كونك فتاة يدفعك للشارع أحيانًا

This little girl ran away to the street after refusing to give sexual favours.

This little girl ran away to the street after refusing to give sexual favours.

This post was translated by Al Shorouk and was published by them on 19 Jan 2013 and can also be read here

يشير العديد من التخمينات والإحصاءات والكثير من الأبحاث الأكاديمية والتطوعية إلى أسباب مختلفة تدفع الأطفال للعيش فى الشوارع. وتراوحت الأسباب بين ما إذا كان فقر أسر الأطفال المدقع هو الذى يدفع بهم إلى الشارع، أم مثلما اكتشف بعض الباحثين أن العنف والأسرة المحطمة يفضى بهم إلى الانتقال إلى حياة أكثر عنفا وتحطما فى الشوارع.

ولعل ما لم يشر إليه كثيرون أو لم يلحظه، أن مجرد كونك فتاة يكفى لدفعك إلى الشارع. «اكسر للبنت ضلع يطلع لها 24»، هذا قول شائع بين أبناء الطبقة العاملة فى مصر. وهى أيضا عبارة، نسمعها نحن العاملين فى مجال خدمة أطفال الشوارع عندما نحاول التوسط بين هؤلاء الفتيات الهاربات وأهاليهن. وغالبا ما تكون الفتاة التى تنام فى العراء، ولدت لأسرة كانت فيها والدتها ضحية عنف من رب الأسرة، وقد دخلت هذه الدائرة لمجرد لفت النظر إليهم.

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ويمثل كونك فتاة، تحديا فى كل مكان. ولكن، الأمر يزيد سوءا عندما تكون الفتاة مصرية، من الطبقة العاملة الفقيرة، نشأت فى عائلة تتسم بالعنف، وتعيش مع أحد الوالدين. وليس هذا تعميما شاملا، وإنما هو تصوير ديموجرافى لمعظم الأطفال الذين أتعامل معهم. حيث تنام الفتيات تحت الكبارى، وفى منعطفات الشوارع، أو بجوار السكك الحديدية، وهذه الأعين الواسعة، اللاتى تراها وتسبب لك غالبا اضطرابا، أو تخيفك، هى عيون لأطفال مذعورين، جياع، وحيدين. وربما يسهل علينا أن ننسى ذلك. لكنهن مسحوقات فى سن الطفولة.

وغالبا ما تهرب فتيات الشوارع من الأسر التى عرضتهن للسفاح أو الاعتداء الجنسى من الإخوة والآباء وأزواج الأمهات. ومن بين الفتيات العشر النزيلات حاليا فى الملجأ، تعرضت فتاة عمرها 14 عاما، للاعتداء الجنسى من قبل زوج أمها منذ أن كانت فى التاسعة من عمرها، وعندما اكتشفت والدتها ذلك، أخذتها إلى المستشفى لإجراء فحص العذرية بعدما نفى زوجها الاعتداء. فقام بدفع رشوة للعاملين فى المستشفى، لإصدار تقرير وهمى. وفى القاهرة، خضعت لاختبار عذرية آخر، فصدر تقرير بأنها لم تعد عذراء، وبموجب هذا التقرير تم إدخالها إلى ملجأ «الأمهات الصغيرات».

أما الطفلة لمياء ذات العام الواحد، فهى ابنة سميرة ذات الثلاث عشرة سنة، التى تعرضت للاغتصاب من قبل كل من والدتها ووالدها. وقد تركت سميرة طفلتها فى الملجأ خشية المسئولية، ولا يعرف أحد إلى أين ذهبت. وربما كان من أكثر الحالات المؤلمة التى تتعامل معها قرية الأمل منظمة غير حكومية حاليا، حالة هايدى، الفتاة فائقة الجمال ذات الأربعة عشر عاما؛ فقد قام عمها بتكبيلها فى نفس الوضع لمدة ثلاثة شهور، وكان يغتصبها يوميا. ولم يطلق سراحها إلا عندما وعدت بالانضمام إلى شبكته للدعارة، التى أجبر أمها وشقيقته على العمل بها. وما أن فك قيودها، حتى جرت وألقت بنفسها من النافذة. ونقل المارة الفتاة التى تكسرت عظامها إلى نقطة الشرطة، فحولتها إلى الملجأ.

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ولا يتوقف العنف الجنسى فى البيت ضد الفتيات. ويعتبر الاغتصاب والتعامل بعنف مع الفتيات جزءا من ثقافة الشارع. ويحمل معظم فتيات الملجأ ندبة مقوسة على أحد جانبى الوجه، أو تحت العين؛ وفقا لتقليد معين للاغتصاب فى شوارع القاهرة، لم يستطع أى من العاملين مع الأطفال فهمه تماما. فبمجرد أن تغتصب فتاة للمرة الأولى، يتم عمل جرح عميق منحن فى وجهها، بواسطة مطواة أو قطعة من زجاج عادة، لتسجيل إنها لم تعد عذراء، ويتم تسجيل وقائع الاغتصاب التالية بواسطة جروح أصغر مساحة على وجهها. ويحدث نفس الشىء عندما يتم اغتصاب صبى. ويسجل مدير الملجأ، وهو يدير الإسعافات الأولية فى مركز استقبال الرعاية اليومية المزدحم بالسيدة زينب، أن هذا النوع من العنف هو الأكثر شيوعا بين ما يتعاملون معه، حتى إنه يتم تسجيله أكثر من مرة يوميا. وقد أجريت لفتاة كانت تسعى للالتحاق بالملجأ خياطة 16 غرزة لجروح فى ظهرها، نتجت عن محاولتها الهرب من مهاجميها لإنقاذ وجهها.

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وفى جميع قصص الفتيات التى تعاملنا معها، كان مجرد كونها فتاة يجعلها إما عرضة للمعاملة بعنف فى المنزل، والتسرب من التعليم للمساعدة فى أعمال المنزل، أو أن تصبح مسئولة عن العناية بإخواتها، أو الاغتصاب فى الشوارع بسبب انعدام وسائل حماية نفسها، أو تحمل عبء ما يترتب على الاغتصاب، حيث تصبح مسئولة عن طفل، بينما هى نفسها مازالت طفلة، وتحمل عار كونها أما غير متزوجة.

وربما لا يكون هناك ما هو أكثر تعبيرا عن العنف الذى عانت منه فتيات الشوارع، أكثر من مشاهدتهن يقفزن من فراشهن إلى ركن الغرفة ليجثمن على أطفالهن عند فتح الباب من قبل أحد الإخصائيين الاجتماعيين. ويصعب التعامل مع هذا ومع ارتعاد الأطفال من أى حركة مفاجئة أو سريعة، حتى بالنسبة للإخصائيين الاجتماعيين الذين يعرفون قصص الفتيات ويشاهدون ذلك يتكرر فى كل مرة. وتهدف قرية الأمل إلى مساعدة هؤلاء الأطفال على النوم بعينين مغمضتين.

Street Children: Rape and Erasing the Scars of Memory.

Today my post is dedicated to Dr Hany Hamam; an amazing human being whose life path took him to the study of medicine and then to cosmetic surgery. I want to dedicate him this post as a thank you for showing me the better side of life and for his generosity, his integrity and the gentleness with which he treated one of “my” street girls as he changed her life.

I arrived at the shelter today at 6pm. This is the latest I have ever been. It was darker than usual. It hadn’t occurred to me before that the charity, with its sparse financial resources, would make do with the TV light in the evening to save the electricity counter ticking. I felt ashamed that this explanation only crossed my mind after I had automatically reached out to switch the lights on. I went up, the first floor was empty and dark, the second floor hosted everyone around the TV. I immediately noticed that Leena wasn’t there today, Mama Madeeha tells me her mother has come to take her. She moves her lips to one side, as only Egyptians know how, to express her sadness at the situation. She’s upset because this isn’t a family visit for Leena, her mother is taking her three days to spend on the street with her. Taghreed adds, three days if she actually does bring her back. Shams toddles hurriedly my way with her arms in the air saying “mama” demanding I carry her. She does not know that I have come up specially to see her and hug her and take my own dose of the love that these children have become a huge source of to me.

Me and Taghreed and her 4 month old son leave and go back down the stairs, in the dark this time. Taghreed tells me she’s learnt the way down by heart and not to be scared. A little ashamed of myself, I take out the torch in my bag to light the way down despite her reassurance (and yes, I have a torch in my bag, as well as a million other random things!) We wait for Mr Emad, the duty manager and 3am Ashraf who’s working unpaid extra hours this evening to drive us to 6th October City; a journey that takes us just under three hours in the Cairo traffic. I am in my element in this little micro bus. I am humbled by the amazing people sat in the front, giving their time and effort for a cause that is so dear to my heart.

During the three hours that it takes us to get to Dr Hany Hamam’s clinic, Taghreed tells me of the times she looks in the mirror and remembers how she got this scar. She does not spend long telling me how, but instead, excitedly tells me how well this doctor has been treating her in the times she has previously been to him. Dr Hany had written to me on twitter telling me he wanted to help the girls who had the rape scars, that he was a cosmetic surgeon and offered to perform these procedures free of charge. I was not in Egypt at the time and to be honest, ashamedly I could not keep up with all the offers of help that were flying in at me after the few posts I had written about the girls. But, I did pass his number on and I returned to find out that Taghreed has been to have the surgery and she was going today to take out the stitches. She tells me how clean the clinic is and that he treated her like “The Lady Taghreed” and joked with her and had asked her for her name. She had answered “My real name or my fame name”? She had joked with him and said “Abo Lahab” in answer to her real name. She told me this had made him laugh and she’d liked him ever since.

It may seem unremarkable to you, reader, that the doctor treated Taghreed with kindness and respect. If it does, then please let me explain. During the journey, she tells me of her child birth experience in comparison. She had been to the university hospital “Dimirdaash” in down town Cairo. She tells me that as soon as she walked in, in pain, she was asked where her husband was, what the scar on her face was, who was going to vouch for her. She said because she didn’t have a man with her, the doctors were able to use her to teach the younger doctors without her consent, so that after one doctor checks her dilation, 20 other hands were in her. They had also told her not all patients get anaesthetic when they were cutting/stitching and that they would only spray a little on. She tells me this story shaking her head with a slight smile and tells me that if Dr Hany had seen how they had treated her, she was sure they would all be in some trouble.

There were other stories Taghreed tells me on our journey, she tells me she doesn’t want to eat till Leena comes back – these two have a very special bond. She recalls the time Leena’s mother had taken her for two weeks and bought her back to the shelter naked with chicken pox and with more lice in her hair than all the lice she had ever seen in her life. It’s more moving than I can find words to write to hear Taghreed speak like this. I am amazed at how wrong I was when I first saw her. I had judged her as harsh and quite cold and dangerous. Her tenderness as she hugs her 4 month old, speaking about someone else’s child with such concern and helplessness is painful. She jumps from one conversation to the other, from stories of her fathers beatings, to being tied up in the institutions and beaten, to the freedom and fun on the street, to the friends she used to sleep with on the rail tracks, to the social workers that took her once to KFC. The two stories she always comes back to are of her friends whom she can’t find anymore and to her worry about one day not being able to afford her son’s education. But just as quickly as the concern appears, it leaves her eyes as she remembers stories of kindness or risk that she choses to tell me.

Taghreed’s stories are interrupted as we drive through 6 October. She points out at all the empty flats (as I had done before her) and asks me how comes there are so many empty buildings and so many people sleeping on the street. On her first journey here, she says all she could think about was how to come her on her own and just live in one of those rooms with her son, have a door shut behind them for safety. She had thought that she could grow some apples like the 6 she had stolen one day for her and her friends when they hadn’t eaten for three days and then when they had money, they had gone back and paid the fruit seller who in return for their honesty refused the money had given them 6 more. She tells me people who steal because they are hungry shouldn’t be punished and that all of Egypt were hungry. She laughs and kisses her baby telling him he would have an education and make 200-300 pounds a month and never go hungry.

We arrive at the surgery. Taghreed guided us. She said with pride, “I can tell you where this building is between a million buildings”. We go up the three floors and she holds in one hand her son and in the other a present for the doctor – a candle that the girls produce in their workshop. It has been specially wrapped for this occasion. We are greeted like old friends in the surgery and Taghreed proudly offers her gift.

I am in owe of the man we meet inside. He tells me that a person either always loved his country and never knew it, or that the 25th Jan revolution shone a light on this love. Either way, I understood what this man was saying. I felt his need to not function on a personal level but make society function with him. He is a man who has performed over 130 surgeries for Libyans who have come to Cairo and 15 Syrians. He told me he follows my tweets about street children avidly and to consider him one of my team. His humbleness was indescribable.

I went in to the operating room with them thinking I would support Taghreed while she took out the stitches. But again, she amazed me with her resilience and strength. She did not once flinch as the stitches were being removed, despite the blood that was oozing out of the wound, and despite the tears gathering in the corner of her eye involuntarily. I tried to hold her hand, but she pulled it away because she was counting stitches. It was an amazing change to her face, the flesh that hung out of place previously, a constant reminder of her trauma, her weakness, her history, the scar that haunted her with it’s memories was no longer there. Despite the psychological trauma, who’s scars were deeper and not visible to the eye, the responsibility in the form of the child that Taghreed was left with, the daily reminder in the mirror, was no longer there. We left his clinic with one less burden to deal with, one less reminder of a life full of challenge, full of violence, full of fight.

As we were getting into the car, Taghreed turned around and asked me to bring my camera to the shelter tomorrow because now she was no longer ashamed to take pictures with her son.

أحفاد الشوارع… يزحفون في ظلال الصدقة

لم أكن رأيت ريم من قبل. وكنت قد سمعت عنها عندما حدثتنى شيماء عن أسماء غريبة لبعض الأطفال، وكيف يطلق عليهم الملجأ أسماء أخرى. وكان اسم الطفلة ريم ذات السنوات الخمس، «أم حامد» فى شهادة ميلادها. وراقبتنى ريم بعيون تشع ذكاء. وقد تدربت، لأنها عاشت فى الشارع طوال سنواتها الخمس، على ملاحظة الغرباء وتحديد ــ خلال دقائق قليلة ــ ما إذا كانوا يمثلون خطرا أو لا يضمرون أذى. وهى موهبة يتمتع بها معظم أطفال الشوارع الذين قد تقابلهم.

وقد شاهدتنى وأنا ألعب مع الأخريات، وتابعت بعضهن يأتى ليعانقنى وأعانقه. ورأيتها بطرف عينى، وهى تستمع باهتمام إلى تعليقاتى، وهن يحكين لى ما حدث فى الملجأ خلال الصباح، وعن آخر رسوماتهن، وكيف تعرضت سالى للعقاب لأنها أهانت إحدى «أخواتها»، وعندما تأكدت أننى لا أمثل تهديدا، سارت نحوى مترددة. حملتها وأثنيت على ملابسها وسألتها عن اسمها. فقالت »أنا ريم». قلت «آه.. ريم، سمعت كثيرا عنك، أخبرتنى ماما شيماء وماما ناهد كيف افتقدتاك، وظلتا تتحدثان عن جمالك وأدبك». وكان رد فعلها مؤثرا. فألقت بذراعيها الصغيرتين حول عنقى وقفزت لتجلس على ركبتى. ولاحظت لأول وهلة أن لديها قمل فى شعرها، وكنت خجلة من نفسى لأننى ابتعدت قليلا حتى لاتزحف الحشرات إلى شعرى. وفى مثل هذه اللحظات أود أن أذكرك، أيها القارئ، بالإعجاز والتفانى الذى يتسم به هؤلاء الذين كرسوا حياتهم لأطفال الشوارع، واختاروا العمل معهم بشكل يومى، وينتقل إليهم فى كثير من الأحيان القمل، والطفح الجلدى، والالتهابات والعدوى من الأطفال، ولا يخجلون من معانقتهم، ورعايتهم، وتقبلهم. و لهؤلاء الناس ارفع القبعة بكل إحترام لأنهم يعرضون حياتهم للخطر بشكل يومي و هم يدافعون عن أطفال الشوارع الذين هم في الأصل مصدر دخل من الشحادة و الدعارة لبلطجية و زعماء دوائر شحادة او دعارة في الشوارع.

ويدور هذا الموضوع عن أبناء أولئك الأطفال فى الشوارع جيل جديد أكثر تهميشا من الأطفال الذين أنجبوهم. ولأنهم لا يندرجون تحت التصنيفات التقليدية لـ«الأيتام»، فهم إما يباعون، أو يقتلون، أو يستخدمون للتسول، أو إذا كانوا محظوظين للغاية يتركون فى الملجأ، الذى يتعلم، من خلال التجربة والخطأ، التكيف مع حاجات أطفال الشوارع بسبب عدم وجود مثال يمكن اتباعه.

في أغلب الأحيان يضطر الإِنسان أن يكتم صوت صريخ ضميره عندما يسمع هذه القصص بأنه يشير بأصبع الإِتهام على أطفال الشوارع و يتهمهم بالإِهمال كأنهم كانوا أصحاب القرار أن يحملوا و هم في هذا الوضع من المعيشة و يقولوا “كيف لهم أن يفعلوا هذا؟ الا يروا مدَى سوء وضعهم الحالي الذي سيولد فيه الطفل؟”  لكن ردّي على من يخطر بباله ذلك السؤال و على من لا يصل إلى أن يفكر في هذه الأشياء من الأساس أن اسألهم “و كيف لهم أن يروا؟ هؤلاء أطفال يعيشون في الملاجئ بعدما إغتصبهم والديهم أو بعدما تحرش بهم و إغتصبهم أزواج أمهاتهم أو إخواتهم أو من يعملون عنده.  أطفال تعاني من مشاكل نفسية و ذهنية، أطفال إغتصبهم من كان الأصح منه أن يرعاهم. هذه الأمثلة التي في الأرجح سببت لك الإِستياء موجودة لكن الإِغتصاب من قبل الأهالي أو في المؤسسات أو من الشرطة لا يعبر في حديثنا اليومي كأنه سر أكبر من كل الأسرار، لكن صدقني، عزيزي القارئ، أن الفتاة التي تحمل في الحالات المذكورة مسبقاً وضعها و حظها أفضل من غيرها فالإِغتصاب الذي يحدث في الشوارع ضرره و خطورته و ألمه اكبر بكثير.

وهناك ثقافة معينة للاغتصاب فى شوارع القاهرة، لم أكتشفها إلا عندما بدأت بحثى عن العنف الذى تعرضت له هؤلاء الفتيات. فبمجرد أن تغتصب فتاة الشارع للمرة الأولى، وإذا اتضح أنها عذراء، يجرح وجهها من تحت العين أو فوق مؤخرتها. وقد تم عمل 16 غرزة لإحدى الفتيات التى كانت تبحث عن مأوى فى الملجأ، بعد تعرضها لمثل هذا الاغتصاب. وهى إشارة إلى أن الرجال الذين اغتصبوها للمرة الأولى «علموا عليها» و«حطموها»! وينجم عن عمليات الاغتصاب التالية ندبة رأسية على جانب الوجه.  معاناة بنات الشوارع لا تنتهي عند تعرضهم للإغتصاب فالعلامات التي تنحت عليهم و الحمل ليسا إلا شيئين من أشياء أخرَى كثيرة بشعة سيواجهونها. إذا إستطاعت البنت ان تصل إلى ملجأ فمن الممكن أن تلقَى رعاية ما قبل الولادة في العيادة التابعة للملجأ لأنها لو لجأت للمستشفيات العادية فإِنها تتعرض للإِهانة و المعاملة القاسية من الموظفين الذين يسبوها و يعتدوا عليها اكثر.

ومن أكبر الإنجازات التى تفخر بها «قرية الأمل»، الدعوة الناجحة لتغيير قانون الطفل فى عام 2008 فيما يتعلق بالأطفال الذين يولدون لأمهات من آباء غير معروفين. فقبل عام 2008، كان الطفل المولود لفتاة الشارع، يبعد عنها، ويسجل تحت تسمية «مجهول الأبوين»، ويفصل عن الأم التى توصم بعد ذلك بالداعرة وتحبس فى مؤسسة إصلاحية بناء على هذا الاتهام، ولا يلتئم شمل الأم وطفلها مرة أخرى. وبعد حملة واسعة وبذل الكثير من الجهد، تم تغيير هذا القانون، وقرية الأمل الآن قادرة على مساعدة أمهات الشوارع الصغيرات على تسجيل أطفالهن باسم « مجهول الأب»، وتقديم المأوى للأم الطفلة وطفلها حتى تستطيع العيش بصورة مستقلة.

وبعد زيارتى الأولى إلى الملجأ قبل بضعة أشهر، سألت نفسى كيف يمكن لهؤلاء الفتيات الصغيرات ذوات البطون الكبيرة التعامل مع حالة الأمومة، هؤلاء الفتيات اللاتى هربن فى كثير من الأحيان إلى الشارع بعد اعتداء عنيف بدنى وجنسى، ارتكبه الأب أو زوج الأم. وهناك تاريخ لكل من هؤلاء الفتيات حيث تمثل كل منهن قصة رعب فى حد ذاتها، فكيف بعدما إغتصبها من قبل والديها ستتعامل “سميرة” التي تبلغ من العمر ١٢ عام  مع تلك هذه المسؤلية التي هربت بعد يومين من عملية قيصرية، وكيف سيكون التعامل بين “مايا” و بنتها “سمر” بعد ما تعرضت “مايا” لخلع ملابسها و ضربها و تركها على سطح المنزل مغطأة بالعسل من قبل والدها! كيف ستستطيع شوشو” التي تبلغ من العمر ١٤ عاماً أن تستيقظ كل يوم لتطعم طفلها الذي يبلغ من العمرشهرين عندما يجوع بعدما حرقوا عينيها في موقف من مواقف العنف الكثيرة التي واجهتهم من أهلها لكونها معاقة؟”

وبعد شهرين، جلست فى جلسة علاج جماعى، وشاهدت هدير (14 عاما) تلقم ثديها لوليدها الجديد فى حنان لم أره من قبل ولم أقرأ أو أسمع عن مثيله أبدا. ورحلت ذلك اليوم وأنا أشعر بالألم من ظلم هذا العالم الذى نعيش فيه وأدعو سامع الدعاء ألا يتخلى عن هؤلاء الصغيرات، وأن يمنح أطفالهن الفرصة التى لم تتح للأمهات. غير أن الواقع يختلف كثيرا عن ذلك الدعاء. فلا يقيم فى الملجأ و«يتخرج» منه سوى 20 فى المائة من أطفال الشوارع. وتعود الأخريات إلى الشارع خشية هذه المسئولية الكبيرة، التى اضطررن إلى تحملها.

وحتى الفتيات اللاتى تعلقن بأطفالهن، غالبا ما لا يستطعن البقاء. ومن أكثر الأمثلة التى تمزق القلب الطفلة منال ذات الثلاثة عشر عاما وتعانى من فصام عقلى، التى أنجبت الطفلة هند. وتعتبر منال أفضل طفلة أم على الرغم من أنها تترك ابنتها فى الملجأ. فقد تعرضت للاغتصاب من صبى فى منطقة ريفية بمصر، وأمضت شهور حملها فى الملجأ. وقد ظنت أنها إذا أخذت طفلتها معها، سوف تحرك العينان الصغيرتان اللامعتان مشاعر أبويها ليتوليا رعاية طفلتها الصغيرة. وبعد يومين، تم استدعاء الإخصائية النفسية إثر استغاثة من منال لإنقاذ هند من حبسها فى مزرعة الدجاج، فى محاولة من الوالدين لإخفاء ما اعتبروه العار الذى لحق بالعائلة. واستقلت شيماء الرائعة حافلة لمدة تسع ساعات، ثم حملت على صدرها الطفلة الصغيرة طوال تسع ساعات للعودة. وتحضر منال كل شهر لتمضى يومين مع هند. وهى تعمل بقية الأيام الأخرى لشراء الطعام والملابس لها. وانا أتحدى من يرى صراعها النفسى كى تغادر فى نهاية اليومين، أن يستطيع النوم فى تلك الليلة.

ويبدو أن حياة هؤلاء الأطفال لا تفتقر فقط إلى التمويل بعد الثورة ولكن إلى الاهتمام والوعى المجتمعيين. وهناك أمل فى نجاة أحفاد الشارع من الاغتصاب والجوع، والعنف إذا كنا، كمجتمع مسئول عن ظروفهم، نشعر بالغضب من عدم وجود قوانين تطبق لحماية هؤلاء الأطفال. وأنا أريد منك أيها القارئ، أن تغضب لعدم وجود قانون يسمح بأخذ الطفلة جودى ذات السنوات الأربع من أم الشارع التى أخرجتها من الملجأ لتتسول بها، بعد أن أحدثت فى رأسها قطعا من شأنه أن يكسبها نجاحا أكبر فى نيل تعاطف المارة. وعندما تمر أيها القارئ بجودى وآلاف من أمثالها فى الشارع، ولا تشعر بالغضب معنا، فعليك أن تدرك أننا جميعا السبب. فلتساند حملتنا لحماية هؤلاء الأطفال بحيث لا نواصل تحويلهم، مع جميع الأقليات الأخرى فى بلادنا، إلى السكان الأصليين فى مصر.

ولكن الآن، عودة إلى ريم ذات السنوات الأربع، فبعد أن تسلقت إلى حضنى واستسلمت لعناقها، واختلط شعرها الموبوء بالقمل بشعرى المغسول، وعندما تذكرت بارتياح أن لدى شامبو للقمل من لندن يحقق نتيجة خلال عشر دقائق، قلت للطلفة الصغيرة أننى كنت أنتظر لقائها، وقد سمعت أنها كانت بالخارج فى زيارة عائلية. فنظرت إلى بجدية بعينيها المستديرتين اللامعتين، وقالت: «أكره الزيارات العائلية، لقد اوقعت هبة الكوب، فربطنا والدى نحن الاثنتين معا، وضربني بالحزام هنا (و أشارت على ظهرها و العلامات الكثيرة التي تملأه) وتوقف عن ضربى عندما بللت نفسى. عندما أكبر سأصبح شرطية. وسوف أقتل أبى”.

thank you to Ahmed AboElhassan (from Tahrir Supplies) and Gameel Mattar (from Al Shorook News) for helping with the translation

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.”

Egypt and the Dysfunctional Compass of Blame

I was not going to write about last week’s attack on the street. Yes, reader, last week I was attacked on the streets of Cairo and subsequently blamed for my choice of timing being on them. However, after having been rammed into a parked car today, and also blamed, I decided to write. This post is not an attempt to evoke pity. What this post does attempt to do is take a quick look at how the compass of blame in Egypt generally points in the wrong direction.

Today, I threw a fit in the one place I could these days. I launched my Twitter app and had my rant. I wished this rage could have been translated into anger and directed at the idiot who had upset me earlier, but how could I when he was in his car and I had already seen he was willing to harm me for “fun”.  After squashing me against the parked car; stripping me of my power, my balance and my control, the driver then parked up temporarily, with his head out of the window sporting a wide smirk, commenting on the size of my breasts and waited to see if I would join in with the sadistic fun and get into the car with him. This only lasted for seconds. A homeless man with obvious learning difficulties saw the incident and I was touched at his rage. He took off his ripped and well-worn slippers and threw both at the car trying to stutter the words “Leave! Leave!” Egypt is, as always, everything and its opposite at every moment.

Last week I was invited to Iftar at a cousin’s house. I went to the local sweet shop to buy an ice cream cake, a favourite during the heat wave that has recently hit Cairo, and waited for a cab, like you do. The roads were quite, as they are just before Iftar time, with the few cars on this main road, driving at break neck speed so they could make it to which ever home they were going to break their fast in.

I could see two guys on a motorbike go round the U-turns a few times. Each time they went round, they parked for a few moments a few feet away from me. They were bare foot, dirty skinned, with unkempt hair and they both had scars across their face – signatures of life’s experiences that they had have suffered, some worn with pride and others with defeat; I had learnt this scarring system through my work with street children: a curved scar under the eyes of a girl, for instance, marks the first time she has been raped, other vertical scars represent each of the subsequent sexual attacks. Out of principle, I am not scared of those who wear the “look” of the street. On the contrary, I am blessed that I can, at once, see beyond the dirt to the handsome jawlines and passed the drugged out drooping eyelids to the fiercely intelligent eyes. The hard callused feet are not unattractive, but instead they tell the tales of the many times they have had to run for survival, from abuse, the times they have had to run for their lives.

Their presence did not affect me. I took my mobile out, made a call and was generally comfortable. It was only when they practically drove their motorbike a hair away from me that I jumped at the proximity of the bike and fell backwards between two parked cars. They weren’t able to grab my bag like they had obviously been planning by the way they grabbed my arm and as they were coming for me one more time, a cab driver stopped and I jumped in.

The cab driver, seeing I was distressed, said that he wanted to offer me some advice. He told me not to take offence, that I was like his daughter, but this was my fault. He said I should have never gone out at least an hour before Iftar time. Despite appearing concerned and kind, as soon as the sunset call for prayers started, he parked up in the middle of nowhere and said he wanted to go to his kids to break his fast and that where I was going was out of his way. No doubt he was thinking abandoning me was my hosts fault for not living en route! I got out, just folded in and sat on the pavement and started to cry. Then, true to being Egypt, the opposites started to appear. Scenes of young men and boys on the street giving out drinks and dates to any car that was still driving during Iftar time, and of course, the kind female beggar who left her food for the few minutes I sat by her on the pavement crying, offering me comfort and advice.  The beggar, opening one of the tissue packets that she sells at the traffic lights, taking it upon herself to wipe my face and further smudge my makeup, told me, “sweetheart, how could you do that?! How could you be go out at this time?! You are the one who is wrong, you are crying because you didn’t think!”

Everyone, who was not part of my twitter community, said some variation of “It’s your fault, you should know never to go out during this time, that’s when the roads are quiet and the muggers operate”. Well, I assure you it never even occurred to me, it was in no manual or travel guide. And is this not what happens when someone is sexually harassed? Some clever disillusioned commentator will make some observation on the way the girl is dressed, the time she was out, the way she was standing, and if it’s a close female perhaps suggest she try minimizing bras.

Then there are others who try to comfort you by saying, “you should thank god that it came to this and you were not hurt, god protected you because you’re kind and did not deserve anything bad to happen to you”. I actually thought this was worse! Are they trying to say those who are seriously harmed deserved it?! How our culture comforts us by saying crap that wasn’t true that we ended up reproducing the thoughts and reproducing the ideas that encouraged inaccurate blame! But how many of the 85,000,000 will be convinced with your speech of social reproduction through language? How many mothers and fathers have you seen hit the floor telling the toddler who had just fallen that the floor was naughty for making the little kid trip over and so we would hit it?

I began to believe that I had taken a horribly wrong decision to have left London, three weeks after getting married to an incredible man, to come to Egypt because I believed in the change that was happening here, because I ached to be a functioning part of a society that was trying to change from the bottom up, from the inside out. I left the place I was born and grew up because I felt I had something, even if it was only my good intentions and willingness to work hard, to offer. I thought that my love for my family here, the people here, the children here, would make this country my home, but the bitter reality is, every time I leave my front door I get a panic attack just thinking what the streets today have to offer, what they have to take away and how I will be blamed. Today I realised my definition of home was where I felt safe.

As for Egypt, it’s important to lay the blame where it is appropriate. Only then can we work towards making things right and fixing them. But, if we continue pointing fingers at the mugged for carrying valuables, the attacked for not being vigilant, the raped for not dressing appropriately, the murdered because their time had come, then we might as well forget society as we know it and start looking for Adam and Eve to blame.

FGM: Mutilating the Female Spirit

This is a picture of a 10-year old at the local barbershop used by the CNN in 1995.
Please note: details have been changed to protect the identity of those I write about.

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She asked me if I liked her, a lot – not only if I liked her, but also if I liked her “a lot”. It’s hard breaking her good heart. But the truth is, I could not see past the fact that this woman she was asking me about, had made the decision to mutilate the genitals of her five female daughters. This woman had made the choice of subjecting all her daughters to a procedure she herself had gone through, one that I was afraid to imagine. She had decided to deprive them, forever, of full sexual pleasure because, she argues, “females are prone to being horny”.

I took the metro to visit this family in a part of Cairo I knew I would be frequenting during my stay here; a key site for my PhD research with street children. I would, of course, be dressed differently when I came for my fieldwork. There would be no designer flip-flops, no low cut maxi dress and no flowers in my hair. I would try to blend in the background, as “decent” women, here, are expected to do. Impressed with how clean, calm and courteous the metro was, one man, well into his 70’s and on a walking stick, got up to offer me his seat and would not have me turn down his offer. My friend had marked the house as the building next to the barbershop.

There was much going on that I know in any other circumstance, would have made me sit here, passionately writing. I would be typing away either about the gender roles and the non-patriarchal household (despite the presence of a husband and father); about the five young ladies that came scurrying out of the shared, tiny, cramped bedrooms with their big dreams; I would have written about the generosity of the poor compared to the rich we’d been visiting. I would have been sitting here being judgmental about a whole range of different things. But, none of the above, could motivate me to write today more than FGM. I walked into this house knowing that all the women in it had suffered something I was lucky enough to escape. It wasn’t only that I sat there knowing I would enjoy sex in a different, fuller way to these girls that outraged me, but more than this, that the mother, herself, had inflicted this.

I sat between them remembering a procedure I had undergone as a child in a clean, relaxed London hospital to check on my kidneys and the “reflux” they thought I was suffering from. The procedure involved a doctor inserting a sterilised tube up my urethra to see inside my bladder. It was done with my legs open in the air. I can still remember the details of the room; how big it was and considerably empty with just the seat i was on, a tray with wheels and a screen. I remember the offensive, but reassuring smell of disinfectant, the doctor’s gloves freshly picked gloves from the box in front of me, and his professional, but kind reassurance. I even remember the length of the hair on his eyebrows and the thickness of the frames around his glasses. It was more embarrassing than painful, but it was a procedure that 24 years later, I have not forgotten. It was also a procedure that meant it took many years before accepting that anyone could touch me “there”. I wondered what smells these girls could remember; could they recall the smell of the rusty blade, the impatience of the local barber, the dirt under his nails, and the humiliation at having lots of people watching? Could they remember the feeling of trickling blood down their thighs, fainting under the pain? I could not imagine how these girls felt at the thought of being touched “there” again.

I have often dismissed engaging with the fight against FGM, arguing to myself that there were plenty others who had taken this fight on. FGM wasn’t personal, I didn’t know enough about it, and I had my sleeves rolled up facing other human right violations. Today, however, I didn’t know how to deal with myself. I could not concentrate on any of the things that usually amaze me in these situations. I came home and couldn’t write about something I didn’t know, so I started doing some research. I wanted to start just by sharing a chronological commentary on FGM; which in many countries where the procedure happens, became known as one of the “Three Feminine Sorrows” – the first was the actually circumcision, the second was the wedding night when the woman had to be cut open again, and the third was during childbirth, where again, she had to be cut open.

The term “Pharaonic Circumcision”, which most girls who suffer FGM in Egypt are subjected to, originates from its practice in Ancient Egypt under the Pharaohs. Leonard Kuber and Judith Muascher, document that circumcised females have been found among Egyptian mummies, and that Herodotus (c. 484 BC – c. 425 BC) referred to the practice when he visited Egypt and there is reference on a Greek papyrus from 163 BC to the procedure being conducted on girls in Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital, and Strabo (c. 63 BC – c. 23 BC), the Greek geographer, reported it when he visited Egypt in 25 BC).

It wasn’t just Egypt, or Africa that practiced this, though for the purpose of this blog I did not research more about the history of the practice elsewhere. It was interesting to find, however, that gynecologists in England and the United States carried out FGM during the 19th century to “cure” insanity, masturbation and nymphomania. It is important to note thee pivotal date, June 1993, when the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights agreed that FGM was a violation of human rights.

It took some time for Egypt to catch up, even if only superficially. The health ministry banned FGM in 2007. The five girls would have not benefited from this ban, even though it is naive to think the ban actually made a difference on the practice, in fact, it probably made the procedure worse because it had to be done in hiding. The ban came to save face the Egyptian government after a photograph (above) of a 10-year old girl became public. She was undergoing FGM in a barber’s shop in Cairo in 1995. The image was broadcasted on CNN and caused a public out roar. The photograph was taken in a barbers shop. As soon as I read that I could not stop thinking about the barber’s shop beneath the house were in. The head of the household kept speaking about them being long life neighbours that loved her. I started to feel sick hoping to god it wasn’t here the girls had become “pure, ready for marriage”. 2007 also saw the case of 12-year old Badoor Shakir who had died of an over dose of anesthesia during an FGM procedure in the southern town of Maghagh for which her mother had paid a physician in an illegal clinic the equivalent of $9. After this news broke out, the highest religious authority in Egypt, Al-Azhar, issued a statement that FGM had no basis in Islamic law, enabling the government to ban it – ban it, not outlaw it and hence it’s enforceability is problematic.

There is much to speak of, of course, other than historical dates that bought about change. There is the procedure, the experience, the cultural resistance of women, more than men, to give it up. There is the link between the ideas of mutilating the female reproductive system with a pure maternal being. There is link between FGM and the cultural expectations of some for women and the unnatural immobility during intercourse and their efforts to hide orgasms should they be lucky enough to experience them.

The physical and psychic trauma that these girls I visited have gone through and that which still awaits them makes me ashamed of all the times I have turned away from this debate. Education and awareness is key. For them, I start judging. For the children whose bodies are still being mutilated, I start writing.

Kafr Elzayaat – Where Women Don’t Hang The Clothes To Dry

They say the delta of Egypt is where She gets her life. It may be true; but it’s not where She necessarily gets her freedom. I came to Kafr Elzayaat on my second trip as part of the election campaign, that I have joined, in a bid to see a different side to Egypt while out here doing my research with street children; one I would otherwise not have access to. I took off on this road trip trying to see the delta with fresh eyes, uninfluenced by my awe of Upper Egypt and all the things it changed in me. But, it was hard to step back and embrace it objectively. I admit I had to remind myself often to make space within me for the beauty and pain that this place might reveal.

The road was new. This road didn’t pass through the agricultural Egypt, instead, it cut through the desert. Unlike the air that was thick with human stories in Upper Egypt, the air here carried a guilt of sudden death. Is was one of the most dangerous roads in Egypt, claiming a large number of lives every year. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who died on this road. Mostafa also was not the same. The animated man full of stories of struggle and hope was tired. He was being pulled thinly across Egypt in different directions. He hadn’t slept for days, started taking heavy painkillers every few hours and was starting to taste the sting of criticism as he gathered both supporters and critics. We temporarily swapped roles on this journey. But as soon as we arrived and our hosts welcomed us, I was amazed at where he gathered all the strength from. He was back! Optimistic, faithful in delivering his message and sincere in his support for the people he met.

The man running for elections in this constituency was a character that filled me with such a strong compulsion to create a caricature of him or one of those flick books to capture how comically serious he was and how quickly he spoke and moved. You could almost see the ideas fly by in is mind and you had to be super quick to catch up with both his thoughts and words. I loved him and didn’t believe a word he said all at the same time! His optimism was endearing but his lack of awareness or conversation about anything other than how many votes he was sure of securing made me wonder if he was the best candidate for this part of Egypt. I felt we should have carried a responsibility away with us to take back and talk about, write about and fight for. This man was not going to give us the humanistic tour or answer questions about neither struggle or needs.

The generosity we we’re offered in this home matched that of Upper Egypt and the food was delicious! We had already eaten and tried to explain we couldn’t possibly eat now but it was almost like those were words that did not make up any part of the vocabulary of an Egyptian home and all that was said was “That is not my concern”! So we sat and ate.

After the food I started to learn what I had come here to learn. About women. Where were the women? While Mostafa was taken to a separate part of the Villa to change his clothes, I was introduced to Nadia (her real name has been changed for her privacy). A very beautiful 27 year old who opened the door to greet me. She stood behind the door gracefully in a long white and sky blue Abbaya, earrings that were so big and heavy I was in awe at how she didn’t have to bend over to carry them. She was white with the blackest hair sleekly brushed back from her face and she wore grey contact lenses that I was sure hid even more beautiful eyes. Nadia greeted me with the smile of an old friend and started chatting straight away, even before I sat on the very modern beige and cream couch, about my marital status and why I wasn’t married till now?! I loved her instantly.

A few minutes later I was “called for” (it felt like I was called for by my master which irritated me from the “messenger”) by Mostafa. I went over to where he was dressed (very smartly may I add) and he, with a very embarrassed look on his face said: “I’m really sorry Nelly, I didn’t know, but no women are coming to the conference. You’re not going to be able to join us”. He seemed more irritated than I felt and so I decided not to express my outrage immediately. But at the same time this was relevant. This spoke more about this candidate who had earlier left out the most important stories of the place. His second mistake quickly evident; his marginalising the women who were going out to vote in a couple of weeks. It was crazy.

What struck me as surprising was the comparison to my recent visit to Sohag. Sohag, a part of Upper Egypt, known for its conservatism, and it’s need for gender equality awareness seemed to be years ahead in terms of their involvement of women in the political scene. So much so that in my post about Sohag, I very naively did not mention that the 1000 strong crowd was half women and that a woman from the constituency was running for elections! Today this seemed significant and very worthy of celebrating and mentioning.

While Mostafa went to the conference, I stayed with Nadia. Nadia taught me much in the couple of hours I spent with her and she unwittingly, through her small talk, gave me a bigger, clearer picture of what it meant to marry a man from here. Nadia has been married for just 3 weeks. “This was probably the worst time to get married to Mohammed because of the campaign”. She goes on to explain, “but, of course Mohammed can’t leave his brother to go through this alone”.
Her appreciation for solidarity that chewed into her honeymoon touched me. I asked her if she went out here and had made any new friends. She looked at me with a look that said “you’re a foreigner and I’m going to have to explain this to you slowly”. She told me laughing, “friends?! What friends? I’m not even allowed to stand out in the balcony to hang the clothes to dry!!” Then, she went on to tell me, lovingly, that sometimes her husband came home early at 8pm and she’d spend time with him. That seemed the highlight of her day. I asked if this made her miss Alexandria (where she’d grown up) and her friends there, and she explained, again very cheerfully, that she only had one friend since knowing Mohammed because “a man is always right in terms of his insight about the world and he had explained that most of her friends where “no good”. ”

I wasn’t sure if it was what she was saying or the cheerfulness she was saying it with, that was making me so uncomfortable. I decided to change the subject from personal relationships to her plans for the future. With every conversational manuver I was making I was discovering how arrogant I was. She did not have plans for the future. She told me that her family owned a series of makeup and accessory shops and that her mother had made each of the 7 children responsible for one of them. She giggled as she confessed that the one week she was in charge of hers she had been responsible for a loss of over 2400 Egyptian pounds and this was for goods that were usually under 5 pounds… She went on to explain to me that different people were made for different things and she was a failure at the outside world and was made for staying at home and shopping when she went to Alexandria.

What happened next was something I don’t know how to explain. I couldn’t just listen passively and I told her she can’t be so harsh on herself or call her self a failure simply because she didn’t perform well in retail, that the world was so big and there were a million and one other things that I was sure she could excel in. If you would be quick to accuse me that I was being pretentious, then explain how I broke all the social barriers of this extraordinarily cheerful woman and suddenly moved from a formal eating of gateau in the living room to sitting cross legged on her bed eating biscuits and her showing me her makeup and scarves and telling me intimate stories of friendship and love.

The bedroom we had moved into housed the large LCD screen where her favourite Turkish TV series (which she had watched three times before) was showing in an hour. This was also the only other room she had private access to. It did not match the modern minimalist look of where she received her guests. When she directed me to sit on the bed, I looked at its height thinking “will she pull out some garden ladders, or a stool perhaps to climb?” But I quickly realised no such assistance will be offered and so I jumped on the rich ruby silk and decided to enjoy her hospitality and the friendship she was offering me. As she was opening the drawers to show me her scarves, she explained that a few years ago she had tried a scarf on and realised she looked more beautiful in it so she never took it off since then. Her honesty was refreshing! She was veiled because it accentuated her beauty rather than her modesty and she wasn’t in the slightest ashamed.

I asked her if she was happy. She told me that she was. That though Mohammed would swear at her and take out all his frustrations at her, she “worshiped the soil he treads on” and that he was the best sort of man because though “he would hurt her when he was angry, as soon as she apologised, he would act like everything was ok again”. How I wanted to throttle Mohammed and society and everything that made this woman who had so much potential feel so weak and grateful for treatment that others take their partners to court for. I didn’t say what I thought, not only because there was not enough time, not because I didn’t want to intrude, but because….. oh so many reasons I regret now. But Who was I to impose what I thought a healthy relationship was. I say this, but at the same time I felt like screaming at the absurdity of it all, at the plight of women and at how damn hard it was living like this. This trip made me temporarily fall out of love with life.

We were interrupted by the maid who came in to the room to tell me “you’re being called for at the conference”. I didn’t want to leave. As I was leaving, Nadia insisted I freshen up my make up and use her perfume so I could be ready “should I bump into my fate on the way”. She stood next to me in the mirror inspecting a spot that appeared on her otherwise flawless skin and complained. I said it might be her period coming to which she took much offence and said “spit those words from your mouth, hopefully it won’t come and a baby will instead, what else has he married me for?”

I got in the car waiting for me with two strangers who drove me the 30minutes to the tent I did not want to go into. I wasn’t invited in. I was told I could hear them via the speakers from the car and the driver was instructed not to leave me alone to make sure I was “safe”. I felt suffocated and I hoped no one would vote for this candidate. The show (it all felt like a show now) came to an end and again Mostafa left the conference with tens of people around him, again trying to be as close to this man as they could. I hadn’t heard what he had said to them (the quality of the speakers wasn’t great) but the look on the faces of these men was different to the other people on the street. These people had been motivated and you could see it. why the women couldn’t be part of this was meaningless.

Mostafa got into the car and apologised to me for my having made the journey and not getting the chance to learn much of the socio political scene that I had come for via the conference. This of course was an unnecessary apology. I do not think I could have learnt more at an artificial set up where politicians play on dreams as much as I did in the coziness of the small room and the genuine sharing of Nadia that evening.

We were driven back to Cairo and I could not help but feel how lucky I was for the privilege of having choice. Not only the choice to participate or to disengage, but to not have someone like me leave my home after my being as hospitable as Nadia had been, feeling pity out of their arrogance at thinking they understood society or what was best for me as I had done. It’s never as simple as your convictions make it out to be; the truth is, it’s complicated.

[Photo by Neal http://www.flickr.com/people/31878512@N06/%5D