Sunday, October 14, 2012

The role of women in Egyptian patriarchy

Part of an expansive mural––now painted over and re-decorated––near Tahrir Square documenting women's struggles in times of economic crisis. Photo: Nadine Ibrahim

This article originally appeared on Peace X Peace. Read the original here.

A young Egyptian artist participating in a public art workshop put up posters around the city–one in Tahrir Square on the eve of elections–of an Egyptian man and woman holding hands and smiling. In each case, she returned to find that the posters were vandalized or torn down. Why? The friendly couple was mixed. In each image, one person was dressed in conservative religious Egyptian clothing and the other was dressed in liberal, yet still modest, Western clothing.

The poster depicted two individuals from different segments of society mingling in a way that is not only uncommon, but also frowned upon.

Amidst many shades of in-between, these are the two most visible lifestyles in Egyptian society. Moving from one neighborhood to another, colorful pants, skirts, t-shirts and cardigans replace dark colored abayas and white galabayas. The traditional, religious family model emphasizes different gender roles in order to create a harmonious life, one that is balanced between the inherent strengths and weaknesses of men and women. Such a life allegedly brings one closer to God, and will lead men, women, families, and arguably an entire country away from sin. Other family and lifestyle models, more common amongst the wealthy, are increasingly liberal and open to Western influences. In this subset the belief is that traditional religious gendered family roles can often be restrictive.

The poster of two people from very different walks of life is representative of how many parts of society are interacting in a new way during the current period of political transition after the January 25th Revolution ousted President Mubarak in 2011. The result of this transition was the election of Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist candidate. President Morsi now must represent all these walks of life in Egypt, including conservative and moderate Muslims, Islamists, the Coptic Christian population, and liberal Western secularists. A highly emotional reaction to a convergence of spheres often occurs along gender lines. The reactions, like angrily tearing down a poster of a smiling couple, can be less than positive, and can even have violent or destructive undertones.

Tahrir Square, cast as Egypt’s main stage, is the most visible example of this emotional reaction, which has often taken the form of repeated sexual violence against women.

Samira Ibrahim (top). She took the military doctor (all of
the soldier's faces are his) to court for subjecting here to a
forced virginity test. Photo: Nadine Ibrahim
Episodes of sexual violence in Tahrir Square carry political undertones. Groups of baltageyya, or “thugs” hired by the government, have been caught infiltrating the Square, posing as protesters, and then brandishing weapons in a state-sponsored attempt to disperse crowds. According to the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), agents of the state, including police, also specifically target women as subjects of violence. This is a well-documented phenomenon throughout Mubarak’s 30-year presidency, and many believe that these same thugs still enter and commit horrific crimes of sexual violence. Unfortunately, these crimes are not limited to thugs: on-duty military doctors, police officers, and organized groups of men intent on dispersing crowds of women are also guilty of sexual violence against women. The end result?  Dismantling the security and unity in the square, a regime-threatening symbol of Egyptian unity, while using women as a tool to destabilize dissenting voices.

This overt violation of a woman’s body is prevalent not just in crowds or in the minds of individuals, but in policy. Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is a long contested procedure that–for reasons of chastity and honor–aims to suppress a woman’s sexual appetite. FGM/C, in reality, is an invasive and traumatic experience that does not succeed in its stated purpose; rather, it deprives a woman of sexual pleasure––leaving that as a masculine domain alone. Although it is illegal in Egypt, some politicians–notably some female politicians–support the practice, calling it a matter of “family decision” and “beautification.”

In the transition period, one popular sentiment among secular or non-Islamist leaning voters was a strong fear that Morsi’s election will solidify the rise of Islamists in power. This would, in turn, encourage what are often viewed by this subset of individuals as restrictive traditional religious gender roles. In typical gendered fashion, the fear and tension was most visibly expressed as a concern for the future status of women’s rights in Egypt under a majority Islamist government. After the Revolution, and particularly after Morsi’s election, women’s issues came to the forefront of the discussion. There were marches against sexual harassment, groups and organizations created to combat the prevalence of abuse, and support systems to create safe zones in risk areas like Tahrir Square. It is easy to attribute this increase in women’s rights activism as purely a reaction to the rise of Islamism and its perception as a threat to women, but this belies the complexity and depth of the issue; patriarchal attitudes towards women are anything but a recent development and are far from exclusive to Islamism.

Abuse and mistreatment of women is deeply entrenched in Egypt’s history, as it is in much of the world. To echo the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the revolution has not created tensions but merely brought to the surface hidden tension that is already alive.

This patriarchy can be traced back to times even before the rising social influence of Islamism, which began to flourish in the 1970s. Since then, it has been propagated by successive Egyptian regimes that categorically cast themselves in stark contrast to the Islamists. No Egyptian government has had adequate representation of women. Historic attitudes towards women have resulted in a society in which the prevalent view of women as occupying less-than-equal footing as men still pervades, largely unperturbed, today.

The ECWR elaborates:
Women's right to lead a life free of violence is not widely internalized within Egyptian society, resulting in lack of reporting by victims of violence, lack of perpetrators' awareness of the criminality of violence, lack of response from police and the legal system supposedly tasked with enforcing laws prohibiting violence, and perpetration of violence by authorities themselves against women in order to pressure their male relatives.

Almost all women in Egypt have felt this imposing patriarchal sentiment in spheres of their daily life. Many women are all-too-aware of the risks involved in being in large crowds. Many live in a society in which the greater burden of honor rests on the women, and where a situation in which a dishonorable woman’s death can restore a family’s tarnished reputation is a reality. Some reports claim that as many as 60% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment on the street, and while others may blame the woman for provoking these attacks, it is well documented that the attackers harass regardless of hijab, niqab, or jeans and a t-shirt. Section 60 of the Egyptian Criminal Code allows judges to waive punishment for men who abuse their wives “in good faith.” The influential state media complex has also been complicit in perpetuating victim-blaming and promoting negative attitudes. There are many proposed explanations for this often highly visible disregard for women’s rights and none of them inherent to Egyptian culture or Islam. On an individual level, perhaps these men take the liberty to violate women–both local and foreign–to overtly remind them that they are not welcome, that their voices are not on equal footing with those of men.

"The Girl in the Blue Bra"
As I understand it–and I can’t claim to fully understand the mentality of those who seek to directly undermine the autonomy of a woman–this maltreatment stems from a patriarchal notion that women do not have an equal place in the public sphere. Where participating in the public sphere can add to a man’s level of respect, for women the implications are flipped. A woman in public, mingling with strangers, yelling, chanting, and protesting can be looked upon with disdain.
In the aftermath of the January 25th Revolution, I felt afraid, in part because of a lack of sympathy, to be a woman in public. However, for me and for millions of other women, my fear did not end there; my fear empowered me to speak out, to be angry. The bubble burst. Decent women should not be outside doing such vulgar things as protesting, but here we were. Almost in response, women were mass gang raped in Tahrir Square, reports were filed of police officers sexually harassing or at best turning a blind eye to horrific sexual abuse, the virginity of female activists was forcibly tested, and one of many nameless victim protesters was stripped of her conservative abaya, dragged down the street–­–iconic blue bra exposed. The moment before a soldier’s foot came stomping down on her ribcage a photographer snapped a historic photo.

With mounting fear comes a refusal to accept the status quo. Reminiscing on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., voices against the mistreatment of women are louder than ever before and public awareness of the issue is reaching a tipping point. The strong presence of women’s issues comes at the time of Morsi’s nascent presidency, but it is important not to conflate the two issues: the rise of political Islam and the fall of women’s rights.

Indeed, the political Islamic agenda pushed by the Muslim Brotherhood has a tangible effect on expectations of women. The Muslim Brotherhood has for decades led by pious example, and Morsi has several times expressed his commitment to women’s issues. While he does not talk about things like free birth control and abortions, he speaks of making life easier for the working mother, or the divorced/widowed ex-wife. Morsi’s conservative stance on the place of women in society is empathetic to the predominant Egyptian family model, but it is unrelated to the mounting mistreatment of women in the public sphere.

Part of a mural near Tahrir Square. Photo: Nadine Ibrahim
The problem is with a system, society, and government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. Women’s voices are struggling to be heard, and when they yell from behind a state-sponsored, police-enforced, and popularly supported wall they are faced with adamant, often violent and shaming, opposition.

Like the thought-provoking posters of a happy mixed Egyptian couple in contrasting garb, speaking out against the status quo can often provoke a highly emotional and destructive rebuttal. The current friction of different spheres of Egyptian life is proving a rough transition of its own, but hope for progress is strong.

The restrictions on women are slowly becoming less acceptable to an increasingly informed public: political figures are backpedaling on lenient views on female genital mutilation and the first veiled woman was allowed to broadcast the news on State TV. Women are marching, writing, chanting, and exercising their right to personal freedom without penalty. This is not a time for misunderstanding; this is a time of empowerment.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The ability to make things stop

[Our murderers'] real creed was an ancient cult of destruction that precedes every known religion, every state, every political system. We pin that cult now on the Germanic tribe of Vandals who sacked Rome in the year 455, but we can read its violent traces just as clearly in prehistoric times. Blind rage cannot understand anything as complex or beautiful as Rome, or a library, or even a person, an animal, a book, a tree, a work of art—but blind rage can make these intricate systems stop, and the ability to make things stop has served many of our kind since time immemorial as a fine substitute for learning, experience, scientific method, artistic creation, philosophy. Destruction, too, can count as hard work.” ––Ingrid D. Rowland, “Saving Alexandria”

Last weekend, I went to the voting booth in my neighborhood. Egyptian nationals all over the world went to vote for their next President, in what was allegedly the first free and fair presidential elections in the country. The moment that Hosni Mubarak stepped down from office, the question has remained: who will take his place, and how? Revolutionaries fought against tyranny, against an oppressive military-heavy regime. We demanded the ability to choose who our next President will be.

As the political sphere in Egypt developed––or, as some might say, developed and devolved––the revolutionary spirit dwindled. Lost in arguments and blind hatred for opposing opinions, the unity that once inspired the whole world to wish that they were as badass as Egyptians slowly died. As it died, so did our chances for a President truly removed from the old system.

Support for the revolutionary candidates was divided. Ultimately, the choice was between the two historically established political bodies: Mohammed Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, and Ahmed Shafiq, the last Prime Minister under Mubarak. Shafiq was appointed, at the last minute, during the revolution in an attempt to satisfy the protesters, who then forced him to step down. Had the revolution not happened, or not succeeded, Shafiq very well might have been heir to the Presidential throne.

In the last few hours of voting, I was still undecided. Should I vote for Mohammed Morsy––whom I deem as the lesser of the two evils––or boycott the vote altogether? To help me make my decision, I proceeded to figure out exactly how many grapes I can fit in my mouth at once.

Half an hour before voting ended, having successfully not choked on 30 grapes, I made my way to my voting station. I had my reporter's notebook in hand, inside written a quote that––to me––represents what these unfair elections and candidates symbolize. The military personnel at the gate stopped to question me, “Stop. Are you a journalist?” “I'm here to vote,” I said. My notebook confused them. The line was not very long, but I was surrounded by women who were all planning on voting for Shafiq. The lack of men was no coincidence––the voting stations were separated by gender.

The last time I voted for President was in the Obama-McCain 2008 elections. I'm not accustomed to strangers asking me how I will vote, and, if anything, I consider it fairly rude. But Egypt is no place for personal space: who you are voting for and why and what kind of person that makes you is everyone's business. They asked and I just clutched my notebook––nervous, anxious, wondering if I had made the right decision.

“Don't you dare try to tell me that it is the government who made Egypt a wreck! Did they throw this garbage on the ground? Do they litter our streets? No, we do. We are the problem.” One woman lectured outside the line to no one in particular. I couldn't help think to myself that she didn't know that a responsible government would have efficient waste-management systems and laws against littering. But she had a point, we need to demand that Egypt deserves better than what we've got. And only when we respect ourselves and our country enough will our demands be taken seriously, and a respectable government will follow.

My turn. I went inside, handed over my ID card, picked up a ballot, and signed next to my name on the voter registration list. I turned and looked at the booth; there was no privacy. The table was positioned in such a way that everyone could see next to whose picture I drew an X.

I opened my notebook. “Our murderers'...” I began writing on my ballot, starting on Mohammed Morsy's bearded and pixelated face. 

“Our murderers' real creed was an ancient cult of destruction that precedes every known religion, every state, every political system.” 

The ink began to seep through the paper, bleeding through Ahmed Shafiq's clean-cut image.

These elections marked a failure of the revolution, and by voting for someone, I would have accepted that fact. I would have accepted the farce that they presented to us, and I refused. Just days before, the military generals ruling this country dissolved the Parliament––a Parliament that was truly democratically elected, and a majority of which was Islamist, a threat to the military regime. “Fool me once,” I thought to myself, “shame on you. Fool me twice,” and the blame lies with me.

Ya anissa! [Hey, girl!]” the woman who held the voter registration list yelled at me, “what are you doing?”

“I'm voting!” I yelled back, not bothering to turn around and still hunched over my ballot.

“Are you writing something?” she asked. “Stop that. You can't write anything.”

I ignored her.

“Hey! Stop! Stop that! You have to vote for ONE PERSON,” she demanded.

“I am!” I said sweetly. I turned and smiled at her.

She called over to one of the military personnel standing at the door, who, fortunately, is not allowed inside the room. “This girl is not voting properly,” she accused.

“No, sir, I'm not writing anything. I'm voting for one person. Just like I'm supposed to.” I said while scribbling my message, now more frantically than before lest I am arrested.

I know that the military generals heading the Supreme Council of Armed Forces will never accept a civilian handover unless they are guaranteed immunity from their decades of corruption, their human rights abuses, from obstructing justice. I know that whoever is President will only be allowed to take the throne with their blessing. And I say “a7a” to their blessing. I reject it. I reject that very notion, and I will not be a part of it. I continued to write from my notebook:

Blind rage can make these intricate systems stop, and the ability to make things stop has served many of our kind since time immemorial as a fine substitute for learning, experience, scientific method, artistic creation, philosophy.”

The voting officials have given up on telling me to stop ruining my ballot and their curiosity got the best of them. “Well, tell us what you are writing!” the woman asked.

“I told you, I'm just voting, the same as everyone else!” I said.

Neither of the candidates stand for the values of the revolution. Both of them, consistently, claimed that they embodied the revolution, when in fact, they went against it. The last 60 years of Egypt's political history has been a game of tug-of-war between the old, military regime and the Muslim Brotherhood––leaving the people of Egypt to fend for themselves. Leaving them to think that it is up to them to clean up the garbage on the street, to clean up this country. The revolution was a direct threat to this old standard system, to the power-struggle; it challenged the notion that those in power can self-serve, and it demanded that leaders truly speak for us.

Destruction, too, can count as hard work.”

So, I congratulate the old system on successfully fooling this country into thinking that things are changing. I congratulate them on serving their own interests, on stealing a revolution to empower themselves and on destroying the opposition. And I, as a stubborn and idealistic citizen, refused to play into their game.

I folded up my ballot and put it in the box. I dipped my finger in ink, and retrieved my ID.The woman with the voter list called me over. “Tell me, what did you write?” “I wrote what I thought about these elections.” “I remember you,” she said. “The last time you were here voting for Parliament, you wrote a message in English at the top of your ballot. What did you write then? What did you write now? Why didn't you write it in Arabic so we could understand it? We all tried to read it last time!”

I told her, “there are people in this country who want power, and those people are threatened by the revolution, and by Egyptians who demand that they serve the country. These people want to keep things the way they were, and in order to do that, they step on us and they keep us down. In my eyes, both candidates represent this oppression, and I cannot support that.”

She smiled at me. “Your words are beautiful.” I smiled back, relieved. “But you know that you have just invalidated your ballot? You ruined your voice.” “I know, I did that on purpose.” She was grinning. Another woman, older, dressed conservatively and wearing a hijab, was next in line to vote. She had witnessed the scene that I caused and had waited a long time for me to finish. She came up to me and asked me, firmly, “did you just boycott?” I did, I said, preparing myself for a confrontation.

She held out her hand and shook mine. “That is exactly what I am about to do.”

[Update]: Mohammed Morsy, the Freedom and Justice Party/Muslim Brotherhood Candidate won 51.73% of the votes and is now Egypt's first civilian President. Out of 26 million ballots cast, 843,252 votes were invalidated.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A special kind of silence

Suddenly, the loud din of the air winds down. The lights stop humming, the fan stops whirring. It is dark and quiet, except for Bikhatirha's loud “oof.” The power is out at the clinic. A sign of the seasons, it's the first outage of many more to come, I think to myself. Summer is here.

My instant reaction is to sulk, as if I have been conditioned to associate a power outage with a massive inconvenience and a forced pause on life. We were sitting in silence before the lights cut, and we continued sitting, silently, in darkness for a few seconds. Bikhatirha grunts and gets up from the wooden bench we're all sitting on. “Is the whole street out?” She asks, her voice slicing through the thick quiet and fading away as she enters the other room to look for something.

“How should I know. Probably.” The sole woman in the waiting room asks in response. Because of her niqab, I can't see her in the darkness, her voice––and her young daughter sitting next to her––are the only things that place her. “Allah is great,” she sighs cryptically, Egyptian Arabic for “hopefully this is fixed soon.”

The woman's young daughter, playing with the flame
Bikhatirha, over 75 years old and as nimble as a feather, comes back with two candles and a match. Hands shaking from too much insulin, she lets one candle burn for a few seconds before pouring some of the wax onto the wooden table. She sticks the candle into the waxy mound. A radius of light shines from the sole candle. She dumps out an ashtray filled with the ashy butts of cigarettes––illicitly smoked by men who think I can't smell their secondhand from across the hallway, and who hide them, like children, still lit, behind their backs when I walk past. I sigh in a sense of failure when I see how much ash is on the table. She lights the second candle and sticks it in the ashtray.

"Can the doctor just check up on me by candlelight?" The woman in the waiting room asks despondently.

I laugh and very quickly realize she wasn't joking. I consider turning my laughter into a faked coughing fit, but decide that it's okay if she thinks I'm weird. The lack of electricity is clearly no obstacle. Then again, why should it be? The only thing this clinic needs electricity for is an ultrasound machine, the lights, the fan, and an internet connection installed only for me.

Black outs, something that usually disrupts the very fiber of what productivity means to me and my peers, does not disrupt a moment of work and life at the clinic. In fact, it has given us something to talk about. Pausing the loud din of Cairo for a few minutes is enough to remind us, four very different women in a small room, to talk.

The Doctor is doing his Maghrib prayer––the fourth of five daily prayers in Islam––to be done after sunset. As we wait in the warm glow of candlelight, we laugh and ask each other about the inanities of life. So and so got into a fight when he was caught selling bongo (marijuana), so and so can't find a wife for their son. Did you hear, the workshop owner next door didn't want to pay for his worker's injury? And, the inevitable question: Who will you vote for?

It is refreshing to work in a context in which the only consequence of a power outage is silence: a special kind of silence, one that amplifies the voices of conversation.

The young daughter of the niqabi woman waiting is clearly unenthused. She reaches out and begins playing with the flame. Passing her finger through the top of the bright orange fire quickly once, then again, and again. “Bas!” Stop! Her mom barks. She stops only long enough for her mom to re-enter gossip with Bikhatirha, the woman who knows everyone and everything that ever was in the last century of Al-Sabtia, the working-class steel industry neighborhood this medical clinic serves.

Too soon, the lights loudly hum back on. Almost on cue, the Doctor walks out with a kind smile and gestures for the woman to enter his office. The candles are blown out, conversation stops, and our silent vacuum of technology is sucked away to make room for the infamous Cairene street orchestra.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tahara: Circumcision

The two young girls––one six, one ten––flocked to my side, holding my hand, telling me enthusiastically that they are cousins. "I can tell! You look alike; you are both very pretty," I told them, and they glanced at each other surprised before running back to their mothers. A few days prior, the mother of the youngest girl had come to our clinic for a fairly commonplace surgery. "Inhagi" breathe, I told her as I slowly emptied the numbing contents of the syringe into her arm. She began to slur her speech, and moments before she fell into an anesthetic slumber she squeezed my hand and mumbled "by the way, you are very beautiful." "Just like your daughter," I responded. 

She was sweet and lighthearted, and while I waited for her to fully recover from her dizzy slumber after the operation I went out to the waiting room and sat with her young daughter. She sheepishly sat next to me, asking me shy questions and volunteering details about her life so fast she seemed out of breath. Two thick, curly, frizzy braids fell on her bony shoulders, her smile revealed four missing front teeth, and her big Egyptian eyes were lined with thick eyelashes. Her name is Dua'a*, she is six years old, she likes playing hide and seek with her cousins although sometimes they hit each other, and she really likes her school.  Her mother finally came out of the OR and she got up, tugging on her mother's floor length traditional black abayya, and looked back at me. "Come visit me soon!" I called out to her.

Dua'a's mother was checking on the status of her operation and on some post-operative symptoms. I was glad to see that she brought Dua'a with her again, and Dua'a was more than glad to introduce me to her older cousin, Yasmeen. We reassured them that the surgery went smoothly and she should continue on her painkillers for another week, as needed. Usually at that point the appointment is over, but this is Egypt, and people love to linger. The doctor and the two women––Dua'a and Yasmeen's mothers––began chatting happily with the Doctor, laughing and asking semi-serious questions about some undefined thing for their daughters: "it". I smiled along, matching their mood, not knowing how the three of them somehow knew what they were all talking about. What "it" was was never mentioned.

Tahara. The Arabic word drifted past my ears unrecognized. The women were looking at me and smiling, I smiled back, I laughed back, only guessing what was going on. This isn't new for me, I often don't recognize the Arabic names for procedures or medicines, but I couldn't understand why Yasmeen––no older than 10 years old––had begun to panic. Amongst a roomful of women lightheartedly smiling and laughing with the doctor, her fear was out of place.  Maybe she is afraid of needles, and she thinks she needs one, I thought. "Calm down, habibti, it's okay", I told her with a sad smile.

"When should we do it?" Yasmeen's mother asked the Doctor.

"In the summertime," he responded.

Dua'a was flashing her toothless smile and raising her hand in the air, yelling "Ana! Ana!" Me! Me!

Yasmeen backed up into the corner of the room, flailing her arms with a panicked look on her face, and yelling "I don't want it! I don't! No!", but her hysteria went ignored by the adults in the room.

"In the summer?" they asked for verification before shaking our hands and leaving. Moments after they stepped over the clinic's threshold, I turned to the Doctor and asked "what was that about?", and he waved my question away in response. I asked again, and he just said "tahara". A moment of silence gave away my lack of understanding, he said it again, in English this time: "circumcision".

I felt my stomach turn. The image of Yasmeen panicking flashed through my mind, I remembered telling her to calm down. My fingers trembled. I had just tried to comfort a young girl being faced with FGM. I wanted them to come back, I wanted to stop this.

As recently as 2005, an Egyptian government health survey reported that 96% of women of reproductive age had undergone the procedure. The now-illegal practice of tahara, circumcision, is still virtually universal among women in Egypt. Girls, both in rural and urban areas, are usually cut between the ages of 9 and 12.

A few minutes later, they came back. I hoped they were going to ask more questions, that I could have a chance to explain why this is unnecessary. "The bathroom!" Dua'a's mom said quickly before she half-jogged to our washroom. Dua'a and Yasmeen sat down on the long bench in our waiting room waiting for her to come back. Yasmeen seemed to have recovered from her panic. They were swinging their legs, laughing with each other, waving at me. I noticed their matching velvet track suits, mismatched pinks and reds and awkward English words on the front of their jackets. I thought about what I wish I could say to them. I wanted to whisper "don't let them do it" into their ears, but the decision is made without consideration for their autonomy; tradition and honor are stronger forces than their protest. Defeated, I sat there, my stomach in a knot. A minute later, they left.

The Doctor said that he refuses to perform the operation because it is illegal, but if a family insists, he will remove part of the labia minora (classified as FGM/C Type IIa) to satisfy them without really hurting the young girl, but will never come close to the clitoris. Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) happens in several varying degrees of severity. In Egypt, it is common to excise the clitoral hood and part of the clitoris. I often hear from sympathetic supporters of the practice that even the Prophet Muhammed (saas) advised to "cut in moderation," although the practice pre-dates religion.

"Before it was illegal, families used to bring me their young boys and girls by the truck load", the Doctor said. He laughed; I tried to hide my horror. "I never really circumcised the girls, only incised the labia minora, which is just a skin tag, they don't know the difference," he paused. "I don't agree with it, but you can't change their minds. They just want to see blood and khalas, that's it."

Just a skin tag. It sounds cruel, but is it merciful? To refuse the surgery is not to prevent it happening elsewhere––to its full extent––where razors are blunt, and anesthetic a luxury. The psychologically destructive aspect of the procedure is never brought up.

I thought about Dua'a volunteering herself, flashing her pretty smile with missing baby teeth, about how the meaning of that image changed drastically in a matter of minutes. I frowned. She doesn't even know what it is, the risks, what it means for the rest of her life as a woman.

Sayyed, the driver and my friend, has three beautiful daughters. "I'm not convinced with the whole thing, to be honest", he said. "Don't let your daughters do it", I responded, trying to hide the pleading in my voice. "I can't say anything to them", he said, staring at the soccer game on TV. "It's not up to me, it's their choice." 'They' are the women in the family. "This will never change, Nadine, not even in 100 years", Sayyed added. "It's ingrained in their minds", the Doctor said.

Cheers emitted from the small TV across the room, grabbing their attention, a player almost scored an unlikely goal and the crowd went wild with disappointment. "No, if you don't do it to your daughters, then they won't do it to their daughters, and the process will follow. This can change," I persisted, but neither of the men answered.

To read more about Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in general and in Egypt, visit:

*names in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Having old friends come visit you in a new home is a rare treat. There is always the push-and-pull between homes, but when your worlds come together peacefully, and those friends mention how you "fit here," it makes my crushin'-on-Cairo heart flutter.

Walking around the city for 10 days showing around the fresh blood made me stop and notice the markings on the wall; I realized just how complex Cairo's beauty can be. And even more-so, how the conflict itself can add elegant beauty and depth. From graffiti to stunning light in ancient markets, I, once again, was enchanted.

Yellow box: "We're the ones of Al-Tahrir", a play on a famous movie and movie poster "We are the ones of the bus". Underneath: "Those who died, their rights and demands are called for. The revolution continues. January 25, 2012", referring to the preparations for the one year anniversary of the revolution. The V for Vendetta masks on the top left and right are common, showing the Egyptian version of fighting against a regime. 

معسل/maasel sheesha is the harsh tobacco flavor of only the most hardcore Egyptian men
The view from the minaret of Al-Azhar Mosque at sunset

Peeking into one of the rooms inside Al-Azhar, from the roof. No, we were not supposed to be up there.

"Drawing through the walls" on Sheikh Rihan Street, just on the other side of the AUC Tahrir campus. This wall was constructed by the military to protect the Ministry of Interior.

Murals on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, the site of the unrest during the month of November and sporadically afterwards. This street, lined with art, serves as an artistic commemoration for the martyrs of the revolution. According to a nice man on the street, this mural depicts the ancient Egyptian ritual for celebrating/mourning the death of a martyr.

An unfinished mural depicting daily life during the current gas shortage. The women are holding canisters of cooking gas, so as to get them refilled.

The veiled woman in red is Samira Ibrahim, the woman who took her military doctor to court for the 'Virginity Tests' that she underwent after being detained during a protest. The doctor was recently found innocent. The line of soldiers around her are all of one face: the doctor. The hieroglyphics say: Nadine is the Queen Ruler of Nutella and All Cute Kittens must Love her.

The view looking up from inside The Citadel, Mohammed Ali Mosque

Inside Mohammed Ali Mosque

An antique store behind Khan El-Khalili, the bazaar


Light fixtures inside a tucked-away mosque

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The first time I saw banana trees

2009 was a year of love, a year of adventure, a year of friendship, and a year of firsts. It was also the year of the Swine Flu epidemic in Egypt. I woke up one mid-September morning whining about going to school, only to find out a few hours later––while sitting in class and watching students just get up and leave after checking their phones––that classes were being cancelled for the next three weeks. Starting that very moment.

So began my aimless adventure-filled wandering through the Middle East. One one-way ticket from Cairo to Beirut later, I found myself in a rental car driving through the mountainous Lebanese countryside with almost-strangers who would soon become some of the most important people in my life.

Everything about that day was thrilling, and we were as far away from the beaten path as possible. Literally. There was actually a fork in the road that directed us to either “the highway” or “the scenic route”. We didn't think twice. As we wound through the scenic valleys, slowly realizing that the crouched and armed men donning keffiyas and mean stares on the side of the road were probably not our friends, I was enchanted. I thought about how these were the first mountains I have ever seen, how this is the first time I have driven outside of the United States, how I was completely unreachable, and how for the first time in my life no one––outside of this rental car––even knew where I was.

At some point that day I made a list. That list includes “banana trees”, “Israel”, “saw two really cute cats kissing each other!” and “driving through a military war zone with landmines and shit under waving Hezbollah flags.” I titled this list “Firsts! Best day ever” and it's been on my blackberry ever since that day, completely unperturbed.

Given, growing up in the urban hubs of Chicago and Cairo I never saw much outside of polluted sunsets and great architecture. I was relentlessly made fun of by my new travelers-in-crime for getting so excited about seeing a real life banana tree, but I will never forget that feeling of wonderment and giddiness. It was an almost childish joy that stemmed from understanding for myself something the world already knows: this is what banana trees look like.

I can only imagine my friends laughing at me while I furiously typed out “seen a tornado” and “Hezbollah” on my service-less phone, but I had to document it. The overexcited, giddy energy that led me to writing this list, and the attachment that led me to keep it for years, are sentiments that I want to preserve for my whole life. We should see the world through the eyes of our inner child, taking note of our first times doing and experiencing even the most inane things so that we never become calloused and unable to recognize life's beauty. Traveling forces you out of your bubble and exposes you to novel ideas, emotions, perspectives, and that's why most of us do it. This list reminds me of one of the first times I felt my worldview change. Sneaking past UN soldiers and into a Palestinian refugee camp only for the sake of an honest and firsthand conversation has an effect on how you see conflict, on how you see those involved, and on knowing that politics is deeper than just the news.

Perhaps it is about forming my own opinion, knowing more of the story. Did you know, Hezbollah has a gift shop? I spent that day lost, probably in danger, and in violation of one million study abroad rules, but I felt electrified by the high that comes from checking off “firsts.” I carry that memory with me, and it inspires me to keep my eyes––and my heart––open for the new. I am ready to learn for myself even what I might already think I know.

This post is part of the Scintilla Project.  I will be sharing stories based on creative prompts every day for the next two weeks. Share the journey with me!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How to breathe, how to vote

November 18th, 2011 marked the beginning of what many called the second revolution. International news outlets reported on what they dubbed “Revolution Redux” in Cairo, and the city was once again suffocated under plumes of tear gas. I was antsy to witness revolutionary fervor in Midan Al-Tahrir for myself after spending January 2011 in college, under my covers and glued to Al-Jazeera's live stream. I ventured out onto Qasr Al-Einy street, one of several arteries leading to the Square. Still blocks away from the civilian check-points, I felt for the first time the tell-tale burning sensation in my nostrils that I have yet to forget. Through the wafting clouds of tear gas, I felt my heart start to race, my eyes widened in fear, and I couldn't breathe.

It was a semi-familiar feeling; as a child, I had asthma. It's been almost 10 years since the last time I felt my throat involuntarily close up, but this time, on Qasr Al-Einy, it was different. It wasn't my body attacking itself, but the government––my government––attacking me.

When I went back to Chicago in February of this year, I landed and my throat started closing up at the most inopportune moments, making me cough violently. The first time my mother heard me cough from the other room, she knew: “your asthma is back. I remember that cough.” God bless mothers.

I was looking forward to Chicago as a detox of sorts: no more black boogers; no more brown water in the shower; no more chlorinated water supply; no more hissing; and no more tear gas in the air. I didn't expect to enter dust and pollution-free American air just to have an asthmatic relapse. I came back to Cairo and just like that, my cough was gone.

I landed and found Cairo calm. The momentum for demonstrations has grinded to a slow halt, the number of martyrs is no longer growing, and normal daily life has resumed. However, this city has yet to forget. Roads are still blocked off, embassies are still heavily guarded, revolutionary graffiti still loudly present on walls, and the radio is eternally repeating clichéd questions: “callers, tell us, has the revolution been stolen?”

Candidate Abu Al Fotouh. The graffiti
underneath reads: "Once, a man went to cheer and died", about
the Port Said football riots in which 74 died
Strolling down Qasr Al-Einy the other afternoon, I was admiring the picturesque, clashing effect graffiti had on the wealthy antiquity of buildings on the street. I like imagining Cairo decades ago, before the sepia tone, the negligence, and the deterioration set in. I love the graffiti: an oppressed voice on a city whose will was lost in the past eras of power, wealth, and corruption. I noticed, crossing the street, two men holding rags to their faces. Instantly, I took a deeper, cautionary breathe, trying to identify tear gas in the air. I had flashbacks to scenes of women fainting, people running, and men with blood-shot eyes and keffiyehs handing out surgical masks on this street; I had flashbacks of not being able to breathe, and then I realized that I could take my breathe. No tear gas. The men were only sneezing or coughing, coincidentally at the same time. I inhaled deeply, and realized that not only did I not cough, but that I hadn't since I arrived back in Egypt.

The air is still thick, but the energy is different. Instead of the men stationed on corners distributing help and aid to those affected by the gas, or collecting donations, there are political posters and graffiti lining the street. I took a closer look at one of the posters, and realized it was for a presidential hopeful: Abu Al Fotouh, an ex-Muslim Brotherhood member. Maybe, I thought, this is where the energy is being redirected. Away from civil unrest, and towards the maintenance of a fair and free democratic system––towards elections.

Perhaps it is progress. Perhaps it is seeing a poster for the upcoming presidential elections for the first time, and thinking maybe this is what the revolution was for. Maybe we've succeeded, although I think the revolution has indeed been stolen. Despite the corruption, despite the unjust riot control, despite the thick pollution, and the oppressive state of human rights, I have hopes that Egypt is healing itself through progress, just as it heals me.

I saw some of the first signs of democratic progress on the same street on which I found myself struggling to breathe while the military attempted to stifle our voices––the very same voices that will soon vote for President. I can take deep breathes now, knowing that movements take time, and comforted by the subtle markers of growth. It is right to criticize, but even more right to appreciate what has been accomplished. Abu Al Fotouh doesn't have my vote, but the freedom––uncorrupted freedom––to choose is hopefully on its way––we can all hang out in Horreya until it gets here.