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Empowering women against violence and discrimination through art: Egyptian perspectives

Through the UN’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign, Egyptian creators remind us of the importance of raising awareness about violence against women while promoting female empowerment

Mariam Mecky , Saturday 17 Dec 2016
Womens
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The Egyptian arts have always played a powerful role in shedding light on gender-based violence, empowering women through movies, theatre performances, caricatures and street art such as graffiti.

The most recent examples emerge from the UN’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign, which took place between 15 November and 10 December.

Joining this international movement, Egyptian artists used a variety of creative expressions to raise awareness about violence against women and encourage female empowerment.

Theatre performances such as Next Station and The Forced, or the exhibition Coffee Cup and the song Nour, are some of the events that addressed gender-based violence through art in recent weeks.

However, the campaign is merely the latest in a long line of Egyptian art addressing gender-based violence and women’s rights.

Among the most prominent examples of art exploring these topics in Egypt’s modern history is El-Bab El-Maftouh (The Open Door, 1964), a film that tackles women’s struggle to break free from traditional societal roles. Another example is the song “Girls Girls” by late Egyptian actress and singer Suad Hosny, who sings about how girls and boys are equal.

Following the 25 January Revolution, some artists took to the streets and painted walls with images depicting a variety of women’s issues including discrimination and sexual harassment.

Naturally capitalising on an influential tool, women’s rights organisations have also employed arts and culture to raise awareness about the issue.

Suad Hosny and Nadia Lutfi
[Caption: figuring iconic actresses Nadia Lutfi and Suad Hosny “There is no such thing as ‘exclusively for men’” (Referring to the famous film Lil rigal faqat, For Men Only). Photo by Mona Abaza (Captured 12 March 2012)]

Although the 16 Days campaign is not the first in the Egyptian activism and women’s rights scene, it does come as yet another powerful reminder of how important this topic remains.

In addition to the conventional seminars and research papers presented as part of the campaign’s programme, numerous organisations launched innovative events including theatre performances, music videos, film screenings and even puppet shows. The performances addressed various gender issues, from violence and sexual abuse to discrimination against women.

Next Station and Coffee Cup

In an event on 7 December that was part of the 16 Days campaign, HarassMap, a volunteer-based anti-sexual harassment initiative, acting in collaboration with Torraha, an Alexandria-based arts association, launched the theatre performance Next Station and an exhibition titled Coffee Cup in Alexandria.

Next Station touches upon different types of harassment as well as women's reaction to it and society's perspective on the challenges they face.

“Art is a very effective and influential tool in raising awareness and shedding light on causes. Just talking and discussing does not provide as much engagement as arts events,” Mai Khaled, manager of the Community Mobilisation Unit at HarrassMap, told Ahram Online.

“We [HarrasMap] organised and staged this play, which encompasses both acting and storytelling, through our volunteers and a number of directors and actors who volunteered. We also plan to further develop it,” she said.

This is not the first time HarrasMap has used art as part of shedding light on the women’s issues.

“We [have previously held] puppet shows in cooperation with El-Pergoola puppet theatre on sexual harassment in Cairo and Beni Suef governorates,” Khaled recalls, adding that the performance had a great impact.

“People were very interested and engaged with the interactive theatre; even kids aged six to 18 in Cairo's [economically underprivileged] area of Izbet Khairallah. I did not imagine [the first performance would have] such an impact.”

HarassMap
HarassMap's puppet show in Beni Seuf. (Photo Courtesy of HarassMap)

The play Next Station revolves around three girls who suddenly find themselves all grown up and face sexual assault on a public bus.

“Girls, we should depend on ourselves [in fighting against this harassment],” one of the girls tells her friends during the play.

“We aim to deliver the message that women should try to defend themselves, so we provide support, as we are aware that society does not prepare women [to face harassment],” Khaled highlighted.

The performance also exposes the culture of victim-blaming when it comes to sexual harassment.

One girl runs into an acquaintance on the bus when she feels another person’s hands on her body. She considers crying out, but refrains from doing so over concern about what her acquaintance would think.

HarassMap
HarassMap's performance "Next Station. (Photo Courtesy of HarassMap)

“The play is open-ended and offers two scenarios, [where the victim can] either passively remain on the bus, or leave... [at] the next station,” Khaled elaborated.

The comics exhibition Coffee Cup, organised Torraha, aims to raise awareness about women's issues through the lens of the local culture.

“Coffee Cup is not only an exhibition, but a project by Torraha that uses comics to counter gender-based violence. It is part of the awareness-raising campaign for the project My Right, which aims to provide psychological and legal support for women survivors of violence,” head of Torraha Azza Mandour told Ahram Online.

“A coffee cup is used as a symbol of oppression against women, whether when a woman is required to make a proper cup of coffee for a potential groom, or when a wife is forced make one for her husband after he hits her,” Mandour explained.

“We will publish all the Coffee Cup comics by the end of December,” she adds.

Coffee Cup exhibition
A picture taken during Torraha's Coffee Cup exhibition. (Photo Courtesy of Torraha)

The Forced

Another striking example of art addressing gender-based violence came on 26 November, when BuSSy, a performing arts project, held The Forced, a play that speaks about victims of sexual violence.

The Forced done in collaboration with Nazra for Feminist Studies and part of the campaign “It Happens” within the framework of the 16 Days campaign.

The play revolves around personal testimonies of sexual abuse victims.

“[I thought] it would not happen to me, I thought it only happens to other people,” said a storyteller in one of the play’s eight stories of sexual violence recounted by storytellers who bring to light many forms of sexual violence, those involving parents, partners, relatives, strangers, adults or even children.

Forced
“Forced” a performance of personal testimonies of sexual violence (Photo Courtesy of: Randa Khorshid)

Shedding light on a horrifying yet taboo subject, The Forced, through intimate and sometimes graphic details, highlights that sexual violence could happen to anyone.

“He had previously beaten me, but I had to return to him because I was afraid of scandal,” said one storyteller, speaking of her relationship with a man.

“He once dragged me from my hair in the streets, and got me back to his car before beating me with his belt, I cannot believe I was that weak and unable to leave.”

Another storyteller recounts the story of a victim of gang rape who faced tremendous hardship when she reported the crime to police.

“After I was raped, my father and brother kept hitting me, saying that I disgraced them [by bringing the case to the authorities],” she says, adding that the police put her in the same car with the men who raped her as they were taken to the prosecutor’s office.

The Forced uniquely and effectively reflects the multi-faceted accounts of sexual violence survivors and their fears and worries, as well as the shame they are subjected to, not from their abusers, but from society.

“The testimonies have been collected from the archive of the BuSSy project and El-Nadim Center for Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence,” Mariam Boctor, project coordinator at the BuSSy project, explained to Ahram Online.

“BuSSy called on sexual violence survivors to share their stories, anonymously or [openly].”

“[Society has] a very narrow definition of sexual violence; I personally believe this performance highlights the different types, [including] from close relatives,” Boctor said.

The BuSSy project, which started as a university theatre group in 2006, aims to document and give voice to suppressed or untold stories about gender in different communities in Egypt through theatrical performances.

‘Nour’

“How did she overcome these hardships? She’s a woman, not a man. How did male workers call her ‘boss’?”

This is a verse from the popular song “Nour” by the artists Zap Tharwat, Amina Khalil and Sary Hany.

The song aims to challenge gender stereotypes, speaking up about perspective of women within society, using the gender-neutral name “Nour.”

Nour, produced by the Axeer Studio under the supervision and support of the National Council for Women (NCW), UN Women and the Japanese embassy in Egypt, was released online on 25 November and was officially launched on 1 December as part of the 16 Days campaign.

The song tells the story of Nour, who is applying for an engineering job.

The interviewer finds a scrap of paper from Nour’s diary in her application. Assuming she is a male, he reads the story of her life.

The music video shows the hardships Nour endured in “his” life; taking up a job early because of his father’s sickness, working and studying to earn his engineering degree, and then supporting his baby sisters after their father’s death.

After reading about this applicant’s life, the interviewer is determined to hire Nour, though he is surprised when a woman shows up for the interview.

Nour
A screenshot of the music video of the song Nour.

“A thousand voices echo in my mind; It is unbelievable. How did she work as a mechanic? How was she the backbone of her family?” Tharwat sings as the interviewer.

“Will I change my mind because she is a woman? Shame on me.”

“How can I let myself be influenced by these sick and outdated thoughts?”

Masterfully reflecting a struggle that many of Egypt’s women face, the song has been hailed by many.

“Nour” quickly went viral, gaining over one millions views online in less than 24 hours after its release and receiving overwhelmingly positive comments from both men and women.

Highlighting that qualities such as bravery, responsibility and ambition are not limited to men, the song succeeds in challenging the stereotypical image of women as domesticated and weak human beings.

The song reached the fifth-highest rank worldwide on the music application Soundcloud, registering over 9 million viewers, according to a statement by the National Council for Women.

“I [as a woman] overcome challenges and circumstances that you as a man do not experience,” Khalil sings, reflecting the thoughts of many women. 

El Bab El-Maftouh
A screenshot of a scene in El Bab El-Maftouh movie which tackled women's right in their different role and highlighted a woman's struggle between her father and her husband that doesn't understand her.

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