Meet Omayma, Women’s Rights Activist in Turbulent Egypt

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Omayma is an artist by origin, but is now fully committed to improve women’s rights in Egypt. For many years she has been director of an organization that deals with art and development and she is also co-founder of the coalition for Egyptian female human rights defenders. Given the political climate in Egypt, she has been severely inhibited in her work. That is why she is now trying to gain inspiration and knowledge in the Netherlands so that she can launch a new women’s rights organization in Egypt at the end of this year.

What brings you to the Netherlands?

In Egypt I had problems with the government because of my non-governmental activities. Since 2016, the government is trying to block my work. Meanwhile, they have confiscated my office. There is a lawsuit against us that is decided this December; then I have to go back to Egypt. It is very dangerous in Egypt. If they hear that you work for a human rights organization, you can be thrown into prison.

The director of the Egyptian feminist organization Nazra advised me therefore to join the Shelter City program, with which I can now stay in the Netherlands for three months. Here I hope to meet many people and work on a strategy for a new women’s rights organization that I want to set up in Egypt.

Do you identify as a feminist?

I definitely identify myself as a feminist. I was not interested in 2016 because from origin I am a writer. It was enough for me to be an artist, I did not want to be politically involved. But now I am 39, I have a child, and I have found that my life belongs more to women’s rights than to art.

“Feminist” is a bad word in Egypt. Many Egyptian women are feminists, but say in Egypt that they are not. They are afraid that their activities will be obstructed. Please note: not only the government likes to keep women small, it is also ingrained in society.

If someone asks me now: are you a feminist? Then I say yes, because I want to bring change.

Recently, Egypt’s Sunni authority says all sexual harrassment is ‘forbidden’. Do you think this symbolic gesture will help improve the situation?

I think it will help to improve the situation. Women in Egypt never had a voice. Since the Arab Spring, a movement has developed that makes it possible for women to speak out.

The new generation of feminists is smarter than the government thinks. This generation grew up with technology, they are used to it. We all have smartphones and can record videos. That is threatening to the government.

I read an article in Time magazine on how #MeToo is helping Egyptian women break the silence around sexual violence. For example, activist Amal Fathy used social media to amplify her voice. Do you also experience that online movements are helpful for Egyptian women?

It is a fantastic development. #MeToo has a great chance of success in Egypt. When I write something about #MeToo on my blog, everyone knows immediately. The society and the government always said: you do not speak out. #MeToo helps women to speak out. When women speak out, it is good for both themselves and others.

How does the government respond to women who speak under the flag of #MeToo?

There are people working at the Egyptian government who search on the hashtag #MeToo. When they find a #MeToo-post by an Egyptian, they respond with a post in which they try to discredit the woman. This does not help, however, because many of these women also receive support from people outside Egypt.

Can you tell us more about the plans for your new organization?

The Egyptian government is currently strict regarding NGOs because of Case 173 [a law that strongly restricts the work of non-governmental organizations in Egypt, ed.]. That is why my organization becomes an organization that primarily focuses on art. This is a safe cover to speak about women’s rights in Egypt. For example, if I organize events, the family of the invited woman will rather accept that she is going here. Through art, such as films, songs, drawings, we can construct a dialogue about the female body.

It is dangerous in Egypt, but we have to do something. I have to try. The Arab Spring was a moment of clarity in my life. Ever since then I have the feeling that my life can change every moment and that I can also change the lives of others.

Interview: Noémi Prent

*Omayma’s surname is withheld for security reasons.

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