Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2007
Issue No. 867
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Buthayna Kamel

Buthayna Kamel: Know your rights

For Buthayna Kamel, the controversial talk show host, filmmaker, and activist, Egyptian society is approaching a tipping point. Whether it's about the freedom of the press, judiciary independence, domestic violence and sexual harassment, or the disciplining of the nation's sex drive -- Kamel is concerned. Her aim is not to prescribe solutions, but to provide a platform for empowering ordinary Egyptians to voice their concerns, tell their stories, and know and demand their rights. With her talk show, Argouk Efhamni (Please Understand Me) on hold for the duration of Ramadan, Kamel spent her time organising civic education campaigns in high schools and protesting against the judiciary's continued lack of independence and the government's most recent attack on the press -- what she sees as a dangerous assault on Egypt's hopes for democracy.
Interview by Ida Sawyer

Click to view caption
Buthayna Kamel

B uthayna Kamel experienced first hand the limits of Egypt's free press since her own widely popular and award-winning radio programme was taken off the air in 1996. In that National Egyptian Radio late-night show, I'terafaat Layliya (Night Confessions), listeners called in with secrets to confess about a wide range of social crises, personal dilemmas and relationship issues.

Kamel had seen this type of programme in the United States and Europe and realised there was no equivalent in the Arab world, where viewers and listeners were arguably even more in need of talking openly about relationships, sex and personal life. "American people and American television are very involved in your lives," she explained. But in the Arab world, "we're not clear and open in our society. All the time we live under covers, and not only the covers on the heads of women. That's our culture, and the most important thing for me is to fight the negative parts of our culture. It's hard work, but I think it's time, not only in the Middle East but everywhere."

The radio management had initially objected to Kamel's idea, claiming it was "against our society", but they eventually let her give it a try in 1990. Viewers were at first unsure about how to respond to this type of programme, or what it meant "to confess", but Kamel soon captured the attention of Arab listeners across the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and even as far as the US, Canada and Australia. Listeners called in to share their relationship problems or their experiences with rape, sexual harassment, unfaithful partners, or the hardships of urfi (unofficial) marriages. But as the programme's popularity continued to grow, the regime started getting nervous. In 1996, Night Confessions was ordered off the air -- apparently in response to a personal request from President Hosni Mubarak. While unable to do the type of programme she wanted on Egyptian national radio or television, Kamel turned to Orbit, the Saudi-funded satellite channel. Her current programme, Please Understand Me, is broadcast every Thursday and Friday night at 11:30. In each episode, she hosts a psychologist or other specialist, and they receive calls from viewers from around the world.

"Most women who call in are very weak," she said. "Some mothers tell me about how all the family treats them aggressively or how not only their husbands beat them, but their sons beat them as well. These are people who really need help, and sometimes you can help people by listening to them. I think that's my biggest role -- to listen to people and to give them a chance to speak. And then maybe other viewers with similar problems will also feel they are not alone."

Sexual harassment and domestic violence are two issues Kamel repeatedly returns to. Studies have confirmed that these are two of the biggest problems Egyptian women "endure in silence". The Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights found that 30 per cent of female respondents are sexually harassed on a daily basis in Egypt, with another 12 per cent harassed on an almost daily basis. Only 12 per cent of the respondents approached the police when harassed, reflecting a complete lack of confidence in the authorities' ability to protect them.

According to figures released by the Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs in 2002, as many as three out of 10 Egyptian wives are abused by their husbands -- while local NGOs have argued the figure may be as high as 70 per cent among women in lower classes. In an episode entitled "How many of your wife's ribs have you broken?" Kamel will address domestic violence against women tonight in Please Understand Me 's first show after Ramadan.

"We are not a very strong society," Kamel explained. "If you want to change your life or end a bad relationship, you must be courageous. But women don't take the opportunity to do this. The majority of women here are not independent. Even if they can acknowledge a problem, they don't take a step to solve it."

Kamel is particularly concerned about the lack of education on sex and reproductive health in Egypt's public schools and the unwillingness of mothers to talk to their children about these issues. "I've discovered from the letters and calls I receive that our people don't have any information about sex, or they often have the wrong information. There are a lot of problems and misunderstandings that come from this ignorance," Kamel explained. "For example, I receive messages from girls who masturbate, and they're confused about whether it has made them lose their virginity. They then grow up worrying about their virginity." It doesn't help when girls are told by their mothers that "love is 'eib [an impropriety] and that your body is a door to dangerous things," she adds.

Yet Kamel has found that it is not easy to penetrate many of the established norms that are based on very old traditions and beliefs. One issue that has been particularly hard to come to terms with is female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). The practice, which has severe physical, psychological and sexual consequences, is widespread in Egypt; according to the 2005 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey, 77 per cent of girls between the ages of 15 and 17 have been cut. Yet efforts to eradicate the practice have gained momentum in recent months after the FGM/C-related deaths of two young girls this summer. Mrs Suzanne Mubarak has spearheaded a campaign to end the practice, and the Ministry of Health issued a decree in June explicitly prohibiting the practice by any medical professional.

But according to Kamel, it is not enough to make these decisions from high up. "The biggest obstacle is that these campaigns are made by the government with government employees, not by volunteers who are really willing to go and discuss and educate poor people," she said.

Kamel has received calls on her programme from women who had had the operation done on their eldest daughter but who were now having doubts about submitting their second daughters to the procedure. "I tried to talk to them," Kamel recalled, "and explain about the dangers and how this tradition doesn't come from religion. I gave them information and used the specialists who were my guests to give professional opinions. When other people hear these conversations, maybe words can change things."

By discussing her viewers' stories and tackling topics that have long been considered taboo, Kamel hopes her programme can help fight some of the misunderstandings and negative cultural practices that lead to unhappy, and often violent, relationships.

For Kamel, talking frankly about these issues is the key. "We treat ourselves like prophets and angels," she says, "but we need to recognise we're human beings with real problems in our lives. We are a hypocritical society, and we pay the price every day because if you make everything a secret and don't talk, you'll make a lot of mistakes your whole life -- starting from when you're a little boy or girl."

As erroneous and often harmful rumours continue to spread, and with Egypt's conservative ruling elite still unable to embrace this type of openness on national radio or television, Kamel feels that satellite television may be the way out, for now -- reaching a broader audience with whom to challenge cultural taboos.

"I can talk about everything on the new programme," Kamel said. "The only thing the management refused was abortion -- they refused twice, but then I succeeded the third time. In the end, the programme on abortion was frustrating and difficult, but it went very well. I try in my programme to talk simply, to try to change culture but not by shocking my viewers through being very far from their mentality." But, she admits, viewers are often surprised to hear some of these issues talked about so openly. The last episode of her programme, for example, was entitled "Is One Man Not Enough?" -- "Many people really didn't know how to respond to that," Kamel recalled.

One issue Kamel does not address regularly is religion. Unlike Heba Qotb's Kalaam Kibeer (Big Talk), on the Al-Mehwar satellite channel every Saturday night, in which the host refers to Islamic sources as she lectures viewers on how being a good Muslim means having good sex -- often with graphic details on topics such as a woman's ability to have multiple orgasms in one sexual encounter -- Kamel's programme is emphatically secular. Qotb, who holds a degree in sexology, uses Quranic references to provide the new generation with the tools needed to combat the wrong ideas that lead to unhappy and unhealthy sex lives.

While she herself is a Muslim, Kamel emphasises that her programme is not about giving religious arguments to defend or refute certain beliefs or practices. She wants "to talk and listen to humanity, not just Muslims or Christians", she says. For some, this makes her out of touch with real Egyptians. Kamel -- the stylish 45- year-old who was educated in French schools in Cairo, makes a shopping trip to New York or Paris whenever she gets the chance, and even sneaks a glass or two of wine during Ramadan -- may not represent the average Egyptian woman. She admits she has her share of enemies; many Egyptians hate her, Kamel says, because they believe she is ruining Egyptian society by talking openly about these issues and by refusing to take a religious stand in her programme.

Some also criticise Kamel for not giving concrete instructions that will enable people to really change their lives. But, she says, her goal is not to tell people what to do, but to listen and give women the confidence to speak out, not depend on men, and admit their problems and look for solutions.

Kamel's dream is to do a reality show about her life. "It's risky, but I think if you're courageous and want to change culture, you can do that by being a pioneer and exposing your own life," she explained. "At the same time, you can show the contradictions and problems in your society and encourage others to walk with you on the same road."

Kamel knows she wouldn't last long if she tried to get back on a national network. "If you give your honest opinion here," she said, "it will open the gates of Hell because you're going against society. Our problem is that the people in power want our society to be underdeveloped. They want us to lag behind so they can control people easily. They know that the more enlightened you are, the more you're able to fight for your rights."

Kamel is not only working to challenge cultural and social norms in Egyptian society. Since the government banned her radio programme over a decade ago, she has turned to activism to protest against the continued pressures on civil society and the seeming indifference to democracy and civil rights in Egypt.

Until late 2005, Kamel was a news reader on national Egyptian television. Twice a week, she left her apartment on Ramses Street to read the daily news to the Egyptian public. But she eventually began to question whose news she was really reading. During the debate about amending Article 76 of the constitution, for example, Kamel decided to vote in the referendum that would open the way for multi-candidate presidential elections. She went to her polling station on 25 May 2005, and found she was the only one who had shown up to vote. For Kamel, the day was marked by violent attacks on protesters, numerous arrests and empty polls. But when she read the news that night, she described the referendum as a landmark for democracy and told the people there was an unprecedented turnout, including at her polling station.

"That night, I started thinking," Kamel recalls, "whose news am I reading? The real news or the government's news?"

In September, President Mubarak was elected to his fifth consecutive six-year term in office in an election marked by violence and fraud and a remarkably low turnout of 23 percent. While allegedly Egypt's first contested presidential election, several of the main opposition parties boycotted the elections and the Muslim Brotherhood, believed to be the most popular opposition group in Egypt, was excluded from running. The US government, which had given strong support to the elections after President Bush cited Egypt as the county that would pave the way for democracy in the Middle East in his 2005 State of the Union address, described the elections as a "victory". Mubarak's rule continues, and little has been done to address the unfair aspects of the elections.

In this context, Kamel quit her job as a news reader and went on to form the grassroots movement (We Can See You) to educate and empower the public by raising awareness on the meaning of democracy. With the goal of increasing political participation through monitoring, the group has been involved in election and human rights monitoring and the campaign for a free judiciary.

"It's more of an idea or a movement than an organisation," Kamel explained. "We have thousands of members, and we're trying through this movement to activate Egyptian society." The group is based on the right of ordinary people to express their own voice and choice in a free society. Kamel has developed civic education programmes for high school students, and she helped produce a number of short films for, on topics ranging from fear in the Egyptian streets and the harassment by security forces to the independence of the judiciary and the regime's latest attacks on press freedoms and the indictments against Ibrahim Eissa.

A longer documentary film, entitled Egypt: We Are Watching You, follows the first year of the movement as Kamel and two other women, unwilling to sit by while their country is on the brink of drastic change, work to educate and empower the Egyptian public. Insisting that only the people can make change happen, they focus on what it takes to build the most basic pillars of democracy: basic human rights, freedom of speech, and an independent judiciary.

The film was produced by the "Why Democracy?" project, a global media campaign launched this month to provoke discussion concerning the conditions of governance facing people from different societies and cultures, as well as the broader understanding of democracy. Ten one-hour films made by award-winning independent filmmakers, with subjects ranging from US torture methods to the election of a class monitor in a Chinese primary school to the Danish cartoon scandal, in addition to 20 short films on similar topics, are being aired around the world on over 40 broadcast channels. Egypt: We Are Watching You, directed by Leila Menjou and Sherif El-Katsha, will be shown on BBC World on 20 October and on the Al-Arabiya on 5 November.

According to Kamel, change won't happen unless ordinary citizens are educated and empowered to work towards shaping and securing their democracy. "There's a very thin line between being a journalist and being an activist," Kamel explained. "But I won't be passive. I have my opinions, and I do what I can to get these across through the media."

Kamel was at the forefront of the protesters outside Cairo's Galaa Court Complex for the opening of Ibrahim Eissa's trial earlier this month. The independent daily Al-Dostour 's editor-in-chief is among four editors recently sentenced to one year in prison, pending appeal, for libelling senior figures in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Eissa's case is potentially far more serious, with an additional suit filed against him accusing the editor of harming the public interest by suggesting President Mubarak was unwell, and economic sabotage due to the slump in the stock exchange allegedly caused by the rumours of Mubarak's failing health. If convicted, Eissa could face up to three years in prison. Meanwhile, the Supreme Judiciary Council, whose members are appointed by the state, has recently issued a statement warning that journalists who criticise court rulings will face "punitive action".

"Journalists are now treated like the other movements against the regime," Kamel said, "and every day they are trying to minimise our freedoms. Bloggers have become a much bigger voice, but the regime is trying to attack them too. We are now in a very bad period here in Cairo."

Kamel arrived at the court house, which was surrounded by more than a dozen armoured vehicles and blockaded by state security personnel and high ranking police officers, in a poncho she had had specially designed that read across the front, "Our Rights = Freedom for Journalists + Independent Judiciary."

When the judge ended the proceedings with an announcement that Eissa's hearing would be postponed until 24 October, Kamel went home confused and uncertain both about Eissa's case and the larger implications for civic freedoms in Egypt.

But she knows she has to continue the struggle and that change won't happen unless ordinary citizens stand up and know and demand their rights. "We are in a crisis," she said. "For a long time, we haven't had a real political life here. My hope is with the new generation. You can't live without hope -- otherwise there's no purpose."

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