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When Egypt Deletes Women's Rights Heroines From School Textbooks

Street artists spray the images of the women who have fought for equality in Egypt, from the early 20th century to the Jan. 25 uprising.

Empowering women and children through street art
Empowering women and children through street art
Maha El Nabawi

CAIRO - It was a landmark day when prominent women’s rights activist Doria Shafiq bravely led a march of 1,500 women to storm the gates of the Egyptian Parliament on Feb. 19, 1951.

After several hours of unrelenting protest, Shafiq was finally received inside Parliament, where the council agreed to consider the demands of Egyptian women.

Along with her predecessors, including Hoda Shaarawi, Nabawiya Moussa and Ceza Nabarawi, Shafiq remains one of the 20th-century pioneers of the women’s liberation movement in Egypt. Her march to Parliament later led to the inclusion of women’s suffrage in the 1956 Constitution.

But, despite her many feats, Shafiq is likely to be forgotten in the minds of future generations in Egypt.

The 2013–2014 editions of the Egyptian National Education textbooks have been edited to delete the picture of Doriya Shafiq and pictures of those killed during the Jan. 25 revolution. Shafiq’s image was removed from the high-school textbook because she was not veiled.

But, as the subversion of Egyptian women continues, local human rights activists have become more creative in their fight for women’s equality, representation and rights.

Seen through local street art collectives like Noon El Neswa, the Mona Lisa Brigades and various independent efforts, a new wave of street art and visual campaigns seeks to challenge the low status of Egyptian women by painting them in a positive light.

“They are already deleting female activists from our history books,” says Shady Khalil, co-founder of Noon El Neswa, a gender-sensitive street art collective. “In order to help reverse the effects of this and many other attacks on women’s rights, we have been creating graffiti campaigns with the purpose of reclaiming women’s rightful position in public spaces.”

He says the goal is to utilize gender-sensitive and female-driven street art campaigns to tackle and invert negative social ideas or stereotypes toward women.

Co-founder Merna Thomas says, “The idea was to gather a group of young, female rights activists and visual artists to collaborate in constructing public campaigns aimed at changing the narrative of women in Egypt.”

The collective officially launched on March 9 2012, a symbolic date that coincided with the one-year anniversary of the “virginity tests” allegedly carried out by members of the military and security forces against detained female protesters.

At the time, Khalil had been working with the women’s rights activist group Nazra for Feminist Studies. The organization agreed to help launch the initiative, providing them with a gathering space and legal consultation.

Thomas had also begun taking on women’s causes after volunteering with Harassmap, an organization and website created by activists to shed light on the prevalence of sexual harassment.

“Don’t Label Me”

“The first campaign we launched under Noon El Neswa was called Graffiti Haremi (Women’s Graffiti),” says Thomas. “The idea was to create positive images. Rather than highlighting the negative, we wanted to promote the positive.”

Local graffiti artists Diaa al-Sayed and Mohamed El Moshir, along with members of the collective, developed a series of stencils using familiar icons from Egyptian pop culture, including powerful women such as actress Souad Hosni, songstress Om Kalthoum and film star Faten Hamama.

“We had noticed that women were only being used in graffiti as a form of insult — we wanted to reverse this by covering the streets with female icons that every Egyptian knows and loves,” says Khalil.

Their stencils are simple and recognizable. Their most notable work includes a stencil triptych created by Sayed, which pictures the outline of one woman without hear-covering, a second wearing a hijab and a third wearing a niqab. The slogan reads, “Don’t label me.”

Another notable work is one created by Moshir, which features the image of Om Kalthoum alongside her song lyrics, “Give me my freedom and free my hand.”

Thomas says she hopes the collective can continue growing, although it is limited by a lack of financial and human resources. Her future ambition with the collective is to continue creating empowering campaigns for women, in collaboration with other women’s rights groups.

Meanwhile, another collective of young activists called the Mona Lisa Brigades has also joined the cause of empowering women and children and promoting social justice through organized street art campaigns.

Mohamed Ismail and Mostafa Ali founded the Mona Lisa Brigades as a direct response to the excessive forced used by the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces against demonstrators. The group’s signature stencil can be seen prominently in downtown Cairo. It depicts Mona Lisa on a bright yellow crosswalk sign; her eye is covered in an eye-patch while her hand holds a spray can.

The group’s most notable campaign, titled “I Want to Be,” can be seen in the Ard al-Lewa neighborhood in Giza.

“After doing a great deal of research in Ard al-Lewa, we discovered there were thousands of children who have had almost no voice or representation throughout this movement,” says Ismail. “So we sat with many of them. We discussed their dreams and hopes.

“Soon after, and with their approval, we sprayed stencils of their faces along the walls. Under each image, we included the child’s dream. This way, whenever those kids walk by their faces on the wall, they will never forget their dreams,” says Ismail.

The collective’s upcoming campaign, “We Are All Human,” will also take place in Ard al-Lewa within the coming months. According to Ismail, the aim of the campaign is to emphasize the need for cross-cultural understanding in Egypt.

He hopes that, one day, street art can align more with political campaigns. He believes political parties should consider using graffiti for grassroots expansion, as it is an instrument and medium that is inexpensive and easy to spread.

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