Street Children: The Hymen and the Stamp of Shame

I sat rocking baby Summer, I held her vertically so that she could lay her head on my chest while I hugged her in her entirety. The rocking and the hug were calming me. As my tears fell on her face, she began to smile at the funny feeling of teardrops touching her skin. Despite the burning pit of anger, fear and pity they came from, these droplets must not have landed on her cheeks with the cruelty of the blood her whole body was covered in only moments earlier. She reached out with her little fingers that, unlike other babies, were rough, covered in rashes, to touch my eyes. This was a huge achievement for baby Summer who’s been receiving physiotherapy; calcium deficiency and crooked bones make it difficult to sit up, reach and hold things. The baby who had not completed her first year smiled looking right into my eyes. It broke my heart that she was smiling. I kept whispering to her how sorry I was. How incredibly sorry I was that I could not save her. I repeated it over and over again to the child now smiling, unaware that her mother, who was also still a child, was packing their well-worn hand-me-downs and would spend the night on the street; that if her mother did not leave her at the shelter, she would be her begging tool.

Today I learnt that I was braver than I thought, and that I was more of a coward than I had thought. Life as you live it every day limits this self-discovery. Only when you are pushed into the depth of darkness of human nature, when you are exposed to the rawness of human cruelty, pain and fear do you discover who you really are. I have been working with street children for a while. As a writer, you will notice that I have not written about the children, even on my blog. It has become too personal, I become too angry at the writing because of how sensational it may unintentionally sound. I want to protect the children I have grown to love and their stories from reducing them to words. No matter how skilled you are, no matter how much excellence you have in the craft of writing, you can never do justice in portraying the injustice of life and humans towards these children.

But I want to write today. Not because I have gained some extra writing skill over night, and not just because there is a societal concern and lesson from the incident I will write about, but because I have not been able to stop crying. I have not been able to sleep. Because, selfish as we humans are, I need to escape. It is no lie, no exaggeration when I tell you, reader, I am dipping the pen into my heart, and the blood of it, is the ink that writes this post.

The shelter today had a different vibe. The more I go, the more natural things seem to be, the less acting “happy family” there is. Today there is an “institution” feeling bouncing off the walls, each for their own, survival of the fittest. I am taken aside by Shaimaa, the shelter psychologist who has been working with street girls for over six years. She asked me not to give Shosho the headphones she has asked for because she listens to her mp3 all night and she doesn’t hear her two month old baby cry and so doesn’t feed her. I hear past what is being said and wonder how many girls are unlike Shosho, who have all the comfort and safety in the world to listen to their music when and how they wish, who do not have their an eye poked out by parents who abused her for being a disabled child with Parkinson’s, who have not had to prostitute themselves in the street for survival. This could have been a topic on it’s own for a blog, really. But Shaimaa went on to tell me that she was worried for the safety of Laila. Laila was the only virgin at the shelter.

Usually, the virgin girls are separated from the street mothers. The virgin’s are kept at 10th Ramadan Shelter for girls and Moqattam is home to the young mothers and their babies. Before working with the children, I was horrified at the split, I condemned the NGO for it’s segregation and joined a human rights campaign meeting where we, well meaning good doers tutted and shook our heads pointing fingers at the NGO heads who had taken this decision. Today, I went home understanding why this decision needed to be made, and that you had to start somewhere else. You had to start with society before you could keep the girls safe together. I understood today how very sick our society was. We are a hypocritical society concerned with which hand we should teach our children to eat with so that the devil doesn’t eat with them, who point out how heinous it is to walk through the door with our left foot while we forget the children that eat with their right hands out of the rubbish bins and we turn a blind eye on the children who get walked over with both feet. In the name of religiosity people condemn the broken hymen regardless of the circumstances a girl will carry that burden to her grave.

Shaimaa told me that she was worried Laila will be attacked by the girls tonight who were conspiring to break her hymen. Laila is due to get married in a few months. In a society that judges a girl’s suitability as a wife and mother based on a hymen that is in tact, this would be a catastrophe for Laila who would be rejected by her fiancé and will be sentenced to a different life than the one she wants. The hymen, even if broken in an attack by other girls who decide that they would seek justice by destroying something that was valuable to a girl who had been spared their trauma, the hymen, broken, was a stamp of shame to the girl in a society that kids itself into thinking it is pious, kind and merciful.

In the group session, things today were different. None of the girls were asked how she feels. Instead, sat in the circle we always sit in, we went round, each of the girls being asked to explain what was different in the shelter the last four days. Each girl said that Laila was annoying her. When asked how or why, no one gave any concrete answer, no one could put their finger on the reason. Sarah said “Laila is a clean freak, she can’t see something dirty and shut her mouth, but does she think she can remind us to clean just because she’s a virgin and better than us?” Pregnant Rania said “I could pay 500 pounds and come back to you tomorrow a virgin and better than Laila.” Maha said, “Laila annoys me, I don’t know why she just annoys me I don’t want her to talk to me”. Maha is a new arrival at the shelter that has been in many institutions since she was 5 years old. It unfolds in the end that Maha is responsible for planting the idea of attacking Laila. I am shocked at this because she appears the quietest, the sweetest of the lot. The same story about Laila is repeated till we get to Maya. During the time I have spent at the shelter I have noticed Maya has two voices, one she uses when she wants something and is trying to act feminine, and another when she is being defensive, when her body language is like that of a wounded animal. She was using this voice now. That was not a good sign. She said, “I hate Laila, she is better than me, I know she is better than me and I hate her”. Shaimaa told her she admired her honesty but that we should work with that and find out where that feeling was coming from and what made her feel Laila was better than her. She was not getting a response and so she said, “So far you’ve all spoken and I don’t feel there is any valid reason why you have all ganged up against Laila”.

At this, Maya stood up pointing her finger right between Shaimaa’s eyes telling her “I don’t need a gang to help me deal with Laila, I will give you institutions here, I will break her so she is like us, so she is not better than me, I will show you what real institutions are like. I will do it on my own, I don’t need anyone’s help, you can lock her in a cell and I’ll still break her.” At this, she stormed out of the circle, she grabbed baby Summer by one arm slamming her into the wall as she stormed passed, tore the curtain that separates the humble living area and the bedrooms. Shaimaa got up and asked all the girls to sit on the other side of the room. They all obliged, not saying a word. Everyone was somber but no one looked worried. I sat where I was, right in front of that curtain. I usually am one good for emergencies. Maya has grown attached to me and I’ve been used often to encourage her to behave well, I sat praying this friendship would support me in helping her. She appeared out of the bedroom with something in her hands that she unwrapped and threw the wrapper on the floor so we could see it had seconds ago covered a blade. When Maya grabbed Summer off the floor I got up to take the baby but Shaimaa told me not to, that Maya would harm the baby if we gave her attention. Shaimaa banged on the toilet door and told Maya she can cut herself, but not to hurt the baby. As Maya stormed out of the bathroom, we all tried to get the blade out of her hand, I kept saying, “for me Maya, for me, we all love you”. You could tell from the way her eyelids drooped she was not hearing us.

The shelter manager was called for. Maya returned to her room waving the blade in the air, dripping blood as she moved from the bathroom to the bedroom, she leaned on the wall covering it with blood. As soon as the shelter manager walked in, she stripped her clothes off so that he would leave. He walked out waiting for her to put something on. I told him we needed the baby out of there. Shaimaa walked in, I walked in behind her, as soon as she saw us, she took Summer and swung her across the room, the baby landed on the floor, her face and body were covered in blood. I grabbed the baby and as I picked her Maya came for me, I crouched over Summer in the corner, and Shaimaa screamed for Sami to come in, Maya had just slashed Shaimaa’s arm with the razor. I guess he saved us by storming in and slapping Maya. I took the baby and ran out almost crawling on the floor. But as soon as I had passed those curtains back into the living room, I froze. I carried Summer away from her, blood dripping off her, I could not move.

A younger child came up to me and said “we have to fix her, come to the bathroom”. I followed this little human who appeared far braver, far more experienced than I was, she skillfully held the baby over the sink and cleaned her, she told me where the antiseptic was, I went to get it and we covered the baby in it. We dressed her, and I sat with her back in my chair where Maya could see her child as she went back and forth. I could tell she was sad for Summer; she wanted to make sure she was ok. I was going to give her that. Sarah sat next to me. She said, “this reminds me of the institute days. But this is much better, in the institute; there were at least four girls who cut themselves every night. You don’t get help like you do here, its just girls after 4pm, there’s no supervision after that, so the girls wait till we’re all alone. You need to try and not learn that. You know, she can’t feel the pain at all; it’s like a chronic illness. What day is it? 10th September? It’s a black day, my mother was born on the same day.”

Shaimaa asked Sarah to help. Sarah, without saying a word got up and in seconds had Maya held against the wall. Such skill, so fast, so effective. These children had fought for survival, this was clear. They held Maya to the wall as they emptied her pockets to make sure she wasn’t hiding anything else she could hurt herself with. Stripped now to her bra and trousers, the scars across her stomach were clear. As she swore at them, telling them they shouldn’t waste their time with her, but go to the virgin they all loved, Shaimaa kept stroking her head telling her she loves her, that she cares about her, that she wouldn’t leave her till she cleaned the wounds and bandaged her.

Maya waited till they helped her, but she felt that she had to go through with what she had started and she packed her stuff to leave. There is no law in Egypt that can help us stop Maya taking her child and leaving. Child protection laws in Egypt mean Shaimaa hears her neighbour electrocuting their son every night and there is nothing she can do to help him. Maya came up to me shaking saying she was sorry I had seen this, she said “you came here to find out about us, there is nothing you can find out in those stupid conversations and interviews of yours, this is us, this is our life, this is the real story.” She hugged me. I, articulate as many think I am, could not say anything but, “please don’t hurt Summer”.

We sat in reception downstairs watching Maya leave. She had been in the shelter for years. They were all sure she was coming back, she’d done this before. Everyone was exhausted. I sat in awe of Shaimaa, arm now bandaged, Sami who had hugged Maya after hitting her sat justifying why he had to slap her across the face, worried that my zero tolerance to violence towards the girls would mean I would sit here judging him. Maher, the manager who had been called in, smoking, planning the session he was going to have with the girls to make sure Laila was safe that night. None of what happened had sunk in. I said, “where’s Jude, Mirna and Menna? I was here when their mother came to take them three weeks ago for two days for a Eid family visit, why aren’t they back?” I was concerned most for four year old Jude who has hepatitis C and recently developed a lump in her head. Shaimaa answers, “Family visit? Hmm. When they stop bringing in money from begging she’ll get tired and drop them back off.”

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35 Comments

  1. Just want to express my gratitude and admiration for the work you do. Nothing seem to me to be more important than this. Carry on your excellent work. Egypt needs more like you – and your type is rare. God bless you.

  2. Nelly Ali takes on work with some of the most marginalised and abused sects of Egyptian society. In doing so, she exposes herself to some of the most extreme of situations and some of the darkest and deepest pits of human nature.
    Although she is supposed to do so as an academic observer yet she delves in with all her feeling and emotions.
    The great friend she is to her colleagues… The supportive counselor she is to street children… And the tender mother she will be to those little children in need of warmth, tenderness and basic care… The fact that her moral compass never sways even in the most trying moments of adversity (Nelly’s zero tolerance to violence)
    You can easily sense all those qualities in her through that blog… I know them because I had the privilege of being her friend for 12 years…

    Nelly… You are making the contribution… You are actually putting in the effort on the ground along with Shaimaa, Maher and Sami and others…
    I salute you…
    I wish I could shake every hand and pat every shoulder and bow my head in respect to every one of you…

    Nelly Ali highlights through that blog the false religiosity our society suffers from.
    Hypocrisy that has filtered down to every group of society…
    She does so with witty language that is so edgy and fresh that is almost breathtaking specifically in that paragraph about left feet through doors, right hands eating out of rubbish bins and both feet trampling upon the weak.

    All the best my dear friend…

    Mohammed EL-Haddad

  3. Nelly, your tireless, hard work and dedication towards helping and the awareness of street children is absolutely amazing. I don’t know anyone else in the world who has the same courage and love as you do. It takes more guts to save lives like these and to write about it for the world to know than fighting crime. I have the upmost respect for you. Your unshakable faith in working towards a better tomorrow for these children will be echoed forever. God bless you Nelly and thank God for you.

    • Thank you Mariya. You have touched on something I am very passionate about. It is true that every report we read seems to start off with the kids numbers as if that will make the reader more compelled to provide their sympathy. Every child matters, every story counts on it’s own and for it’s own. Thank you for having read the post and spending time to share your lovely comment.

  4. I couldn’t do what you do as It would ruin the pretty picture I have of the world. I would not be able to carry on. I admire the strength you have and wish you the abilty to carry on…I now ask what next? How can we help ? there is no worse shame than knowing and not doing…please let me know.

  5. Stories like this, told, help affect change. One by one, our brutality becomes clear, the disconnect from our espoused morality manifest. We slowly see “them” as our neighbors, as “us”; so painfully slow. Each story adds to the body of evidence, drips into the sea. Someday, the ocean formed becomes unignorable. Please keep storytelling, keeping showing our brutality, holding that mirror of the moment.

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  7. Wow. Such a tragic story, and all because of societal attitudes ruining young girls’ lives. I think it’s heartbreaking that the girls saw virginity as their only worth. But such attitudes are prevalent everywhere to leser or greater degrees.

  8. hello i think you are very very very brave. your stories horrify me. it not hard to believe so much just that this religion that they have twisted means peace. such evil, my sister and i are going to Egypt in June for a year. we are black British Muslims. you know Egypt better than us are we in any danger?!

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  11. Nelly, thank you for writing the blog. It is amazing what you do for these street children. May God bless you and keep you safe always. It really made me visualise what the girls are going through, even though, elhamdu lillah, I am miles away from it all.

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  13. I spent 4 months in Egypt after the revolution. No one wanted to discuss this issue, as if it was nonexistent. Until people are willing to discuss the massive problems and ignorance that exists, including “street children” and the imaginary hymen, there will be many Maya’s hurting themselves and others.

    Egypt has a ways to go… thanks for bringing light to the things in the dark.

  14. This is a story of pain and sorrow. It is terrible to think that in this day and age virginity is still seen as a prize. Those who are not virgins suffer the consequences in such terrible ways even if their virginity was taken from them by force. Society, and it’s views, needs to change drastically or these situations will keep happening.
    I lived in Egypt and I too saw the terrible situations that these children go through.
    You are very strong to be there, writing about the atrocities that humans do onto others. I hope you can continue to fight for this cause!

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