Growing militarism, nationalism, and religious extremism are on the rise in more and more countries. Women are among the first to feel the effects. But as violence increases, so too does activism. How is this playing out in different countries? What challenges are feminist activists facing in such a climate? And what creative strategies do they employ to overcome them?
In our research about closing space for civil society, many activists shared their experience and expertise with us. In this interview, the third in a three-part series, artivist Sondos Shabayek, discusses the power of telling stories in the face of state censorship and social control.
The media plays a major role. “I stopped reading the newspapers and watching the news on television four years ago,” says Sondos Shabayek, an Egyptian activist and leader of the BuSSy project, which employs theatre as a remedy for social malaise. The 31-year-old Shabayek was a journalist at one time, and discovered the BuSSy project in 2007, a year after it had started in Egypt. “I lost all faith in the media. I don’t believe there is an independent media. Maybe there are a few attempts in other countries, but definitely not in Egypt. The media’s neutrality is under attack all around the world. News stations and newspapers are run by businessmen who follow their own agendas. I was on the streets during the revolutions and I saw how the media operates. It was an eye-opener. Media has become pure entertainment. ‘Give the people bread and games.’ The Romans are back. The political system has managed to create a global media phenomenon which focuses primarily on itself and has become obsessed by itself.”
BuSSy - which literally means ‘see me’ - organises workshops in deprived Cairo neighbourhoods and rural districts of the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt. While BuSSy focuses on women, they also organise mixed meetings. Their work with marginalised groups such as Coptic Christians can raise tensions. “In places like Assiut, religion is always an issue. Participants are either Christian or Muslim. There is nothing in between. When you get the two religious groups together, something happens. When several Christian girls told a group how they had been attacked and assaulted by Muslim boys in the street, the Muslim participants were astonished. They had no idea that this was an everyday reality for young Christian women in these areas.”
The BuSSy project was originally inspired by the Vagina Monologues. “But I can only talk about that in the foreign media,” Shabayek quickly adds. “We wanted to create a space in which women would be able to speak freely about their problems. But we never held a vagina monologue. If you can’t even talk about verbal assault, there’s a good chance that mentioning your vagina is taboo. Yet it may not even be necessary. I wouldn’t want to do a vagina monologue performance in Cairo. It is limiting in the sense that the focus is on the body and not on the personal story. Actually, some of the subjects our participants discuss go a lot further than a vagina monologue. A woman who talks about being raped, for example. Or a girl who speaks about being circumcised.”
She explains: “Our aim is to give women a place safe to share their story and break through the gender barrier. It has an amazing healing effect. It increases awareness. For example, there was a girl who told how her brother used to beat her regularly. We didn’t give an opinion, or a solution, or advice. Telling the story was her way forward. One day she came to us and said: ‘I packed my things and left and won’t be going back home before something changes.’ That is a process which happens naturally when the silence is lifted and people recognise their own story.”
Art is often the first bastion of cultural progress and expression that right-wing conservative, nationalist or authoritarian regimes attack. Art has come under pressure in more and more countries, labelled as a leftist hobby, as anti-religious or pro-Western. “Under the new NGO law which prohibits all forms of foreign support we’ll all end up in jail,” says Shabayek. “But there is no national or local funding. The government doesn’t finance art or culture. Which is logical, since they see our sector as a threat. That’s politics.”
How is she faring in Egypt under El-Sissi, I wonder. 'Oh my God, yalohwy! Where should I start?' she says, throwing her hands in the air.
People who come under attack need to be creative. Sometimes organisations go underground. And new alliances emerge too, as was evident at the women’s march in Washington, where feminist organisations joined with the LGBTQ community, environmentalists, Muslim groups and the civil rights movement to protest against Trump. Asha Kowtal described similar local developments in India. Shabayek would love to foster alliances like that in Egypt, but it is practically impossible in the present political climate in society. “We are witnessing the biggest attack against the LGBTQ community to date. There is no way for us to work together with LGBTQ groups without endangering the entire project. The government has the civilian population completely under control; all the places where people could gather in the centre have been cleaned up: theatres are closed, censorship has been tightened. I don’t submit our work to the censors, but that puts the locations where we work in danger. The police already raided us once after a woman on stage removed her headscarf and a member of the audience complained that she was a stripper.”
“Sometimes the most dangerous element exists within your own audience,” she sighs. “We are struggling against those in power, but we are also fighting against the exercise of power among our own people - conservative ideas and social control. When we did a show in the subway once, it was the audience that attacked us. Then there’s no need for police anymore.”
Sondos Shabayek shifts her position and suddenly suggests a striking parallel. “How come there are adolescents in America aged fifteen and sixteen who can’t read or write? Let’s be honest: Trump came to power because America’s population is full of Trumps. Trump exploits the fear of terrorism. El-Sissi does exactly the same. The campaign against terrorism targets activists, artists and the LGTBQ community because they refuse to submit to authority. In the end, their subversion is a greater danger to the state than terrorism.”
It is high time the West looked itself in the mirror, says Shabayek. “We have performed in various European countries including France, Britain, Germany and Sweden. I’ll never forget how a woman came up to me after a show in Paris and told me that she had been assaulted in the street once but had never dared to say anything about it because everyone responded with fierce, negative and angry reactions, even women she considered friends. After all, she lives in the liberal West where these things aren’t supposed to happen. Women have rights here, so stop complaining – that’s the mantra of the Western world. Here in Egypt no one presumes that women have equal rights. Which makes it easier to talk about their position. But in Europe many people assume that problems like assault and rape don’t exist ‘here’ or that they are an Arab import. That makes it much harder to talk about oppression and violence.”
She continues: “I learned one major lesson at Tahrir Square. The people in the front line are the poor: they have nothing to lose. That applies to the Middle East versus the West as well. Europe has more to lose, because people already have rights and privileges. The idea of complete freedom is internalised in the collective psyche. ‘I’m right.’ ‘I have equal rights.’ Until one day you wake up in an abusive relationship and you don’t have the vocabulary or the resources to talk about it. Then liberty isn’t quite so free or equal.”
Want to know more about how shrinking space for civil society is affecting feminist activism? And curious how organisations are responding to these challenges? Find more stories, analysis and recommendations from activists on the ground in the full report, Standing Firm: women- and trans- led groups respond to closing space for civil society.