Monday, May 5, 2014

Admitted to a Mental Asylum for Disbelieving

I can’t remember what convinced me to trust my father when he claimed we were going to go take a walk, just days after we had a fight about me wanting to take off my veil. Before I knew it, I found myself in front of an insane asylum. Three large guys shoved me inside as I kicked, screamed, and cursed. Hours later, I met Dr. Ashraf, a rather stern-looking shrink with hatred written all over his face, which was covered with a messy, bushy beard that resembled a small, furry creature trying to devour his head. It was strangely amusing seeing him in a lab coat. It was like seeing a Neanderthal in a suit attempting a more civilized look and waiting for him to snap and reveal his true barbaric nature. “You will room with her” he said, pointing at an old skinny lady with heavy makeup and sticky semi-dyed hair who glanced from the Neanderthal to me, then back to the Neanderthal, “oh don’t tell me she’s crazy!” She said laughing hysterically. “My, what a pretty young thing! Tell me child, have you ever been eaten?” She asked as she stared at me hungrily. I pictured her tearing my flesh and consuming me till I vanished into thin air. “Oh no, you get me out of here! You get me out of here right now! I am not rooming with a cannibal!” I said fiercely to the Neanderthal. “Cannibal?! Damn it, the child really is crazy” shrieked the old lady. “You will do as you are told”replied the Neanderthal smugly. I gathered every shred of strength I possessed and punched him. Seconds later, I was surrounded by an invasion of injections that made everything turn dark.

I woke up and started observing the women in the ward. Apart from a schizophrenic girl named Marwa, I was the youngest person there. “Marwa! Marwa!” shouted a nurse while Marwa gazed into space. “Marwa you bitch, I am calling you!” said the cruel creature. Marwa fiercely locked eyes with the nurse, and said quite assertively, “My name is Maryam (Mary).” She then claimed she was the Virgin Mary while the nurse burst into laughter. I wondered what it must be like having little connection to reality. I thought it must be the worst thing in the world. I felt sorry for her not only because of her mental condition, but also for being thrown into such a vile and useless place. Instead of getting the treatment, she needs,she's turned into a form of entertainment for the sadistic nurses. The nurses tried to pick on me a few times, but every time they did I’d hit them with a clever comeback. They hated me, I ruined their fun, and I liked it.Desperately trying to hurt me one of the nurses said, “Wipe that smugness off your face. Tomorrow is your electroshock appointment.” It was painful pretending her words had no effect on me when in reality, I felt like she poured acid on my face. Breathing got harder, I told her that I was suffocating and that I needed a bit of fresh air.She told me to go back to bed with a cold indifference. I started screaming hysterically like a mad woman. Suddenly, I was attacked by what seemed like an army of nurses brutally injecting me with enough sedatives to put an elephant to sleep. But the sedatives had no effect on me, I was as sober and awake as I could get, and I continued screaming till they agreed to let me get some fresh air. I stopped screaming, and after awhile, the nurses were in deep conversation. They barely remembered I was there. I glimpsed the guard struggling to stay awake, so I quietly snuck off and went out the door. All of a sudden, the guard became as alert as a watch dog, and ran after me till he finally caught me. “Trying to escape, eh?!!” screamed the guard. “You know what I do to people who try to escape?! I break their legs with my bare hands” he said. He mercilessly started twisting my feet. The sound of my screams kept getting louder. He then pulled on my leg and violently dragged me back. I used my hand as a barrier between my face and the flesh-tearing ground. I was thrown into my room, and the nurse locked the door as she said with a glimpse of amusement, “You’ll never get out of here”. I struggled to move my legs, but it was too painful. I laid on the floor that night drowning in tears and blood.

I woke up to the sound of a loud nurse dragging me to get electroshock. I limped my way into the rape room.While lying and awaiting the lab coat wearing monsters to ruin my head, the most private and intimate part of me, the only thing that calmed me was how close I felt to Sylvia Plath. Instead of screaming or shouting, I recited “The Hanging Man” to the sounds of the nurses’ ignorant laughter. “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me. I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet. The nights snapped out of sight…”and suddenly everything went blank.After regaining my consciousness, I spent hours staring at the ceiling trying to think but not being able to.I felt someone’s presence in the room; I turned my head and saw a nurse standing there. I never really knew her name. Her face and figure were forcefully hidden under layers upon layers of thick sheets of cloth, and her actions for the most part, revealed no identity whatsoever. She followed the orders she was given, and remained silent and opinion less. I thought there would be no possible way of distinguishing her from any lifeless object in the room, but to my surprise she gave me a glimpse into a trait of her personality. “You haven’t eaten anything in days”. Even though, I couldn’t see her facial expressions, I heard a crack in her voice that revealed concern. “The food here is nauseating, I wouldn’t eat it if they paid me” I mumbled. As she was about to speak, I felt that she was about to unmask her true nature, and lose her robotic exterior. I wondered if she would turn out to be no different from all the other nurses, and say something along the lines of, “you ungrateful child! You should be glad you’re being fed a tall!” But to my surprise, all I heard was her saying, “I will buy you a bean sandwich” (in a soft, mother-like voice). I hated beans with every fiber of my being. Under any other circumstances, the idea of a bean sandwich would make me sick. But compared to the hospital food, a bean sandwich sounded like caviar.

That nameless nurse was the best thing that ever happened to me in that asylum; she befriended me and often to took me outside for fresh air. One day while we were outside she pointed her head to the direction of a woman and told me that creature named Amal was the head of the Asylum. Amal was the text book definition of a mid-life crisis, her gigantic figure struggled to rip through her blouse, which was obviously a few sizes too small, and a few generations too young. I saw a lady walking up to her who wore a Turkish scarf like my mother always did. As I took a closer look, I realized that it was, in fact, my mother. They both walked towards me, I was taken into Amal’s office. My mother told me that she had no idea where I was until she blackmailed my father into telling her. “Amal, the child doesn't belong here, and I am taking her home “yelled my mother. “If you do I will be forced to call the cops, your daughter has a bizarre form of mental illness. I am afraid it might be months before she’s even qualified for the evaluation which determines her eligibility to leave our institution” replied Amal. “You know she’s fine, it is no wonder you were always called a bitch in college” said my mother as I remembered who Amal was, she was a classmate of my father in college and rumor has it she had quite a crush on him which is enough incentive to do him whatever favor he asks even if it is to lock up his daughter. “Momma give me the phone” I said, I called my father and made up an elaborate story about how I met an angel who showed me apart of heaven, and that I will wear my veil again because I wouldn't want to miss the opportunity to go to such a wonderful place. Fifteen minutes later I was released from the Asylum. I was ecstatic and started skipping in the street. I felt a huge sense of freedom until I stopped in front of a scarf kiosk and I realized that I wasn't free. I wondered how much longer my spirit will remain shackled.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sexual Violence and Islamist Propaganda

A few weeks ago I received a message from a friend in Cairo about a horrible attack on her sister Esraa Mohamed. Esraa was walking in her own neighborhood at 3 PM when she realized she was being followed by a well-dressed, respectable looking stranger. He said, “I am not harassing you but don’t forget to wipe off your pants. She suddenly began to feel a burning pain in her backside and rushed into a cafe to see what was wrong. It was then that she realized she couldn’t remove her pants and took a cab home. By that time the pain was so excruciating that she almost fainted; her buttocks and the back of her thighs had been burned by acid that had eaten into her flesh. The doctor who examined her said she had second and third degree burns, with cell necrosis in some areas. The diagnosis was: chemical burn by an unidentified corrosive. Esraa described the attack to a journalist friend who wrote a story about it. After she spoke out, she received messages from other girls who said the same thing had happened to them, but they had not told anyone or come forward because they were so ashamed and embarrassed. She also received several attacks saying she deserved it for not wearing the veil.

Since the overthrow of Mubarak, there has been much commentary about sexual harassment and violence against women in Egypt. Many believe the attacks on women in Tahrir Square were initiated by mobs hired by Egypt’s security forces as a means of intimidation, similar to the “virginity tests” forced upon some of the girls who were arrested during a protest in March 2011. They see violence against women as a means of scaring them away from political activity. While this is true, it is only part of the explanation for violence against women in Egypt long precedes the revolutions of the last three years. It has been growing for decades. A study done in 2008 showed that 83% of women get harassed in Egypt. But numbers alone cannot show how scary the harassment is, how it makes women feel, and how their families usually blame them instead of the men who harassed them.

The role of Islamist propaganda in promoting the acceptance of violence against women often gets overlooked by those who are afraid of appearing “Islamophobic” or racist. But addressing the roots of violence against women is one of the most important steps in eradicating it. During the 1950s and 60s, this level of sexual persecution was unheard-of in Egypt. At that time time hardly anyone in cities wore the veil and Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, had virtually disappeared, due to the Nasser regime’s systematic attempts to eradicate them. When Anwar Sadat became President in 1970, he eased up on the Islamists because he wanted their support against leftist groups. Thus the 1970s witnessed a religious revival. By the 1980s and 90s, the Brotherhood’s influence and the social services it provided were entrenched in many villages and neighborhoods, and the number of women wearing the veil rose significantly as a mark of the influence of political Islam. I remember a conversation about the hijab between my mother and a woman who belonged to the Brotherhood. She said, “Every time I think about how uncomfortable it is, I remember that by wearing it I am promoting our ideology.”

Islamists launched campaigns pushing the veil. One showed a picture of a three legged chair and said it was like a woman without a veil. Another showed a lollipop wrapped in paper next to to an unwrapped lollipop covered with flies, which it compared to a woman who does not veil. These campaigns objectified women by comparing them to chairs and candy, and dehumanizing women is the first step in justifying violence against them. Radio and TV channels that catered to Islamist agendas (most of which have been shut down in the past few months) endlessly justified wife beating, Female Genital Mutilation, marital rape, and other forms of violence against women as well as promoted the idea that women are inferior to men and in need of constant monitoring and disciplining. Those on the receiving end of these messages aren’t just orthodox Muslims or Muslim Brotherhood members, but a much wider demographic.

While sexual harassment is against the law in Egypt , in many cases, when women try to file a complaint, the police won’t even talk to them. This is because both the violators and the police share the same cultural values. As Esraa Mohammed’s sister told me recently, “When you are living in a society dominated by people who abuse religious scripture in order to deny women their person-hood, it is no surprise to see women who seek independence and freedom being slut-shamed and abused.”

Friday, October 4, 2013

Violence and Secular Space

I remember walking down the exhausted streets of Port Said months after the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime. The Muslim Brotherhood’s posters covered the worn out walls, offering people a glimpse of hope and a promise of an era where the revolution’s spirit would live and thrive. Unlike many of those who trusted and believed in the MB, I remained cynical and suspicious mostly because I was bred to be one of them. Their motto, “Islam is the solution,” shamelessly exploited the one thing most Egyptians hold dearest: religion. The process began with this motto, then Friday sermons became a forum for praise for the MB, and, before you know it, the ballot became a choice of going to heaven or hell.

Soon after the MB gained the power it longed for, it showed its true colours. People began noticing that the promise of free speech was no more than a myth told by people who spoke on behalf of God. The Morsi government brought charges of blasphemy against numerous opposition bloggers, activists, and entertainers, including the famous Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, while freeing jihadi criminals like Abu El’Ela Abdrabu. Abdurabu made a number of TV appearances after his release where he showed an utter lack of remorse about murdering the prominent writer and human rights activist Farag Foda back in 1992.

During the Farag Foda murder trial, the court summoned Muhammed El Ghazzali, an Al Azhar scholar, to serve as a witness. El Ghazzali said, “The killing of Farag Fouda was in fact the implementation of the punishment against an apostate which the Imam has failed to implement.” This is a reference to the Islamist idea that the religious leader is obligated to kill aspotates. His powerful testimony resulted in the acquittal of eight of the thirteen accused in the murder. A friend of El Ghazzali recently said on TV that he privately said he gave false testimony in court in order to protect the lives of the jihadis, whom he called “those young men.” But why was it necessary to even ask about religious dogma in a murder trial in a secular court?

There are numerous accounts of human rights violators hiding their crimes behind religion and getting away with it. Some are well known cases that have been all over the news like Farag Foda’s murder; others are hidden from the eyes of the media. A good friend of mine knows a girl from a Coptic family who was forced into a mental asylum and subjected to electroshock even though she had no need for psychiatric care, and was later confined in a convent. In both places, she was subjected to violence, torture and insults because she was romantically involved with a boy from a Muslim family. When her boyfriend called one of the local human rights organizations, they said they would not get involved because they do not wish to adopt causes that could raise issues of religious sensitivities.

Human rights organizations have one crucial and obvious task, protecting human rights without distinction of race, colour, sex, language, or religion. The fear of criticism or violence from religious fundamentalists should not deter human rights organizations from doing their job. This is why organizations like the Centre for Secular Space are crucial to the human rights movement, because human rights cannot thrive in an atmosphere of religious intimidation.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Libvoice Interview- 30th of April, 2013

1-How did the past year go for you?
It went well. I was fortunate enough to come to the states and meet a lot of wonderfully interesting people. I participated in intellectually stimulating conversations. My opinions were at times accepted and at times were not but were met with insightful refutations and not threats or violence as I faced before coming here

-2Do you still hold the same position regarding the veil?
Yes, I still do not wear it nor do I believe in what it represents. Over here I met girls who want to take off their veils. I've also met girls who want to wear it. Both of whom cannot due to strict familial rules. I believe in a girl’s right to wear the veil just as much as I believe in a girl’s right not to wear it. It is a freedom of choice

-3Do you fear returning to Egypt after the Islamists gained political power?
It is no secret that anyone who speaks their mind in Egypt will face unspeakable atrocities. That is if what they say or believe is in any way different from the societal norm. I fear not only my safety and my life but also being forced into silence

-4In your opinion, is the solution to the issues facing the Egyptian society abandoning religion or a better representation of it?
Not the abandoning of religion but acquiring the ethical and humanistic values that I am sorry to say incredibly rare in Egypt. For example, over here a Muslim could proselytize in the streets and hand out copies of the Qur’an next to a Christian handing out copies of the New Testament and almost all of the time it would not result any violence. I’ve never seen a Christian proselytizing in the streets of Egypt, where Islamic uniformity dominates society and religious minorities do not have the same rights as Muslims do. 

-5Tell us about your new campaign
In a nutshell, I’m raising funds to help me survive until I get a decision on my asylum case. 

-6Anything else you’d like to share through our site?
I want to say that no matter how tough the current situation is, people should never lose hope.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Faisal AlMutar Interviews Me

- Can you tell us about yourself Reem?
I am a nineteen year old college student interested in science ,philosophy and literature. I advocate women’s rights and gender equality.

- Why have you decided to take off the veil?
There were a bunch of pro-veil ad campaigns that ironically opened my eyes to how hypocritical my society is when it comes this topic. The ads were very offensive and sexist comparing unveiled women to uncovered meat , chocolate , lollipops , cake etc… that had flies on it and claiming that covered food (women) are much safer from the flies (men). Aside from being very misogynistic and rude , the ads however did offer a theory. Which as a person in love with scientific thinking I had to reason out. The theory is that veiled women are much more protected than unveiled women but if that was the case then a country like Egypt in which the majority of women wear the veil would have very low sexual harassment rates but in reality 83% of Egyptian women according to a recent survey published by the BBC get harassed. I then discovered the reason behind my society’s obsession with the veil when I read the eye opening book chasing a mirage by Tareq Fattah.

- What was your family’s reaction to that?
My father has an image that he always tried to maintain even if it came with the price of me being miserable. He had a very brutal reaction to my decision regarding the veil and tried to pressure me over and over again into submission. He said that I have dishonored the family and him with this decision. My mother did not appose my decision very much but many family members cut contact with me.

- What was the Egyptian society’s reaction to that and why?
Few people supported my decision while the majority had a very vile and unpleasant reaction. I have been told things like Satan is toying with me or that I would burn in hell. I have also been slut shamed and called crazy in a failed attempt to stab my credibility.

- What is it like to be a woman in Egypt?
In some ways it is like being black in America decades ago when racial discrimination was socially acceptable. Sexism and tribal culture have become deeply ingrained with in the Egyptian society. One example would be how our sexual harassment and female genital mutilation rates are through the roof.

- How do you see the future of women’s rights there?
As long as the majority of women are silent things will only get worst, no fairy Godmother will come and hand them their rights on a plate of Gold. They need to stand together and fight for their freedom , for their safety , for equality.

- Do you think “Secularism” will help in achieving gender equality?
A lot of men refer to their misogynistic interpretation of religious scripture in order to justify their vile and otherwise unacceptable treatment of women. I believe that secularism will be a huge step towards gender equality but not how ever the only step.

- What should secularists in Egypt do to spread their message across?
We have many closeted secularists in Egypt who are afraid of coming out in fear of becoming social pariahs or getting killed for there opinion like the late secular writer Farag Fouda. There are how ever a rather small minority of secularists who do speak up and I believe they could utilize social networks in order to spread their message across .

- Are you an Atheist? how did you become one? what you were before that?
I prefer the term free thinker,Victor Hugo used that term to describe himself when asked about his religion. I was brought up in a religious Muslim house hold. My father had hopes of me becoming a preacher and converting people, obviously that did not happen. I took my religion very seriously and that is why I had to leave it. I could not observe the atrocities being done in the name it of whilst pretending like the two are not related as many people do.

- What was society’s reaction to your Atheism?
Months before coming to America I came out as an ex-Muslim on face book which subjected me to detailed death threats and insults along with a lot of other problems.

- I will give you the last words,what message do you want the world to hear?
Three words love , peace and liberty.