Egyptian feminist activist Hania Moheeb speaks to Elly Badcock about her experiences of sexual harassment and the challenges and hopes for Egyptian feminists and the revolution
In the sunny days following the Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times festival, I was lucky enough to meet and interview Egyptian feminist activist Hania Moheeb. Speaking out about her brutal experiences of sexual harassment, Moheeb discussed the challenges and hopes for Egyptian feminists and the revolution more generally.
Describing herself as 'one of millions of Egyptians protesting since 2005', Moheeb was never involved in any particular movement or political party within Egypt. When asked how she started becoming active politically, she is clear: "I didn't choose feminism. Feminism chose me. I was subject to a cruel incident of sexual harassment on the second anniversary of the revolution…and I was one of the very first women to speak out about this in Egypt". Moheeb said she saw this as a crucial political task because "Egyptian society was very ready to keep a blind eye to such incidents, to deny them, because daily sexual harassment in the streets of Egypt is such a common practice".
The millions who watched the Egyptian revolution unfold and felt a sense of hope and inspiration are often quite shocked to realise that women's liberation hasn't kept pace with other changes in Egyptian society. I ask Moheeb why she thinks this is. "This kind of harassment", she answers, "is nothing but normal. The post-Mubarak regime is an Islamic one, and they have traditionally been against women's rights" - she reconsiders her answer - "let me put it this way, they have their own vision of women's rights which is not the progressive view in Egypt."
She recalls growing up in 1970s Egypt, and says firmly that the Muslim Brotherhood have consistently used sexual harassment as a tool to keep women off the streets. "My decision to speak out wasn't just because of the terrible attack I was subject to, but because of years of anger".
Islamism and Neoliberalism
Given that the right in Britain consistently use Islam's supposedly inferior treatment of women to justify imperialist war and brutal Islamophobia, Moheeb's analysis makes me uncomfortable. Prominent women like Laura Bush and Cherie Booth lamented the Taliban's treatment of women to whip up support for the war in Afghanistan, as did liberal feminist organisations including America's Feminist Majority Foundation. In the last few years, the far-right in Britain have seized on the burqa and niqab to justify a full-scale war on Muslims, rhetorically and physically.
I discuss this with her, and she is quick to draw a line between political Islamism and the Islamic religion. She delineates the Muslim Brotherhood from the 'moderate' (another uncomfortable world in recent months) al-Azhar, one of the oldest and most prominent Islamic institutions in the world. "The Muslim Brotherhood have their own way of thinking - it's not the Islamic way. They don't represent Islam. They represent themselves and that's that".
It is, of course, verging on useless to draw immediate parallels between Egypt and Britain. Here, Muslims are public enemy number one; under surveillance from the Government, institutional racism from the police, and under constant pressure to proclaim themselves moderate and distance themselves from terrorist attacks. In Egypt an Islamist party rules, and discussions about the nature of Islam within a predominantly Muslim population are not a thinly veiled excuse to perpetuate racism.
Nonetheless, I'm initially surprised at Moheeb's swiftness to attribute problems of sexual harassment and women's oppression to Islamism rather than neoliberalism. Our later discussion clarifies the issue for me, as Moheeb elaborates on other challenges facing women that are symptomatic of a broader neoliberal crisis - the limited access to public services, for example.
"Part of my story is not just the nightmare I lived in Tahir, but the nightmare I lived in the hospital. Medical rights and healthcare rights are so important - and nobody is getting them in Egypt, but especially women".
She feels that the campaign against sexual harassment and sexual violence is a tactical battle that links together a number of different challenges women face; "we are using this issue because if I can't walk safely on the streets then I won't be able to go to work, I won't be able to go to school, I won't be able to live a normal life even as a housewife going to the grocery store next door."
Globally, she argues, this is an all-too-common story. She talks about her discussions with Italian and American comrades who are also lamenting the backlash on women's rights, and is insistent that "there is something about the economic and political ideology ruling the world that is against women, that is patriarchal, and is against many of the values we fight for."`
She talks about how vital it is that women attempting to dismantle this ideology forge greater alliances, not only to learn from each other - an absolutely crucial task - but also to provide support in a battle which takes its toll emotionally and politically.
We finish by looking at the prospects for revolutionaries in Egypt today - a subject on which Moheeb is quietly hopeful. "I don't want to say the revolution is going slowly but surely, but we are learning from our mistakes and that's so important. One of the most important outcomes of this revolution has been the levels of awareness rising - even amongst schoolchildren. Everybody can suddenly express themselves. We're learning about consensus, teamworking, and how to do politics."
Although we've discussed the differences and tensions between different groups of revolutionary activists, Moheeb is keen to emphasise the importance of collective organisation and building mass movements.
"There are basic demands for all Egyptians - social justice and anti-corruption. These are common amongst everyone, and we can begin working on them right now and then have our differences out."
It's an instructive lesson for a fragmented left; we may have differences in strategy, in outlook, in belief. At times these differences need to be aired openly - but we have one crucial task at hand, to unite around issues that strike a chord with millions of ordinary people. If we can do that, the possibilities are limitless.