Bussy Project tells untold stories of women in D-CAF

Rowan El-Shimi, Sunday 1 Apr 2012

The Bussy Project performs deleted scenes from their monologues on women's issues as part of the absent art component of the visual arts programme of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival

Sondos Shabayek (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)

From an autocratic government to a parliament dominated by Islamists, the topic of censorship on creative expression — whether imposed or from the artsits themselves — has been both a fact and a fear in contemporary Egyptian society.

Within the visual art programme of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) launched in Cairo on 29 March, the Bussy Project presented monologues that were deleted scenes from previous performances which they titled "Don't Tell Your Story". The performance took place in the Factory Space of Townhouse Gallery on Saturday 31 March. The space is also currently hosting the visual art exhibition "I'm Not There" where instead of art works, artists are exhibiting the reasons why their work is not there, whether due to censorship or other reasons.

The performances of the Bussy Project feature actors who tell the real stories of women in Egypt in the form of monologues. The performance featured stories untold due to government censorship and social mores.

The first story was told by Sondos Shabayek, one of the organisers of the Bussy Project, along with Tahrir Monologues. The story revolved around what a man told a woman on the street, which included some inappropriate language censored by the artist with a "beep" when said.

Shabayek stated that even though they censored the inappropriate language when performed, it was still rejected within the script by the censorship board.

Other stories told featured a girl whose maid was telling her how her son and daughter were to be wed as she could not afford to support them both in getting married, and how this was normal in her neighbourhood.

Another performance featured a man explaining and justifying why he harasses women. Later there was a monologue about a woman married to a man who was incapable of having sex, and her acceptance of it and happiness in her life. The last performance was the story of a couple trying to kiss, with the girl holding back from kissing and the man frustrated at her attitude.

These scenes were performed in mime in the Bussy Project's July 2011 performance, after not gaining approval to perform them in their original monologue format.

The Bussy Project has been active since 2006, starting in the American University in Cairo after a performance of the Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler.

"At the time some felt the stories didn't relate to women in Egyptian society," Shabayek explained to the audience after the show. "These people then started inviting women to write their own stories that were performed yearly at AUC."

At the time, the issue of sexual harassment was still taboo in society. The oft-quoted research of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights, entitled "Clouds in Egypt's Sky," which gave statistics on the proportion of women subject to harassment, was not yet out, and the media had not picked up on the issue.

"There was a time when each girl thought she was the only one who was getting harassed," Shabayek recalled, explaining that when she attended the Bussy Project performance as an audience member she related to the stories, and that was what pushed her to get involved in the project.

"The experience of having an opportunity for a girl to get on a stage and tell her story, or someone else's story that she relates to, is empowering," she said. "Men used to come up to us after the performance and say they did not know the concequences of what they told women on the street," she added.

Later in 2010, the group decided to take their stories outside AUC's walls to the public, and that was when they came face-to-face with government censorship.

"Because of the content, it was very difficult to find a space which accepted the work," Shabayek recalls. "At the end we ended up making our own space in the garage of the Cairo Opera House."

She went on to explain the process of sending the script to the censorship board prior to the performance, and having parts removed when it came back to the group.

"They always tell us they are protecting us as artists," Shabyek explained. "There are so many laws on what you can say and not say in public relating to morality, religion ... etc. If the censors don't censor the works, artists could face serious charges and prison sentences."

The group also discussed institutionalised censorship, where artistis cannot find places to show their work whether for reasons relating to content, who they are, or the internal politics of art spaces.

Shabayek and Mona El-Shimi, another member of the Bussy Project, recalled a time when censors took parts of the script and took out more after the first night's performance.

"We had a visit from the morality police, the tourism police, State Security and the censorship body, who made us take more scenes out," they said.

Perhaps what is most interesting is that these bodies paid them a visit as they received complaints from audience members who were offended by the show and felt such issues should not be discussed in public.

Last month Shabayek and El-Shimi joined the art in public space project "Shawarena," by the Mahatat Collective, and performed relevant monologues from Bussy in the women's car of the Cairo metro.

"Reactions varied," El-Shimi commented. "Some were angry and one even tried to beat up Sondos; some women were in tears, while others admited that this took place in society but wondered what the solution was."

In light of the Islamist dominated parliament, the group was asked by the audience if they feared further censorship on their content. "The issue is social not political," Shabayek said. "They could not have a political censoring body that is tougher than what we currently have, but socially censorship will happen from people they have on the ground."


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