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A woman of the peopleProfile by Fatemah Farag
As women celebrate, ignore or are simply oblivious to Women's Day on 8 March, one woman lives in her small flat in Heliopolis -- her life history a tribute not only to the struggle for women's emancipation, but to the broader struggle to free humanity
Weak rays of sun dimly lit the dining room where we sat amidst piles of old papers. As we sorted through the yellowed newspaper clippings and assorted pamphlets, I racked my brain in search of ways to describe Widad Mitri. Women's rights activist? "Not exactly... although you will notice most of the papers I have collected are related to women's issues. I think, however, I presented a practical example of what that is about," she says before delving once again into that pile of paper.
She is a nationalist, a leftist, a social worker, a teacher, an activist not only for women's rights but the rights of all people to a just and humane existence. But somehow, after all the hours we spent discussing various aspects of her career, what seems to stand out most in this 70-year-old woman, sitting beside me sipping her morning Turkish coffee, is her courage; the fact that she makes heart-felt decisions regarding what to stand for in life and pays the price standing up; the fact that she is a woman with an astounding sense of decency in the face of deceit.
Widad was born in Shubra on 9 December 1927. "I was the eldest, with two younger sisters. There were no boys and so my father considered me to be the 'man of the family'," she chuckles. "He was a very educated man -- an architect -- enlightened, and very funny. He was friends with Cairo's big comedians like Hafez Ibrahim and Abdel-Hamid El-Dib. My mother got married in 1912 but she continued to educate herself and she wrote poetry." Widad is in mourning, her mother died six months ago, but the memories of both her parents are obviously fond. Even today, Widad frets that she was a source of worry, especially to her mother. "I had to go out, I was active, you see, and she would worry, not because she was backward or a coward, but maybe because of her own personal experience."
Widad sits back and pulls on her much-appreciated cigarette before recounting the story of her uncle Aziz. "My mother had only one brother, Aziz, who was active in the student movement of 1919. During a demonstration, the British opened fire and he was wounded. His colleagues wrapped him in the flag and took him to the hospital where all sorts of people visited him. However, he lost an eye and a leg." She hesitates before going on. "You know, I keep documentation of everything that I say but what I am about to tell you is one of the few things I have no written proof of. You have no doubt heard of the popular slogan 'Oh Aziz, may a catastrophe take the British' (Ya Aziz, kobba takhod el-Ingliz)? The source was probably my uncle's tragedy."
As she recounts the story, I look around at the stacks of papers on tables and crammed into cupboards. A friend of the family had told me that Aunt Widad has not thrown away a single piece of paper since 1950, and it looks like an accurate estimate. At various points of our conversation, as she sifted through the piles in search of the material proof, she was to tell me that everything was saved for a good reason; but if only Reem [her daughter] could find the time to help her sort it all out!
But back to Cairo, 1948. The bright young woman joins Cairo University's Faculty of Arts as a student of philosophy. Her career as an activist is launched. "At the beginning I was just active: in sports, especially tennis; I went on trips organised by the geology professors; I was a member of the Gramophone Society established by Louis Awad, in which we listened to classical music. Politically, I did the normal thing -- participated in demonstrations against the occupation and then against the king -- you know, average nationalist sentiment."
In 1951, Widad became the first woman to be elected to the Student Union. "The Muslim Brotherhood raised the slogan 'God curses the people who are led by a woman'," she remembered. But after three years of "activity", Widad had already won a constituency.
Although she is proud of her university achievements, it is her practical life afterwards that dominates her conversation. "After graduation I was stationed in Dayrout [Assiut]. I was the first woman with a college degree to be appointed to that town and it was quite an experience."
The sadness, however, soon dissipated in her new environment -- a girls' high school in Shibin El-Kom. "I spent four of the most important years of my life there." This was a momentous period of Egyptian history; the Suez Canal was nationalised, and soon after Britain, France and Israel launched their tripartite aggression against Egypt. "The school was closed and I convinced the headmistress to turn it into a social service centre. We requested that the townswomen come and help sew things for the soldiers and we held consciousness-raising classes." Widad plunged into the war mobilisation effort with fervour; nursing training, rifle training; she initiated a campaign for blood donations. "It was a beehive of activity," recalls Widad whose voice picks up with the excitement. "There was so much enthusiasm then."
Then there was women's newly acquired right to vote. "I would go to the villages and hold meetings with the women. It is strange, you know, I don't like to talk much now, but then I could talk up a storm." She laughs. Through meetings, rallies and "awareness bulletins", Widad campaigned tirelessly to induce women to seize their newly-won right to vote. Was it worth the effort? "Well, Menoufiya had the highest number of women registered," she answers, adding however: "Unfortunately, it was all used to the benefit of those with influence." She smiles. "Of course among those I registered were the mothers of all my friends. One was particularly fat and couldn't move very easily. Whenever elections came around everyone would tell her you have to go down and use your card, and she would say 'Widad...What have you done to me!'"
Those days also witnessed the beginning of a life-long friendship with her then student, Shahinda Maqlad. Pictures of the duo in those early days vie for space on the tops of tables with the piles of papers. "Those days she called me abla [teacher] -- today it is just Widad," she smiles. Although Shahinda's stands out as a very special friendship, Widad holds a special place in her heart for all her students and for her teaching experience in general. "Teaching is wonderful and full of potential. I mean, you are dealing with raw material. It is just wonderful."
Hence, her infatuation with school wall newspapers -- the focus of her three-year journalism diploma. In fact, only two months ago Widad was one of 34 people who received a special award from Cairo University's Faculty of Journalism. "I was the first person to take school media seriously," she explains as she rummages about, finally pulling out a roll of cardboard plaques. These are copies of Al-Salam (Peace) wall magazine that she supervised as a teacher in Cairo after being re-posted.
As we spread out the yellowed sheets of thick paper, we unfold history. One on unity with Syria, another on the Algerian Revolution. She stops at this one in particular and expands. "We would develop on the ideas. We had a donation campaign to support the Algerian cause which culminated in a women's demonstration that included all factions of the women's movement. We headed towards the United Nations headquarters protesting the arrest and torture of Gamila [Abu Hreid]. Later when she was released my students had this strong belief that they had something to do with that."
It was also during this two-year period that Widad was arrested for five months. "It was two months after my father had died and relatives convinced us to go ahead with our ritual summer Alexandria trip. I had to meet someone who was wanted by the police and I told my family I would be gone for a short while to buy sandwiches for our night train trip. We met in Amphitrion [a café in Heliopolis] and on our way out I felt someone grab me from the back of my neck and throw me into a police van."
In the Khalifa Police Station, things did not get better. "I was not allowed to call my family and I was so worried about them. They had no idea where I would be and by then I was the major supporter of the family, so I felt very responsible. I was put in a filthy room with common criminals. When I walked in the women looked at me and said, 'What sister, is it prostitution?' And I was so tired, I just couldn't explain it to them so I said, 'Yes, sister, prostitution'." She was finally transferred to the Qanater Women's Prison, where she met other political prisoners.
"It was not wasted time, mind you," Widad points out. She set up a literacy class for women carrying out life sentences. "They were all either murderers or drug dealers and at first they made fun of me. But by the end, well, once I got sick and they were all crying from behind their bars in sympathy for me."
A paper has fallen into her hand which allows for a change in the subject. "This is about Al-Baragil, a small village where I went for two weeks and wound up establishing a women's organisation.There was so much potential that when I got back to Cairo I asked to be transferred to the school there, which would have been a demotion, so that I could follow up. My request was refused, however, and the women's group, which comprised eight villagers, eventually disintegrated."
Why the arrest, when Widad had in many ways worked towards the same ideals as the regime? "The Left had its own demands, many of which the regime achieved, but on the other hand there was no democracy. It was like they were telling us anything achieved must come from us and not from you. So I appreciate the positive things but I cannot make excuses for the bad things that happened."
But then this is the woman who refused to sign the statement denouncing liberal feminist activist Doria Shafiq in 1957. "Everyone signed except me. How could I condemn someone like that?" To someone like Widad, the mere thought was and is inconceivable.
Even though Widad was never charged she was transferred from her teaching post to an administrative one. "I was sitting behind a desk registering the schedules of the inspectors. Can you see me just sitting there? I was going to die." But instead she resisted and eventually got herself transferred to the public relations department where she started a magazine. "It started with one page but turned into a full-fledged magazine and for four years I made sure it came out every week. It was the pride of our section and was distributed all the way down to Aswan."
During that time Widad also became increasingly active at the Teachers' Syndicate. She pulls out some pictures of a Palestinian freedom fighter sitting at one of the weekly Ramadan meetings she organised at the Syndicate in 1966. "Before, no one would come to the Syndicate, but soon we had people standing all the way down the stairs." It was not to last, though, and after four lectures and another donation campaign in schools for the Palestinian cause, activities were suspended. Still, Widad ran for Council membership elections in 1970 and won.
But the battles were draining and soon she was taking extended leaves of absence for health reasons. "I would always look at people who were retiring and say 'what will they do? how terrible'. Yet, I wound up retiring at 55."
As much as her personal circumstances will allow her she has remained an active woman. She continues to be a member of the Hoda Sha'rawi Society, the Women's Committee of the Arab Lawyers Federation, the Afro-Asian Solidarity Organisation and the Association of Cairo University Women Graduates. She represented Egyptian women during the 1986 Nairobi Conference on Women, and visited Palestinian camps under siege in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Her last trip was to Libya as part of a 15-member Afro-Asian Solidarity delegation.
And what of women's struggle today? "The general climate now is not conducive to activism," says Widad. She adds, "When it comes to women in particular we must take into account the difficulty of life. I think that for women to become active in fighting for their own rights they need to do so within a broader framework. I look into the papers and do not find it."
Has she given up hope, then? "No," Widad says adamantly, with a gleam in her eye. "I have faith in the younger generations. I pin my hope on them, and I feel that they will achieve what I was unable to achieve."
She sends me off with cheese and breadsticks, and an encouraging pat on the back.
(photo: Randa Shaath)