“I am here to confuse you” is the title of a speech the Egyptian Journalist Mona Eltahawy gave at TEDWomen2010. Mona uses confusion as a tool to shift perspectives and fight misogyny in the Arab world as well as in the West where Arab women are often times stereotyped as being helpless and obedient victims who cannot stand up for themselves. While this might be partially true due to an arguably wide-spread apathy amongst women in the Middle East and North Africa, there are also activists like Mona, who fight the patriarchy and specifically sexual harassment flourishing in it. After being sexually assaulted by the Egyptian police in 2012 and beaten until both her arms were broken, she took up writing only a few months after the incident. Despite her essays often being criticized and considered by many Arabs to feed into the narrative of the oppressed Arab woman, Mona believes that “to say that there is patriarchy in Arab culture is not denying women agency” (Eltahawy 2012: 1) and that it must be done in order for Arab women to empower and free themselves of male oppression and stereotypes that disacknoledge their agency.
This essay will analyse how and why female activists, like Mona, use art to challenge sexual harassment in Egypt. It argues that media of contemporary art are a form of self-therapy and can become an effective and empowering tool of combating sexual harassment. To substantialize this claim, it will firstly start off with outlining possible explanations for the sexual harassment epidemic in Egyptian society. Secondly, contemporary art and its power will be contextualized within the idea of successful creative resistance by looking at the work of female graffiti artists as well as at the impact of written word. It will examine the different layers of racial and sexual harassment and how artists of various backgrounds cope with it. A substantial amount of this research was conducted through interviews which will be part of the argumentation.
Sexual harassment in Egyptian society
In her essay “Why do they hate us?” Mona writes that in the Middle East, being a woman has always been the most vulnerable position due to a toxic mix of misogynous culture and religion (Eltahawy 2012: 1). Especially since the 1980s, during which many Egyptians worked in the Gulf and Saudi-Arabia, Egyptian society has become increasingly conservative as a result of the cultural influence from the Arab Peninsula. This has pushed women even further away from being equally positioned in their society and rather led to stronger policing of their bodies, which can be seen in the dramatic increase of veiled women and girls in Egyptian streets presently in comparison to the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, these conservative ideas of women having to cover up and remain in the private sphere serve as excuses for the disrespect of girls and women that is taking place in the streets of Egypt. Sexual harassment, which can be defined as “any word or action which has any kind of sexual connotation and is provoking the space of the person being harassed without his/her consent” (Ibrahim 2015: 1), affects 99.3% of Egyptian women (Mashad 2015: 1). Rather than it being the result of an influx of conservative Islam, some explain this phenomenon with the Middle East’s failing economies that make it difficult for men to get married (Eltahawy 2012: 1), which increases their sexual frustration and willingness to harass women. However, in reality there are many married men who also engage in this behaviour. Furthermore, harassment is not limited to certain classes, in fact it can be found throughout the spectrum and is therefore not sufficiently explained through a lack of education either. More convincingly, it has simply become normalized in Egyptian society due to its constant repetition as “prolonged exposure to the same scenery makes everything look meaningless and abstract, people lose their identity and faces become the same to the harasser” (Azmy 2015: 1). Toxic masculinity that aims to control women in order for men to feel more powerful facilitates this societal acceptance and creates a lack of public safety as the police fails protect women from fellow harassing men.
The power of contemporary art
It is for these reasons which show how deeply ingrained the idea is that women’s bodies exist to satisfy the male gaze and further desires, that Egypt needs more than anti-harassment laws to successfully combat this problem. The patriarchy is embedded in the state and the system, because it is embedded in people’s minds. Therefore, rather than imposing half-heartedly formed rules from above that are hardly respected let alone implemented by most men, it is necessary to reach individuals on a deeper level. Art can be an effective tool in doing so for the reason that the creator’s agency cannot easily be corrupted or made subject to certain regulations which are made by the patriarchy and attempt to shut down female voices. Moreover, for the fact that art does not have to follow rules, it is the most individualistic approach to critiquing society as it is able to “embrace the telling of complex, multivocal narratives resonant with the realities of lived experience” (Kreamer 2013: 146). This is especially important considering that the way society treats its members depends on multiple factors, for example race and religion, and women thus experience sexual harassment differently, even though it may take place in the same environment. Art is a powerful weapon in fighting for revolutions of social, sexual and cultural thought collectively and independently; especially in the context of the age of technology, in which it is constantly shared and easily accessible. Artists can form transnational links and inspire each other across borders and cultures. This strengthens their belief that they can actually make a difference with their work and empowers them to develop ideas of transformation through art. An example for this is the impact Aliaa Mahdy had when she published a nude photo of herself taken in her parents’ bedroom. She ignited the hashtag #nudephotorevolutionary that led to a widespread internet movement and the creation of a calendar that was supported by women all over the Arab world. In comparison, Samira Ibrahim, one of the girls that were subjected to virginity tests by the Egyptian military and the only one to take legal action against it, received significantly less media coverage and online support. While both women bravely spoke out against the misogyny in their society, Aliaa’s choice of protest was more difficult to undermine; the Nude Revolutionairy Calendar was sold and its proceeds were used to support women’s rights and free expression. By contrast, Salwa El-Husseini, also forced to undertake a virginity test, was even prevented from going to court for the reason that she did not have identification papers (Eltahawy 2011: 1). Art is special, because it is able to shake and shock, make us feel and, most importantly, remember. In Mona’s words, „the battles over women’s bodies can be won only by a revolution of the mind“ (Eltahawy 2017: 1).
Graffiti and street art
Often times, art is used to highlight events that are being ignored by the public, namely in Samira Ibrahim’s case. For the reason that she received no suitable public recognition for taking a stance against the military, a Cairo based graffiti artist paid her tribute, criticizing that Aliaa was given more support for willingly undressing in private whereas Samira had forcefully been stripped off her clothes and violated in front of and by strangers (Morayef 2013: 1).
Ammar Abo Bakr’s tribute to Samira Ibrahim versus Alia El Mahdy
In the Egypt of the 21st century, graffiti has become an especially important form of street art that is utilized to create “social awareness campaigns against corruption, media brainwashing, poverty and sexual harassment” (Morayef 2013: 1). Since its beginnings in the early 2000s, graffiti has been practised within a political context. It played a big role in demanding change in the 25 January revolution and its aftermath and just as women participated in the actual protests, they naturally also contributed to the creative resistance. There is a link between graffiti and gender, intimidation and interpretation, and so street art „has become the visual archive of an emancipatory politics, expressions of hope for a country in which women are not violated everyday“ (Baker 2015: 1). Furthermore, the visualizing of messages in public spaces helps to change common perceptions without requiring the people to actively take time out of their day and engage. This is especially important in a country where art is considered a luxury and therefore not embraced by the wider public; it needs to be self-explanatory or easily interpreted in order to stick in people’s minds and subconscious.
A good example for this form of political art is the work of Hend Kheera, the first Egyptian graffiti artist to be portrayed by the Rolling Stone. She also reacted to Samira’s trial by participating in an anti-sexual harassment campaign and stencilled the outline of a woman on a wall in Cairo, captioned: ‘Warning! Don’t touch or castration awaits you!’ This message, in its clear, shocking simplicity, defied the stereotype of quiet Arab women who cannot fight back. Similarly, Mira Shihadeh painted a woman wearing a red dress and high heels, spraying what could be pepper spray or graffiti paint to fight off men, underlined by the straightforward statement „No to sexual harassment!“. It is drawings like these that empower ordinary women on a daily basis on their way to school or work, serving as a reminder to them that there are others out there fighting the same problems. It is messages like these that encourage them to participate in the struggle for equality when otherwise they might have stayed quiet. These painted walls serve as new ideas for public discourse, as documentations of achievement as well as failure and most importantly, as a promise that there is still hope; at least when it comes to the power and potential of art and its ability to bring people together to connect and organise their activism. The first collective for this was Noon El Neswa, a „visual arts initiative taking back public spheres“ (Noon El Neswa 2012) using graffiti to focus solely on women’s issues and advocate gender equality and women’s rights in form of street campaigns (Morayef 2013: 1). They stencilled simple messages like „A Girl is just like a Boy“ and „Don’t Label Me“, whose resonance was so powerful that they were duplicated by feminists in Tunisia. As always, objectors would try to take down the artworks, but in the case of graffiti and „its periodic whitewashing [as] an attempt to erase memory or assign blame, its persistence [is] a symbol of stubborn resistance“ (Young 2013: 1).
Don’t touch, or castration awaits you. By Hend Kheera
No to sexual harassment. By Mira Shihadeh
Don’t label us. By NooNeswa
Poetry and women’s circles
From phrases drawn on walls to words written on paper, language provides the foundation for creative resistance against sexual harassment in Egypt. Being an Arabic speaking country, the respect and love that Egyptians have for their language due to its holy origin makes it the most powerful tool for reaching out. The richness of Arabic, its endless possibility of expression and detailed description of life, symbolizes ever renewing ways of contextualizing and understanding society. Therefore, simple yet intense female resistance can be found especially in Arabic poetry and within this context, it is especially revolutionary as there is no Arabic word for patriarchy. This shows how much language mirrors society, because how can we grasp and fight a concept for which we have no words, how do we explain something that has no name, how do we start thinking about something no one has ever spoken to us about? The limits of language determine the limits of societal change and similarly, the endless creativity of language promises an endless set of solutions.
Farah Barakat, a young woman from Alexandria, writes about the body, her country and sexual harassment as it seems that in her world, these topics cannot be mentioned separately from each other. She translates „patriarchy“ into „community of the father“, which reflects the concept that a male figure is the most important member of society as the father is the symbol of strength and control, which is widely backed up by religion and tradition. To Farah, writing is a way of surviving from losing her mind in a world where she is constantly disrespected in the streets as well as what are supposed to be safe spaces. „I want out of my room”, she writes desperately, „of my house, of my mom’s big grip, of my father’s silence, of my sister’s narrowness, of my uncle’s shameful jokes, of my aunt’s circle of accusations, of my family’s name, of the street’s assumptions. I want out of my skin, of my jeans, of my tight bra, and my white sneakers. I want out of this life, quickly, and completely.” (Barakat 2018) There is no physical „out“ in Egypt, except for writing and sharing her poetry with other women. With a friend, Farah organises women’s circles, private meetings in which her and other artists discuss the challenges they face freely. Where they express critical thoughts about the relation between Egyptian society and the body in words they otherwise cannot say out loud and find someone to genuinely listen to them. Where they write about how freedom can be achieved in the future or where they could go if this freedom never arrives.
“I take off the illusion of nationalism
as if I am taking off my bra
after a long day.
My body doesn’t understand
and doesn’t care
about what people say about it.
I observe the passersby,
and the street,
and I repeat to myself:
I don’t like this city.
plans to escape occupy my mind
since I’ve read a line from Iman Mersal
in which she says
“My girl friend got a visa
because she wanted to try her body in another continent”
I want that,
and finding a new continent is manageable
but how can I attain a body that is suitable for trials.” – Farah Barakat
Fatima Ali and the layers of racial and sexual harassment
Perhaps an even bigger paradox than the fact that a society which claims to be religious and piteous plagues itself with violence against half of its members (that ironically climaxes on the most holy day of the year, Eid), is that this society is located in an African country that refuses to identify as such. Egyptians refer to Africa like it is their cousin’s cousin, no relation by blood, because it is not wanted. Of course they are aware of their geographic location, but the urge to distance themselves from „black Africans“, that stems from deeply rooted racism, undermines a logical approach to balancing their Islamic, Arabic speaking identity within a North African context. This naturally affects their interaction with black people and especially with black women, whether they be African or from the African diaspora.
Fatima Ali, a Sudanese born model and blogger who grew up in Cairo, wrote a number of essays describing her experience as a black woman in Egypt. These essays will soon be published in a book entitled „The Diary of a Black Girl“, written in the hope of impacting more people and raising awareness about the different layers surrounding sexual harassment and its connection to racist abuse. All women in Egypt experience it, but not in the same way, intensity and frequency. For example, the misinformed idea that some women are „asking for it“ by the way they dress or walk is replaced with the conviction that if a woman is black, just being black allows the harasser to be “confident to a large degree that maybe [she] really will go with them because [she] really need[s] this because [she is] “hot for it” all the time and of course he would just be doing a favor for [her]… This goes without saying that he pictures that all black girls are naturally prostitutes…” (Ali 2013: 1). On top of the usual male disrespect, unlike lighter skinned women, black women also face abuse by their fellow women. Fatima describes the segregation male and female Egyptians expect to be upheld between people of different skin colours as „as if I was from Mars and my friend [who is not black] from Venus and transportation between the two planets is prohibited.“ (Ali 2013: 1) Apparently, in Egypt it is not a shame to forcefully be with a woman without her consent, but it is after all shameful to engage with a black woman regardless of the relationship’s nature, simply because she is black. As a result of hearing racist sexual abuse more than she would hear her own name, Fatima moved from Cairo to Dahab, a small town in the Sinai where she does not constantly have to fight for her right to exist. Still, writing her blog and documenting a reality that most Egyptians successfully ignore and even deny, helps her to deal with her pain and furthermore speak out in her own way without risking her safety; unlike when she challenges harassers on the metro and they threaten to beat her if she does not stop talking back (thedomainofthestrange 2013: 1). While her courageous decision to write down her experiences might not change the harasser’s and racist’s opinion, it definitely gives other black girls and women in Egypt hope and shows them that they are not alone and that they are worth more than what people make them believe. Representation matters, especially when dealing with a problem as detailed and intrinsic as sexual harassment.
Unfortunately, Egyptian society is not ready to openly address its disease that is carelessness and disrespect towards the self and other. Harassment laws and campaigns are yet to be effective because as long as individuals are not willing to come to terms with their toxic behaviour, they can not dissect, understand and terminate it. In the meantime, Egypt’s sad reality is a society that has internalized and normalized sexual violence against women as a symptom of the country’s political and economic oppression, paired with other factors such as deeply racist beliefs and religious excuses. Art cannot solve these issues, however while it might not effect Egyptian society in meaningful and positive ways presently, art circles and collectives still serve as safe spaces and microcosms of progressive thought as in the case of the women’s circles. They are small bubbles of hope and places for self-therapy and intellectual interaction between like-minded people without the fear of being underestimated and judged just for being a woman. Therefore, they provide the foundation for challenging toxic norms and starting public conversations, which can ultimately develop into movements for social and political change. For the artists themselves, the power of resistance painting and writing lies in the ability to do it, if desired, anonymously and most importantly continuously; it has long become synonymous with breathing, surviving and staying sane in the face of a challenge so overwhelming, it seems unsolvable. If not anything else, creating art encourages women to keep fighting and not to drown in Egypt’s misogynous every day life. If not anything else, they can still use art to confuse you.
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Words by Amuna Wagner