Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 May 2003
Issue No. 637
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
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What we know

Lina Mahmoud interviews young women whose lives have been transformed by their participation in Cairo's recent anti-war demonstrations

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NEW FACES OF RESISTANCE: a young woman demonstrating in front of Cairo University; voicing protest; exchanging experiences at the NWRC; confronting the odds
The image that comes to mind when one thinks of a "protester" in the Middle East is usually that of a man, perhaps with a long beard. Stereotypes aside, if the recent anti-war demonstrations in Cairo are any indication, the face of political activism in the Arab world may be changing.

Among the hundreds arrested in Egypt for protesting against the US/British invasion of Iraq, many were young women. Some were veteran activists, but more interesting, many were engaging in political activity for the very first time.

"This generation's knowledge of history and politics is very limited. However, current events have been so powerful that many [women] feel obliged to understand the world around them," Hala Shukrallah of the New Women's Research Centre (NWRC) told Al- Ahram Weekly. The organisation set up a meeting last month for young women to discuss their experiences of political activism and resultant incarceration.

"I will never forget the scary streets on 21 March. I saw policemen in plain clothes severely beating anyone in the downtown area and Tahrir Square. I saw them grabbing a woman by her hair. She was screaming, but when I tried to help her they pushed me to the ground. That day, I went home feeling very sad and disappointed. I felt that no place is safe, not even my home," 18-year-old Manar Ahmed told the Weekly.

On Friday, 4 April, Ahmed was arrested along with approximately 50 other activists heading for Al-Sayeda Aisha Square, where an anti-war rally was supposed to take place until many of the protesters were arrested. "I have always asked myself what I would do if I were arrested. How would I react?" recounted Ahmed, who during the past two years has participated in several rallies along with her family, who are also politically active.

Ahmed's first reaction when detained by the police was fear. "I was scared when they arrested me and separated me from my friends, my mother and brother. But when they led me to the police van filled with people I knew who had also been arrested, I relaxed. People were chanting anti-war slogans and I was not afraid anymore," said Ahmed.

"Older members of the NWRC are all activists, most of them leftists. However, the organisation hasn't obliged any of the younger members to take a political stance. But recently, the girls seem to be taking the same path," said Rima El- Khofash of the NWRC.

Shukrallah explained that these young women are trying to relate to the news and understand their place in the world. At the same time, while many are opposed to US foreign policies, they are trying to come to terms with the fact that American soap operas and movies are also a part of their lives. "These girls used to go to coffee shops and clubs and listen to pop music. But the Palestinian Intifada has made us question who we are and what is our place in the world?'" she said.

"At the beginning I was so angry with anything American. I stopped eating American food and wearing American clothes. But I didn't stop watching American movies -- that is art," said Noha Roshdy, a 21-year-old anti-war activist. "American culture is not for Americans only," she added.

Though Roshdy has been politically active for five years, she was arrested for the first time on 4 April. Finding herself surrounded by armed security men, and later detained along with her colleagues at a Central Security Forces camp, triggered images of occupied Palestine in her mind. "When we arrived at the central security camp, I saw the policemen doing their exercises. They were running and shouting, 'Attack the enemy'. I was perplexed and asked myself, 'Who is the enemy here? Are we the enemy?'"

"The girls were shocked that they had been arrested," said Shukrallah, whose daughter, Maya Goweily, was also detained on 4 April. "For them, expressing their opinions in a peaceful way is not wrong. Most of them were raised not to be afraid of the world. They were brought up to believe they have the right to express their opinions." Shukrallah believes that the harsh system they discovered has kindled a spirit of rebellion and increased political awareness.

Ahmed looks back at her incarceration as a positive experience. "I learned how to face a situation of which I had always been scared. I did not cry or freak out. I was strong and dealt with it."

"I never expected that I would be arrested," confided Roshdy. "In every demonstration, the policemen surround us from a distance. This time, however, they were too close. I felt humiliated when they started calling us bad names as if we were prostitutes and not political activists," Roshdy told the Weekly.

There were lessons to be learnt. "At least I now know what a police van and detention centre look like. So I don't have to be scared of them anymore," she added

Aliah Sameh was also detained on 4 April and, along with the rest of the group, released the same day. "Other activists were severely beaten and incarcerated for longer periods. I do not know what I would have done if I had been in their place," she said. Sameh has been particularly shaken by the fact that she was forbidden from expressing her opinions. "I cannot exercise what is one of my basic human rights," she said.

Sameh is a member of a group of Palestinian singers called the Abad Al- Shams chorus and believes that she can voice resistance through singing. With demonstrators vulnerable to arrest at any time, Sameh supports other forms of popular resistance. However, she says she is discouraged by the fact that alternate forms of expressing opposition often require organisation and the creation of effective political parties which "unfortunately, do not exist in Egypt today".

Eighteen-year-old Maya Goweily's first attempt to attend a rally was on 4 April. She was arrested. "I used to think that rallies are merely sites of quarrels between Islamists and communists who chant opposing slogans," she told the Weekly. Her perspective changed when she saw the demonstrations following the invasion of Iraq. "They forced me to climb into a police van. They shouted at me and took us to a central security camp. I was so scared. I had not imagined that this would happen. We never even got to the demonstration -- we were only walking in the street."

Now, she is angry. "I cannot believe it. They are trying to rob me of my right to express myself in a way that poses no threat to anyone's safety."

Although many of these young women joined their first political demonstrations with great trepidation, many have emerged with a new sense of empowerment and resolve. For Maya Goweily, the experience has served to strengthen her commitment to activism. "There is something beautiful starting to happen. I'd be very happy if it continued," she said.

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