women to break free from the established norms. It also shows that the emancipation of women was not just about women but about the liberation and advancement of society.
The collection of Mettri, Hassan said, will continue to be exhibited at the building of the supreme council of culture for the duration of the WMF organised three-day seminar “Oral history in times of change” which was inaugurated on Sunday 13 September morning and will close on Tuesday 15 September.
Afterwards, Hassan added, it would be taken to other places, especially schools and universities to inform a wider public “not just of the life and journey of Wedad Mettri which is a very inspiring story to share but certainly also of the role that women played in society and politics.”
“We are talking about a woman who had her family but who was also reforming educator, a political activist and a feminist and who consciously chose to document her journey and to actually share it with compassion,” Hassan said.
“This visual material is very rich and it helps to easily reach out to a diverse group of people in a way that could put women’s role in history in the mainstream,” Hassan argued.
The exhibit of Mettri is partially related to the WMF efforts to re-introduce the reading of oral history as part of learning about the experiences of Egyptian women throughout the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century.
“We want to get beyond the ready-made cliché views that for example the 1950s and 1960s were dramatically emancipating because while this might have been the case for the women of Cairo it was certainly not the case of say my mother who was living in Kafr El-Dawwar [on the Delta] and was fighting her way through to join university,” Hassan said.
Hassan argued that stereotyping the chances and experiences of women is as detrimental to their role and to their sufferings as the intentional or unintentional discarding of their presence and contributions.
“The experiences of women are very diverse and very rich and they do shed a great deal of light on many untold aspects of the collective history of society,” said Hassan.
In the collection of Mettri there are several recordings that share her experience. And, as Hassan said, in the archives of the WMF there are more recordings of other women’s experiences and also a few other private collections that should eventually find their way into exhibition.
The WMF has covered the lives of what its team generally qualifies as 100 pioneering women across the social and political spectrum.
“When we talk about 100 pioneering women we are in fact talking about pioneering teachers, nurses, doctors and also pioneering actresses and writers,” Hassan said. She added, “So we have worked on the lives of Wedad Mettri, Laila Doss and also the lives of Hind Roustom and Madiha Yossri”.
WMF is offering the resumes of these accounts-testimonies through a detailed and accessible archive but also through a series of publications.
“And we are planning to do much more especially with the oral history not just of the pioneering figures but also with ordinary and younger women whose names might necessarily ring a bell but whose experiences are very enriching,” Hassans said.
“When we share these experiences we are in fact getting into a dialogue amongst ourselves and we are actually sharing experiences and certainly we are standing side by side with one another,” Hassan concluded.
The exhibition continues until 15 September at the Supreme Council for Culture, Cairo Opera House Grounds.
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