Her-story, not his
The Words of Women project has been documenting the contributions made by Egypt's women to last year's 25 January Revolution, writes Omneya Youssry
Many people thought that Egyptian women would see their rights reinforced after last year's 25 January Revolution, only to be faced with an unrepresentative female minority in parliament, a crackdown on last year's women's march and the undermining of women's roles on the political scene.
However, even if women's present contributions are in danger of being downgraded, their historical contributions will not be forgotten, thanks to the Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution documentary project, which is helping women to write their history by highlighting women's stories from the 25 January Revolution.
According to Nazli Hussein, the project's producer, "we are a group of independent filmmakers and activists that wants to shed light on the participation and the role of women in the Egyptian revolution, in order to contribute to the historical memory of the revolution." The project is designed to be a tool for women's empowerment everywhere and a source for researchers, students and everyone interested in the revolution.
"The participation of women in the Egyptian revolution didn't come as a surprise to us, and we do not see it as extraordinary phenomenon," Hussein explained. It is for this reason that it is so important to record that participation for present and future generations to learn from and be inspired by, she said.
Women make up half of society, but their history and participation is still sometimes played down, keeping them in the shadows while highlighting the participation of men and attributing them the leading roles. "This is why we think it is about time we documented and shared 'her-story' and not 'his-story'," Hussein explained.
For her, this is even more important now that some are complaining that women are disappearing from the post-revolutionary political scene, notably in the formation of political parties.
The project, taking the form of documentary filmmaking, aims to cover a variety of women from all parts of Egyptian society and from the country's various regions. It took the best part of a year to contact and select the women to be interviewed for the documentaries, though it was not hard for the filmmakers to find women ready to speak on camera about the revolution or their experience in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
"The only hard part came when we were doing research outside Cairo. We also wanted to interview ordinary women, not women who were already involved in politics, so we had to work to find them first," Hussein said.
"The project began in March this year, and we will continue to research as we work with the film crew on making the documentaries. Our objective is to produce a minimum of two pieces a week and then to make these available on the project website as soon as they are done."
So far the videos are only available in Arabic, though subtitled in English and Spanish, but the project crew is working on making them available in other languages too.
According to Hussein, each short video is intended as a mini-profile of the woman being interviewed, building up into a series of 12-minute profiles. They feature women from very different social backgrounds, as well as of different skin colours and ages. "What unites them is their love of freedom and for all Egyptians," Hussein said.
The videos typically show their subjects' life and work before the revolution, their participation in it, and how their lives have changed today. The stories told are personal ones, but they also reflect women's participation in the revolution as a whole, helping to break down societal stereotypes of protective Egyptian mothers, passive women, and the apolitical nature of female concerns.
Funding for what is still a very low-budget project is spent on research, filming, travel to different areas of Egypt, post-production, subtitling and web administration and maintenance. The planned initial period was of three months duration, with a minimum of two short films produced and published per week.
"For this reason, we were only able to offer modest financial compensation to the team working on the project," explained Hussein. The equipment that was bought will be used for later stages of the project, with a second phase planned that will cover rural areas and provincial towns and cities, not just Cairo.
It is intended that this second phase will last three further months. Only logistical funding will be needed, since equipment costs will have been covered in phase one. Up to now eight film episodes have been published, seven dealing with women from Cairo, and one, Umm Ahmed, from Alexandria.
"In a possible phase three, we even hope to cover some or all of the other Arab countries that have also had revolutions, such as Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen," Hussein added.
The project has been selected for funding by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), though the grant only covers a portion of total costs, so there is still a need for further funds to be raised elsewhere. The project has a Facebook page, Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution, and this keeps audiences informed of progress on filming and other matters.
A blog will also be appearing on the Internet soon. "It is very clear to us that we need to keep this project independently funded, mainly so that we can offer the results to all under a non-commercial creative commons licence, so that everyone can share and use them. Our two weekly episodes are available on Youtube and our Facebook page," Hussein said.
Nada Zatouna, a 23-year-old Nubian filmmaker, is one of the women featured in the project. After being arrested, insulted and threatened by the police during the revolution, she realised that she had nothing more to fear, she said, and the fact that she had personally witnessed and suffered violence led her to further activism.
"I was lucky enough to have the guts to say it out loud. We, I mean women, were attacked by Egyptian policemen. That is what differentiates my story from that of hundreds of other women."
"The organisation that was supposed to protect us in fact went out of its way to intimidate us," Zatouna said. She was arrested by the police during the demonstrations in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo, and she is even now waiting to appear in court later this month, charged with causing affray.
"Police reports were invented via wireless devices," Zatouna claims. "Nothing was done according to normal legal procedures." Although Zatouna does not yet know what will be the outcome of the present case, she says she will continue to demonstrate in order to realise the revolution's goals.
Another participant in the project is 52-year-old Sabah Ibrahim, or Umm Ali, as she prefers to be called. Umm Ali comes from a lower-income group, and she first demonstrated, she remembers, when former president Anwar El-Sadat cut the subsidy on bread in 1977. In 2005, she took part in a sit-in organised by the Kifaya Movement, and since then she has been longing to sing "down with Mubarak" himself.
"Tahrir during the revolution was not Egypt. It was a part of paradise," Umm Ali comments, who had recently been kicked out of her house after spending 17 years living in it. "That was not the only reason why I wanted to demonstrate against the old faker Mubarak and his allies, but one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Tahrir as soon as the demonstrations started was in order to protest against the misleading governmental media, the only source of information for me and my family."
"We wanted to go in order to find out the truth for ourselves. I was one of the first women to spend days and nights in Tahrir for the whole of the 18 days of the revolution, and I was among the first to call for an end to military rule after the events at Maspero," she says proudly.
Umm Ali says that as a woman, she believes that her role then was at Tahrir and not at home looking after her house and family. "Neither my daughter nor I feared anything throughout the 18 days of the sit-in, and we feel that our role is still not yet finished," she said.
Hussein comments that the project's weekly films from 13 May have been changed to videos of solidarity with the people detained in the Abbasiya disturbances. "Because of the massive crackdown that took place on 4 May against the march to the Ministry of Defence in Abbasiya, we felt it was time to put things on hold, to raise our voices in solidarity with the detainees and to join thousands in protest against the ruling military junta," she said.
Hundreds of Egyptians, one girl as young as 14 years old, have been detained, she claimed, and abuse and torture have been used. "The military junta has not hesitated to use violence against the detainees, both men and women," she continued.
Summarising the intention behind the project, Hussein says that the idea is to act to make Egypt a better place to live in, the slogan being "Her-Story to Remember History." Women were there during the revolution, Hussein reminds us, as they always will be.