I just returned from an evening of campus conversation at the American University. The title of the event: Her Space, Our Space: Girls and Women Pushing the Boundaries of Cyberspace.
Uh. I thought it was most appropriate for me to write about. The panel of speakers included a one fabulous Ms. Mona Eltahawy, three Egyptian female bloggers, and two girls representing Bussy, a great club on campus.
Mona Eltahawy, to begin, is the beautiful and talented journalist-sister of my co-worker Nora. She is Egyptian, has lived in England, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and is currently based out of New York. She writes for Arabic media as well as Reuters and other English media sources. In short, she is a really astounding, well-spoken Egyptian feminist. I basically have a huge girl crush on her and wish I could be her. Or maybe just around her. Yeah. Just follow her around and listen to her talk…that might be bordering on weird, I don’t know. You tell me.
The two Egyptian female bloggers on the panel are already out of university and are working in Cairo. Reihab, writes fiction (in Arabic) for her blog, and Shahinaz writes political commentary and protest on her blog. As soon as I get links to their blogs I’ll try to post them.
Bussy (literally meaning “to look,” in Arabic) is a great club on campus that provides a forum for women (and men) to tell their stories of struggle or censorship or, well, really anything. Bussy fields emails of stories (most of them anonymous) about street harassment or molestation or rape amongst other issues women face in Egypt. From these emails they put together plays (a la The Vagina Monologues) in order to raise awareness about women’s issues on campus and in Egypt in general.
So, a pretty great panel, I say. The event was a hit. Lots of students and professors showed up (sadly, though, only three men).
Each panelist discussed how they discovered blogging and how excited they were to have a space to share their feelings and thoughts (even if it was the daily musings about falafel!). It was wonderful to see women in hijab, non-veiled women, young women, and older women discussing the need for a “safe” space for women to speak honestly about their experiences in Egypt, as a Muslim, as a woman, as an Egyptian, as a political activist, as an apathetic Egyptian, as a student, as a graduate. It was enlightening. Wonderful. Inspiring. It prompted me to think about how much I want to blog about, and how nervous I feel about putting myself out there.
The campus conversation ranged from issues of personal safety to privacy to “channeling the inner Arab blogger” to frustration over the extremely problematic idea of “needing to be saved” by Western culture. Shahinaz, who writes in Arabic for her political blog, has been an active member of Kifaya and blogs about her experiences in protests. She mentioned the power of the blog as a voice for political protest. It has become so popular (in June 2005 there were 280 blogs in Egypt, there are currently thousands of blogs) and such a means of political rallying that the Egyptian police monitor some of the more famous blogs, like Shahinaz’s. A really frightening story that she relayed was one of a pro-democracy, activist blogger named Muhammad al-Sharqawi.
Security forces first arrested al-Sharqawi on April 24 at a demonstration in support of judicial independence in Cairo and released him on May 23. Agents of the State Security Investigations (SSI) bureau of the Interior Ministry arrested him again on May 25 as he was leaving another peaceful demonstration in downtown Cairo. The demonstration on May 25 commemorated the one-year anniversary of violent attacks by police and ruling party supporters against journalists and demonstrators, who had been urging a boycott of a constitutional referendum.
While in custody, al-Sharqawi was tortured and raped. And, from what I understand, this happens fairly often; it’s just that Egyptian men, especially, are too scared to actually admit that they were victims of rape while in police custody for a couple of reasons: 1) homosexuality is a crime in Egypt and 2) any man that actually admits he was sodomized would be…well, basically outcast.
Also on March 10, the State Security Investigations department of the Interior Ministry issued a report to public prosecutors that named al-Sharqawi and 16 other bloggers, journalists and activists as being responsible for “spreading false news” that could harm Egypt’s image abroad and organizing demonstrations. Among those named in report were bloggers Wa’il Abbas and `Ala’ Seif al-Islam, who have played a central role in campaigning against police abuse through their blogs. The report also named `Abir al-Askari, a journalist for the weekly Al-Dustur who was assaulted by police at a May 11 demonstration, and leading activists from the Kifaya (“Enough”) movement. On March 15, police dispersed a Kifaya demonstration against proposed amendments to Egypt’s constitution and detained 21 protesters for two days.
Ms. Eltahawy and Shahinaz both referenced Abbas, al-Islam, and al-Sharqawi to demonstrate just how important (and dangerous) political blogging, specifically, has become. But it’s also been a really boundary-breaking method of political voice in Egypt. That has to be applauded. Shahinaz recounted a memory she had of literally running down the street during a protest and running into a friend of hers who worked for Al-Jazeera. Her friend told her that she and her blogger-activist friends should turn around and run the other way: there was a minbus full of police waiting to arrest them just around the corner. Hell, mad props to Egyptian bloggers who are fighting the current regime and the current state of Egyptian politics. I don’t know that I would be so confident.
And it’s not just in Egypt that the blogosphere is being monitored so heavily. One of the panelists recounted a story of a friend of hers who wrote an entry on her blog (in Egypt) criticizing Muammar Kaddafi of Libya. A few days later she got a phone call on her house phone telling her she should report to the Libyan embassy where she found Egyptian and Libyan policy ready to question her. In fear of what might happen to her or her family, she immediately shut down her blog.
In some ways, the panel was really encouraging. In other ways it made me feel extremely privileged to be an American and able to criticize my government and other governments, and do so with a fairly decent sense of “safety.” Though, I’ve definitely read (multiple times) Jill’s posts on harassment of female bloggers.
One of the best parts about the panel was the discussion on the freedom women have to finally express themselves and…well, their sexuality. Many women in the audience commented on how they could “never discuss virginity, let alone even mention the word in front of their family” but that they could talk about sex, and their sexuality, and their sexual desires through their blogs. They could show the world that just because they were veiled didn’t imply that they were vegetables. Good on them.
I could write for days on how I feel/felt about this panel and the amazing women I met. But I think you all get the idea. There are tons of female bloggers in Egypt, in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia (almost half the blogs coming out of the Kingdom are written by women), in Iran, in Iraq (!)…and all over the Middle East. And they are writing, writing like crazy about politics, about love, about marriage, about the veil, about Islam, about everything. And I hope their voices will be heard.
N.B. When I get links to these fabulous blogs, I’ll pass them along. Fo’ sho.
N.B. You can check out al-Sharqawi’s blog here (though, it’s written in Arabic. But if you can find a translator website, you should read it. It’s pretty amazing)