Courage, Pain And Progress For Women In Post-Revolution Egypt

Egyptian woman at a self-defense class in Cairo
Egyptian woman at a self-defense class in Cairo
Dalia Abdel Hamid*

CAIRO â€" International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world on March 8. Egypt celebrates Egyptian Women’s Day on March 16, and March 9 marks the infamous day when members of the Armed Forces performed virginity tests on female protestors detained in Tahrir Square in 2011 â€" a crime no one has been held accountable for to this day.

This year, however, the government is trying to contain the feminist movement that picked up pace during the revolution, and which they have frequently used to save face both domestically and internationally, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to sexual crimes committed by security forces.

Police have waged several campaigns against the LGBT community in a stark violation of personal rights. This sits within a broader crackdown on civil society organizations â€" the closure of human rights centers and the imposition of travel bans on prominent activists, as well as the complete militarization of the public sphere, evidenced by recent raids on various cultural institutions â€" all with the aim of consolidating a climate of fear. Despite the recurring political failures of the revolution, however, there have been some notable social gains. The revolutionary feminist movement in Egypt has been able to bring about positive change in people’s knowledge and perceptions of sexual violence and sexual rights.

One of the major achievements of the feminist movement is related to the issue of sexual violence against women in the public sphere. It is no longer out of the ordinary today for girls and women to report verbal and physical harassment to the police. They have also exposed and confronted police officers who refuse to file such reports. This was not the case 10 years ago. Many women activists would recall how they were told not to use the words “sexual harassment” on television before the revolution, confining the practice to “harassment” only.

Many of us also remember how the media and the state used to deny the existence of the phenomenon of individual and mass sexual violence, which soared from the early 2000s. For a very long time, the demands by feminist organizations to reform the laws on sexual violence were ignored. This is in addition to demands that the state acknowledge the hurdles women face in the street and workplace.

Women who defend their rights have often had to face smear campaigns.

Testimonials from survivors of “Black Wednesday” â€" when female journalists and protesters were sexually harassed during a demonstration against Hosni Mubarak’s constitutional reforms in 2005 â€" are a case in point. According to one account, a female lawyer was able to capture her harasser on that day, but security forces freed him and refused to file an official report of the incident. The Public Prosecution office also refused to include the torn clothes of Journalist Nawal Aly as evidence in her case, claiming it was too late to do so. Aly was one of the many women assaulted and stripped of her clothes on Black Wednesday. The Public Prosecutor dropped the charges, saying the perpetrators couldn’t be found. Pro-government media then waged a campaign against Aly, claiming she had ripped off her own clothes and fabricated claims that pro-Mubarak thugs assaulted her.

In 2008, young filmmaker Noha Roushday sued a man who groped her, in the first case in Egypt in which the assailant was convicted and imprisoned. Noha struggled to challenge society’s normalization of sexual violence. After she was sexually assaulted in broad daylight in Heliopolis, she was surrounded by more than 40 men in the street who blamed her for her attire and tried to free her attacker and return him to his car. She eventually managed to take him to the police station with the help of a friend, but the officers tried to convince her not to file an official report. When she insisted, they refused to take the account of her friend, who was an eyewitness, and wouldn’t escort the perpetrator to the main Heliopolis Police Station to verify the police report.

In the end, Noha took her attacker to the police station herself in her father’s car. The media accused her of being an Israeli and launched a smear campaign against her. Thanks to the support she received from her parents, friends and feminist organizations, however, she was able to take the case to court, where the perpetrator was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 5,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $910 at average exchange, in October 2008.

The fight against sexual violence took a radical turn during the revolution, thanks to grassroots initiatives that were formed to combat violence against women during protests. Courageous women like Yasmine al-Baramawy, Aida al-Kashef and Hania Moheeb have, for example, chosen to show their faces on camera to narrate the sexual violence they were exposed to in and around Tahrir Square. By doing so, they not only challenged society’s denial of the gruesome reality of sexual violence in Egypt, but also encouraged other women to rise up and defend themselves against such crimes. The stories of those brave women have also contributed to changing the mainstream victim-blaming attitude.

Last October, social media users waged a campaign against TV anchor Reham Saeed for airing personal photos of a sexual assault survivor as a victim-blaming technique. The public outrage that led to the suspension of her television show is indicative of the normative change that has occurred vis-à-vis sexual violence over the past decade. A misdemeanor court sentenced Saeed to a year in prison and a fine of 15,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $1,940 at average exchange, for violating an assault victim's privacy, and an additional six months imprisonment and 10,000 Egyptian pounds, or $1,293, for libel and slander.

In June 2014, an amendment to the Egyptian Penal Code saw the introduction of harassment as a definitive crime. This achievement was the culmination of hard work by grassroots initiatives and civil society organizations that campaigned and pressured the government to amend the law. Unlike other amendments to the Penal Code, this has been particularly effective in combatting crime. According to a study by Daftar Ahwal, an independent think tank, 2,259 individuals were arrested in 2015 on harassment-related charges. This figure gives us an indication of how the attitudes of women towards harassment have drastically changed.

In the realm of pop culture, we can also sense a positive change in the ways in which gender issues are being addressed. In recent years, we have seen movies like “Cairo 6,7,8” (2010) and Asmaa (2011), and television dramas like “Women’s Prison” (2014), which tackle issues ranging from sexual harassment to the stigmatization of people living with HIV/AIDS, and other facets of female oppression that society has long considered taboo.

What is even more astounding is how this change has hit the world of advertising. Let us look at the controversial ad campaign that encourages male customers to “man up” and drink Birell, a non-alcoholic malt beverage. The campaign began in 2008 as part of a long series of ads by Leo Burnett. One of the first ads featured the message, “A girl’s personality is the last thing you comment on,” insinuating that in order “to be a man,” one must objectify women physically.

Another ad, aired in 2011, clearly promoted chauvinistic male behavior, saying, “Grow your mustache and it will teach her manners.”

Despite the fact that the campaign still promotes gender stereotypes, there has been a great improvement in a new series tagged “Manhood is about good morals.” The series presents a “real man” as one who fights against harassment and helps with household chores. This change definitely reflects a shift in the perceptions of the campaign’s target audience, namely young men, regarding what is deemed acceptable male behavior. In other words, the advertising company had to replace its initial chauvinistic message â€" which associated manhood with harassment â€" with an alternative one that identified fighting harassment as an attribute of manhood.

At any rate, the social progress that has been made thus far in terms of changing people’s perceptions of gender and sexuality is not just confined to sexual violence. There has also been, for example, a significant change in public reactions to famous paternity suits. In 2004, Hend al-Hennawy, a 27-year-old costume designer, filed a paternity suit against a well-known young actor, Ahmed al-Fishawy, after her daughter was born. Hennawy faced public disdain, but with the assistance of her family and the support of feminist organizations, she was able to challenge the taboo of sex outside of marriage.

Fishawy, who was then only 24 years old, comes from a family of stars, and at the time was hosting a television show promoting religious morality. Fishawy’s family waged a media campaign against Hennawy, accusing her of lying to defame their son, a devout young star. The court finally sided with Hennawy in a historic ruling that set legal precedent by using DNA testing to establish paternity.

Ten years later, public reaction to another high-profile paternity suit was quite different. Zeina, a young actress, recently won a paternity suit against actor Ahmed Ezz, who publicly denied that he is the father of her twin children. This time, however, public opinion was largely on Zeina’s side. Following the court decision, Ezz said, “I swear to God, they are not my kids,” for which he has been mocked endlessly on social media. Interestingly, many men interviewed on the streets have stated that Ezz should take responsibility for his actions.

The most astounding change, however, is related to reactions to the Bab al-Bahr bathhouse incident. In December 2014, security forces permitted TV anchor Mona al-Iraqi to capture footage of a raid in downtown Cairo’s Ramses area on a public bathhouse the police claimed was a “homosexual” hub, arresting 26 men. Iraqi aired the raid and presented naked photos of the arrested men on her show on a satellite television channel.

Activists who work on sexual rights were extremely worried by the theatrical orchestration of this raid and many feared it would turn into another fearmongering campaign, reminiscent of the Queen Boat incident. In May 2001, state security officers raided the Queen Boat, a disco on a Nile cruise vessel, and detained more than 60 men, who were publically defamed and accused of belonging to a “devil-worshipping organization.”

Fortunately, nothing of the sort and scale took place following the Bab al-Bahr incident. Public reaction, particularly among social media users, was opposed to Iraqi’s stark violation of the privacy of the men who were arrested. Social media users launched the hashtag “a media snitch,” accusing Iraqi of a lack of professionalism and violating people’s privacy.

This was not the only recent incident involving Iraqi: Sawsan al-Sheikh, head of the Egyptian AIDS Society, who was a guest on Iraqi’s show, claimed her statements were manipulated and edited to promote harmful messages stigmatizing HIV/AIDS.

Public support for the men arrested in the bathhouse case continued until they were proven innocent. But, to fully explore this change in public reaction would require another article addressing the role of the revolution, and the ensuing freedom of assembly that enabled groups to organize and rally for crucial societal issues. We should also consider the role of social media platforms in mobilizing people and promoting the discussion of societal taboos and generational differences in value systems.

All things considered, this article is not claiming that we are now living in a progressive society. We are still functioning within the confines of contentious spaces. I also did not intend to paint a rosy picture of the current feminist movement, for how can we completely separate it from the wider socio-cultural context? There is no doubt that the feminist movement was hit hard by the revolution's defeat. Most grassroots initiatives that have been crucial in raising awareness about sexual violence are now paralyzed. The Interior Ministry will never grant them permits to work on the ground during major celebrations to prevent harassment, nor will it allow them to launch a street campaign to raise awareness.

The militarization of the public sphere in the aftermath of revolutionary defeat has also spread despair among those involved in the feminist movement. Many have exited the public sphere to focus on personal projects. But we can still see new initiatives starting in Cairo and other governorates, both on and off university campuses. Women today are fighting for their financial independence, and for their right to live outside their family homes. They are also continuing to oppose Female Genital Mutilation, and fighting for freedom of movement, among other rights.

Like the faint presence of a butterfly, the impact of the revolution can be felt today and will continue to be felt for years to come. Our political defeat should not prevent us from acknowledging the social victories that have been made, and the role of those brave women who have chosen to lead the way.

In March this year, we salute Noha Roushdy, Nawal Aly, Yasmine al-Baramawy, Hend al-Hennawy, and others who did not fear being first in line.

Happy Women’s Day.

*Translated by Dina Hussein

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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