When I first saw her, she frightened me.
It wasn’t the line of flesh hanging from her cheek (that I later learnt was a rape scar), neither was it the deep coarse voice that took me by surprise as soon as she started to speak. She didn’t frighten me because she shoved me back a little when I reached in to kiss her on the cheeks like I had greeted the other girls, saying, “I don’t like anyone kissing me” – it was my second day at the shelter and I was still naïve. This pregnant teenager unnerved me, because she was everything opposite to what I had known children to be.
And maybe it’s because she was the one that frightened me the most, that two years later, after a series of events and moments full of stories, that she is today, one of the street girls who is dearest to my heart.
She’s the girl I travelled three hours with to the cosmetic surgeon, the first of many girls who had their rape scars removed by him. She was the girl who walked into his surgery proudly presenting a candle she had made from scratch and wrapped for him – her only way of saying thank you “not for taking away the wound”, she said, “but for treating me like a human being”. She was the girl who made us laugh when we were on a bus transferring donated clothes to the baby’s shelter by hanging out of the door showing me how she used to call out for passengers when she was a call girl on the microbuses – the days everyone thought she was a boy. She was the girl who stopped eating for three days because one of the shelter babies had been taken away by her mother to beg with. She was the girl, who over time would hug and kiss me every time I walked in or out of the shelter. She was the girl who asked me “Does Shariff hit you? You know if he does, I have your back”. She was the girl who, knowing no other way to express her affection, as we were watching TV together, lay on the floor with her head on my feet. She was the girl who cried after her scar was removed because “my friends who are still on the street wont have this opportunity”. She was the girl whose son at the shelter was never seen not smiling. She was the girl who taught me about loyalty and friendship and healing.
Today she is the girl who starts serving time in jail. Her offence: begging
I try hard not to be a hypocrite. You know, I think: Okay, begging and homelessness are criminal offences, so yes, she must pay for her crime and be punished. But are things so superficial that my questioning should be satisfied at this level, or else I be labeled a hypocrite?! Because if it really were about fairness and justice, if it were about social contracts and law and order, then many other people in her life, personal and official, should be behind bars instead of, or with her, for their part and their influence on the life events that make begging an option, let alone the “better” one.
These people would include her father and mother who gave birth to her on the street, whom she fears so much she wets herself at 16 years old, when she sees them. With them would be the man who fathered her son by having sex with a minor and then leaving her to her own devices, taking to responsibility for their child, who appeared two years later and convinced her to leave the shelter but abandoned her again once she was on the streets. I’d also like the doctor’s who delivered her child in those prisons too, for humiliating her during labour, for not asking if it was okay for 27 student doctors to check her dilation, for telling her not to scream and had she not thought about this before sleeping around. In there too would be all those who work at the governments “correctional institutions” where, serving time for being “vulnerable to delinquency” she experienced even more sadistic levels of abuse and violence than those she found on the street – from being tied to the beds and beaten with the wooden planks, to being kicked in the face by supervisors who told her they were doing her a favor by keeping her off the streets, to hours of police beatings that they would randomly carry out when they would come in, lock the doors and “serve justice” as they saw fit, when reports of virgin girls in the buildings being raped were made to them. Yes, I would like to see all those individuals and institutions charged and behind bars.
But the courts and prisons are about law (at best) and never about justice are they. And so the weak will continue to be the easy target for those whose job it is to demonstrate the system works. Those who really have offended, will continue to offend because it’s too much hassle to deal with them and because they are the ones in power translating justice into practices that the poor and the outcasts can’t comprehend or object to. So no reader, no I’m not hypocritical to be angry that she is serving this time in prison. I am not hypocritical to say she does not deserve to be behind bars – at least not alone.
She was waiting to see me when I went back to Egypt. Shaymaa was sorting out a job for her at the bakery; we were in conversations about how best to support her during that transition from shelter to independent living. But who are we in the system to make those sorts of life changing decisions? I’ll be visiting her in prison this time round… a prison in Egypt where, these days, seems full of the most beautiful people I’ve known.