skip navigation

The Dignity Works

Originally published in:
Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt

Fatemah Farag
How to assert a woman's right to a violence-free existence? Women activists from across the ideological spectrum met in Cairo to discuss this.

"As I traveled with the piece to city after city, country after country, hundreds of women waited after the show to talk to me about their lives. The play had somehow freed up their memories, pain and desire. Night after night I heard the same stories -- women being raped as teenagers, in college, as little girls, as elderly women; women who had finally escaped being beaten to death by their husbands; women who were terrified to leave; women who were taken sexually, before they were even conscious of sex by their stepfathers, brothers, cousins, uncles, mothers and fathers. I began to feel insane, as if a door had opened to some underworld and I was being told things I was not supposed to know; knowing these things was dangerous."

Thus wrote Eve Ensler in her introduction to the 2002 edition of The Vagina Monologues, the experience that led her to develop V-Day. "In 1997 I met with a group of activist women... On February 14, 1998, Valentine's Day, our first V-Day was born." And the movement has since defined itself as supporting networks and promoting creative events "to increase awareness, raise money and revitalize the spirit of existing anti-violence organizations. V-Day generates attention for the fight to stop violence against women and girls worldwide, including rape, domestic abuse, incest, female genital mutilation (FGM), honor killings, and sexual slavery."

And V-day launched the Karama programme in Egypt on 17 July 2005; in Cairo last week, activists from across the political spectrum met to take part in formulating priorities and approaches that can be adopted by the programme -- to be extended to Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Morocco and Tunisia. According to Rola Jamal of Karama, "The choice of the word 'pride' in Arabic is very significant because the core of the problem is that women are not the honour of societies but their dignity."

Many of those attending had never heard of Ensler or the Monologues ; but the message -- "stop violence against women" -- struck a chord with everyone. According to background documentation provided by Karama, "Similar to their counterparts in the world, women's voices in the Middle East and North Africa have been drowned out by rhetoric and violence. Throughout the region, women are victims of many different kinds of violence and subjugation. Estimates in Egypt, for example, indicate that one in three women suffers from domestic abuse and nearly 97 per cent of women ever married have undergone female genital mutation (see related article). Throughout most of the Arab world, women's lives are worth less than a man's honor. Men who believe they are within their rights to kill a woman who is perceived to have disgraced the family's reputation practice the ancient tribal custom of honor killing with impunity."

This is in spite of the fact that the region has been targetted for years: "Many women do not or cannot speak of the violence they have experienced in their lives. They are victims of violence, and victims of silence." Azza Shalaby from ACT, a local NGO, recounted her organisation's experience documenting rape. "We set up a hotline but when the technology that enables a call receiver to identify the number of the caller became widespread, women stopped calling for fear of identification," recounted Kamel. Ashgan Abdel-Hamid of Al-Nadim Centre added, "Even when women suffer from violence they can't take action because of economic constraints." While Shahira Fawzi, a woman activist who works at the Netherlands Embassy, spoke of "negative adaptation" where women deny they are the victims of violence in an attempt to accommodate themselves to harsh realities. Seham Nigm of the Women and Society Organisation painted a bleak picture of the education system, too, whose curricula do not stress positive inter-gender interaction, while Hala Saqr from the World Health Organisation (WHO) recounted that in cases in which women suffering abuse are allowed to seek medical treatment, they are usually accompanied by the partner who has subjected them to it: "Even when a doctor believes the reasons for her injuries is violence, she will not admit this, adding to the reasons why the documentation of violence against women is lacking."

All such factors are exacerbated by the local media, which does not take on the cause of women's dignity. In the words of Afaf Sayed of Heya, "Our media is controlled by a patriarchal discourse and capital, both of which work against women's rights. Follow news broadcasts and you will note that the images of women suffering from violence in areas of conflict are never shown." Everyone in attendance agreed that, on the ground, research indicates that the incidence of violence against women is much higher than statistics would indicate. The aim of Karama is to promote "a broad- based and inclusive approach to addressing violence. A major goal is to reach out to communities and to women isolated from such discussions and to engage with them in dialogue and action within their everyday realities. In Egypt, for example, the views of women farmers must be heard. In Jordan, the inclusion of Bedouin women is a priority. In the Sudan, Nuba mountain women and others from the south must be a key part. These are essential constituents who have been historically marginalised and deprived access to the women's movement". Over the two-day workshop, activists voiced disagreement over the role played -- and should be played -- by religion, priorities and where to start. While NGOs repeatedly pointed out that a main restriction in combating violence against women is the limited influence they have on policy- making.

This remains, however, an immense task -- considering that the focus is not simply women; there is no ending violence towards women without reforming men and society as a whole.