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Discussing and potentially breaking social taboos is, by default, a challenging exercise, particularly in Egypt, where state repression goes far beyond politics.
Sondos Shabayek (1985) relishes the challenge. Since seeing a performance by the BuSSy (‘look’) Project at the American University in Cairo in 2006, she has dedicated herself to addressing women’s issues in Egypt through storytelling and theatre.
BuSSy organizes workshops during which women share their experiences of life as a woman in Egypt. Topics range from street harassment and getting married to female genital mutilation (FGM) and rape. The workshops are compiled into performances in which the women themselves tell their stories to the audience.
“I cried,” Shabayek told Fanack about seeing a BuSSy performance for the first time. “The women’s stories were very real, very close to my heart.” That night she went home and wrote two stories about her experience of being harassed by a teacher as a child. She joined BuSSy soon after and has never left. Shabayek describes her motivation to work for BuSSy as “a constant process of healing”, adding, “it’s my coping mechanism to be able to live in this country”.
Plenty of rankings illustrate why women in Egypt need a coping mechanism. To name a few, the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap 2016 report ranked Egypt 132nd out of 144 surveyed countries in gender equality. A 2013 survey by Thomson Reuters concluded that Egypt is the worst Arab country to live in as a woman.
Egypt is notorious for sexual harassment of women. In a recent UN study, 64 per cent of Egyptian men interviewed admitted to having engaged in street harassment, and more than 99 per cent of women have experienced some sort of sexual harassment, according to a 2013 report.
Stories of sexual assault during protests at Tahrir Square and virginity tests carried out by the army have made international headlines. The high percentage of women who have undergone FGM, 87 per cent according to the latest UNICEF numbers, is often cited when talking about the situation of women in Egypt.
Shabayek describes life in Egypt as “exponentially more difficult for women”. “When I think about what to wear, where I’m going to walk and who I’m going to meet effects my decision,” she said. “With a short shirt, I know the looks and comments I’m going to get on my way to work. Am I ready to deal with this today?”
Yet harassment is not the core issue Shabayek seeks to address with BuSSy. “I feel there is a very deep distorted belief that women are inferior,” she said. “[There is an] objectified idea of women, that they are vaginas, that a woman should serve her husband and listen to him.”
Shabayek recalls a moment when she supported a woman who wanted to wear a niqab (veil) during a performance. “It’s not up to me to tell her what is right or wrong, not up to anyone […] she feels that if she covers herself she is going to be respectful, [but] where is this core belief coming from? This is what we need to think about.”
The gender inequality Shabayek refers to is deeply rooted in both social customs and the law. At marriage, a woman’s legal ‘guardianship’ passes from her father to her husband; divorce is easier to initiate for men than for women; women inherit half the amount men do; polygamy is only allowed for men; and marital rape is not recognized in Egyptian law.
In Egyptian society, a woman is supposed to enter marriage as a virgin. Any doubts about a woman’s virginity greatly reduces her chances of getting married. Women are generally supposed to live with their parents until marriage, whereas it tends to be easier for men to move out.
There is typically family pressure on women to get married, including parents proposing candidates. The pressure on men may start at a later age, as they are first expected to make enough money to buy an apartment to live in after marriage. Social pressure may well continue after marriage, with the focus shifting to having a baby.
It is not uncommon for a woman who is at home by herself (specifically: without a male guardian) to be forbidden by her husband or parents from receiving visitors. ‘Neighbours will talk’ or ‘it will harm our reputation’ are reasons commonly given for such restrictions.
Shabayek’s own situation is not much different. She was able to move out of her parent’s home, even though she was unmarried, but it took “a lot of fights. They still don’t like it. They still say ‘come back, come and spend the night’.”
Although her parents have come to accept the work she does and no longer criticize her for being “ill-mattered” for going on stage, they are not particularly supportive either. “They don’t say ‘good luck with your performance’. My parents are not conservative; society would probably even label them open-minded. But how open-minded can open-minded parents get in Egypt?”
The 2011 Arab Spring uprising had a strong influence on Shabayek, which materialized in the Tahrir Monologues, performances that narrated the 18 days of the revolution. Shabayek feels that there was an “obsession” with documenting those days. “We were very concerned what would happen next and how history would be written,” she said. “We are living our fears now.”
In 2012 she stopped performing Tahrir Monologues. “I believe that most of the people who were on the streets are all suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder; we don’t talk about it, I can’t watch the videos anymore.”
Still, Shabayek sees some – albeit small – changes brought about by the revolution. Women are more willing to speak out and share their stories; the audience is more open to accepting them. “The revolution has left us feeling empowered when it comes to self-expression. There is a change in people at least, even if the system is the same or maybe worse.”
One of the ways ‘the system’ manifests itself is censorship. Shabayek explained that the state operates a censorship committee for every form of art. Before a public performance, the script has to be submitted to the committee. Sex, politics and religion are the subjects that are typically censored, she said.
‘The state feels it has the role of big brother,” Shabayek said, describing its mindset as “we [the state] tell you what to do and to say and you have to obey us”. Operating mostly without a permit from the censorship committee, it is increasingly difficult to find a venue for BuSSy performances. The Rawabet theatre in central Cairo used to be a regular BuSSy venue, but after being raided and temporarily shut down in late 2015, it now requires a censorship permit as well.
Amid Egypt’s ongoing crackdown on dissent, the latest step being the ratification of a controversial NGO law that rights groups say effectively bans their work, BuSSy’s future is more uncertain than ever. “Sometimes I’m optimistic, sometimes I’m not,” Shabayek said. “We ask ourselves every day how are we going to keep working next day, week, month, year.”
Yet Shabayek remains driven. “There is a specific type of joy I experience […] listening to women sharing their stories, it’s very empowering. Those moments make me feel it is worth it.”
The feeling that society is in fact changing – although “you need a microscope to see that change” – also keeps her going. For now, that is. Sometimes she wishes she had chosen a job that is less draining. “I’m aging faster than all my friends, I have a lot of white hair, chronic health problems and I’m always stressed,” she said, adding, “I don’t know how long I can keep doing it. I hope long enough.”