MADA MASR

Egyptian Dwarfs Fight For Their Rights

It's a different kind of Arab Spring in Egypt that you may have missed.

Egyptian Dwarfs Fight For Their Rights
Jano Charbel

ALEXANDRIA Ahmed Fouad is an employee at the Health Ministry in Alexandria. He's also one of the roughly 75,000 dwarfs* currently living in Egypt. His job makes him a minority in this already marginalized group, which is largely barred from the workplace due to infrastructural discrimination.

In addition to endemic social prejudice and ridicule, many dwarfs say government neglect has led to widespread problems for their community, from pervasive unemployment to a lack of affordable healthcare. Fed up with the status quo, they've begun in recent years to organize and fight back against this host of socio-economic obstacles.

The Association for the Welfare of Dwarfs in Alexandria (AWDA) officially launched in December 2012 as a venue for social, cultural and sports events open to all Egyptian people of short stature. Today, the association boasts a general assembly of around 120 members, with smaller branches in Cairo and the Suez Canal cities of Port Said and Ismailia.

Shortly thereafter, in March 2014, the Independent Trade Union of Dwarfs (ITUD) was founded and officially registered with the Ministry of Manpower, becoming the Arab world's first labor organization dedicated to dwarfs.

Also headquartered in Alexandria, the ITUD is markedly smaller, with only 50 members and one committee. The union is dedicated to helping its members find employment by offering vocational training programs and professional skills workshops. It also advocates for dwarfs in cases of workplace discrimination and other labor-related issues.

Although dwarfs are still essentially cut off from state welfare services, these organizations — particularly the AWDA — have recently made some significant strides.

The association won an unprecedented victory last year when dwarfs were recognized in a constitutional amendment including them in employment quotas. The amendment also granted special consideration to the community in terms of their socio-economic rights.

Previous constitutions provided these rights to citizens with disabilities but never contained provisions specifically for dwarfs. Employers would thus often exclude people of short stature from such quotas, on the basis that they were not mentally or physically disabled.

By international standards, adults who measure 147 cm or less in height are legally recognized as dwarfs. Depending on the medical cause of the condition, some of them can suffer from serious health complications, but most live long, healthy lives and do not consider themselves disabled.

Thanks to AWDA's advocacy, the 2014 Constitution now includes Article 81, which stipulates, "The state is committed to ensuring the rights of persons with disabilities and dwarfs in terms of healthcare, economic and social rights, in the fields of culture, entertainment, sports and education. Along with the provision of job opportunities for them, the allocation of employment quotas, the creation of public facilities and an environment whereby they may exercise all their political rights so as to facilitate their integration amongst other citizens — in keeping with the principles of equity, justice and equal opportunities." A 5% employment quota is specifically stipulated for public sector enterprises, in accordance with the law.

AWDA co-founders Essam Shehata and his wife Nesreen Hamed were the driving force behind the amendment. Tireless activists for the dwarf community since the 1980s, the couple successfully lobbied lawyers and other Constituent Assembly members to include these provisions during the constitution drafting process.

Cycle of social exclusion

What works in theory, however, doesn't necessarily apply in practice. Despite the gains they achieved on paper, Article 81 has largely been unenforced, according to Shehata, who serves as director of AWDA as well as president of the ITUD. "Neither the state nor private businessmen are standing with us in terms of the providing employment opportunities for dwarfs," he says.

Shehata says political parties have consistently ignored this and other rights violations against this community. He also explains that there is no official national census data or other records indicating the exact number of dwarfs living in Egypt. Rough estimates put the number at 75,000, with as many as 400,000 Egyptian families including at least one person of short stature.

Unemployment or precarious employment is often cited as the most pernicious problem facing the community. Hamed points out that AWDA's professional skills workshops — such as courses in cellphone repairs and maintenance — have "proven that dwarfs are mentally and physically capable of performing technical work exactly like fully grown people."

Some AWDA members have successfully maintained steady jobs in the public sector, working as customs officials, employees at the Alexandria Port Authority and in the healthcare sector. But these cases are the exception, not the rule.

Sami Ramsis has been out of work for three years. "I've been repeatedly seeking employment at the Ministry of Manpower's bureaus," he says. "But the employees there ridicule me, saying normal people can't even find employment, let alone dwarfs."

Ramsis feels like he's stuck in a cycle of social exclusion. "Since I can’t find a job, I can't buy or rent an apartment for myself," he says. "Since I don't have any steady income or an apartment, I can't get married or have a family of my own."

Health Ministry employee Ahmed Fouad points out that even when dwarfs are offered work, it often amounts to little more than a charitable handout. "We would often find that employers do recognize the 5% quota for disabled persons. But instead of providing such people with jobs in their workplaces, they are paid to stay at home," he alleges, lambasting the practice as a derogatory and unsustainable act of charity.

"We're not asking for charity," he argues. "We are asking for our rights and for equal opportunities in our country."

And even if a dwarf does get a job, he or she is then confronted with the problem of how to get there — many report that most forms of public transportation are inaccessible. "I have no problem riding the tram, but some buses and microbuses are very difficult to climb aboard. They are not easily accessible to people of our height," AWDA member Qadria Mahrous says.

Other association members say they hope government officials or private donors will help to subsidize the purchase of cars or motorcycles that are modified for their height, so as to increase their mobility and, by extension, their employability.

Strength in numbers

AWDA may still have a long way to go when it comes to tackling infrastructural issues — but it's been enormously successful in creating a safe space for community building, and offering the services and activities that dwarfs can't find elsewhere.

The association offers some medical services to its members, who often struggle with limited access to healthcare. For instance, Hamed says they provide human growth hormone injections for children whose short stature is caused by hormonal imbalances or nutritional deficiencies.

Advocating for children is another major focus. "We've been calling on the Ministry of Education to raise awareness, to increase tolerance and acceptance of dwarf children in schools," Hamed explains. "We want to end the physical and verbal bullying of dwarf students by their classmates."

She hopes that increased efforts on the part of education officials will help to foster a sense of social integration and belonging that would ultimately lead to greater success later in life.

Aside from these crucial services, the social experience the association provides makes a major impact on its members' lives. "I enjoy the sense of community, and the company of friends I've made here. We can relate to each other's daily grievances," says Mahrous.

The association convenes for its general assembly meetings on the first Friday of every month, and also organizes several other social and cultural activities. Mahrous says she particularly enjoys the group trips and excursions, including pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina.

These activities have helped to build a close, tight-knit community. Hamed proudly notes that at least six couples met and got married through the association.

Shehata is currently working to establish a National Day for Egyptian Dwarfs on March 27 to raise awareness regarding the community, and its needs and aspirations. AWDA is preparing events including football matches, dance and music performances, competitions and cultural exhibitions.

At the association's headquarters, five dwarfs are rehearsing an Upper Egyptian stick dance and a Nubian jig in traditional costumes. They smile joyfully for their photo shoot, and say they're excited to perform in front of an audience. They even hope to perform professionally in the future.

But the rehearsals might be in vain if Shehata doesn't secure the funds he needs to showcase the performance. "If we don't have sponsors to promote or financially assist us with these events, then we won't be able to be able to go ahead with them," he explains. "Our plans for this National Day of Egyptian Dwarfs may have to be put on hold."

While the Association for the Welfare of Dwarfs in Alexandria does not have an official webpage, information on the community in Egypt can be found on the Dwarfs Dot Com Facebook page.

*In interviews with Mada Masr, members of the community referred to themselves as "qezm/aqzam," literally "dwarf/dwarfs." This term has been contested globally, with some preferring to use "people of short-stature" or "little people," as there is no agreement on whether or not dwarfism is a disability.

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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