Cairo - A university graduate, Abir Ibrahim was over qualified for her job as a salesperson for subsidized bread in Suez. Her vocal frustration with working conditions and nominal pay was repeatedly dismissed as non-representative. After the January 25 uprising, she used to go door-to-door convincing colleagues to sign up for a union that she now presides over. Her first two tasks were to review their contracts and get health insurance.
In her ongoing and often bitter fights with the administration, Abir also has tried to monitor the quality of the subsidized breads she sells, frequently returning bread she finds insects in to the production site.
Like many women in her position, accusations of promiscuity and salacious rumors are her adversaries’ preferred weapon, when force and threats of arrest fail to deter her. She answers police officers defiantly and has thrown punches here and there in confrontations with the administration.
Abir is one of numerous women making progress as human rights defenders in their communities, away from the capital and the stereotypes surrounding female protesters. Some women have been aided by local NGOs providing training and know-how to better reach their targets and defend themselves, including the Cairo-based Nazra for Feminist Studies.
These women – some of whom have chosen union work, while others have focused on social change, and yet others on politics – report almost identical problems and obstacles, irrespective of their geographic location. Asmaa Gomaa, an activist from Aswan, explained how the appreciation for women in Nubian culture has made it easier to promote women leaders. But she also complained of traditions generally governing women’s roles in Southern Egypt that shape the way she approaches communities and put time constraints on activities like female participation in protests.
The fight almost always starts from home by breaking family norms to reach the public domain and challenge its customs on a wider scale. In many cases, a woman has to battle her own convictions before she challenges her family and then the community at large on topics of interest. This shift from the private to the public, and the motivations driving these battles dominated the discussion among some of these women in Cairo last week. Moving between a meeting table and a cozy lounge room at the Nazra headquarters in central Cairo, women from Tanta, Suez, Aswan and other provinces exchanged their experiences.
“We wanted to bring them together so they could network,” said Yara Sallam, director of the Women Human Rights Defenders Program at Nazra. The NGO is working on a report on these defenders, probing the realms of activism away from the stereotypical image of female protesters and rights activists. “We’ve been working for a year without feedback.” Yara and other researchers from Nazra got the women talking about their experience and how to define terms like what constitutes a rights defender.
“After the revolution, the definition of a human rights defender has been limited to the protester,” said Nazra’s Mozn Hassan. But the techniques can vary, she added; they can include forming a union and don’t always have to be participation in a demonstration.
Each group had a different set of tools to reach their targets. Abir talked about tossing aside manners and expectations of how a woman should behave. Her son Mohammad was fidgeting on the swivel chair next to her as she described how she had no problem turning a fight physical, just to show her opponents that she’s not scared.
Across the table, a group from Tanta described the use of class. In their visits to the villages, they bring along doctors and lawyers from relatively higher social and economic backgrounds. Their presence makes villagers listen, especially when a doctor talks about issues like female genital mutilation. The outreach includes spreading awareness among rural women that they don’t have to follow the orders of the mayor when it comes to voting, according to activist Walaa Abdel-Hady.
The outsider is also an influential factor in the south, despite the closed tribal nature of the place. Asmaa depends on tight family and community connections to get access to close communities in Aswan. But to cement a message she resorts to other activists in neighboring villages, saying that people tend to respect and listen to guests more. Activists end up trading places in their respective communities to take advantage of the “guest factor,” although the key to these communities remains a woman of their own.
Like any other debate in Egypt, this one was tainted with politics. At the heart of the discussion was choosing battles and how far political affiliations should play a part in these decisions.
“We don’t have a right to say who is a human rights defender and who isn’t, but we are free to choose who we work with,” Mozn said. The Nasra NGO provides technical assistance to many women wanting to expand and organize their efforts within their communities across the country. But with limited resources, choosing who to support and in which way is a daily question.
The main issue was support to female Islamist candidates affiliated with the ruling party: the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which is on the conservative side when it comes to women’s rights. Mozn differentiated between declaring support in a statement and providing actual support: “Not because they are different should I say that they are bad. At the same time, my arm shouldn’t be twisted to defend them so that I could say I defend universal principles. It doesn’t mean that I don’t call a violation a violation.”