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Don't be silenced by shame, Stand Up and Speak Up!

A few weeks ago I was on a walking tour with some my colleagues in Islamic Cairo on a chilly and somewhat gloomy Saturday morning. I was the youngest female in the group and the only one who had lived in the Middle East for 3 decades. Pete, one of the people on the tour approached me and asked me how I cope with living in Egypt and how do I handle ‘the men’ and being harassed on the street. I told him that I had written an article about Sexual Harassment and it had been published in Community times. Interested in my views and article he asked me to send him a copy and if I would consider being a guest speaker and give a talk to High Schoolers, I agreed.

I am always willing to share my work with others and get their feedback, but as the date for the talk loomed closer I wasn’t so sure if I could follow through. The memories and the feelings of the experiences I had and trying to find the words to describe the situations and how it affected me wasn’t as easy as I had thought it would be. I found myself in a tug of war ‘don’t do it, you don’t need to go through all this again, it’s in the past.’ ‘You have to do this, you have to speak up and let the younger generation know that this isn’t acceptable and that women and men shouldn’t brush this under the carpet any longer! Women have been silenced long enough; you need to speak up and out about it.’ My worry was resurrecting and awakening the emotions that I had worked so hard to tame and keep locked away. Would I be able to handle it even after all the time that had passed?

The voice of reason won the battle and I didn’t bail out. To help me I wrote out key points to help me stay on track as a guide line to the discussion and talk. I knew that if I let my emotions get the better of me; it may turn out to be a bawling session and a mockery of something that I feel very deeply about.

The day of the talk, I had butterflies in my stomach and when I saw the young faces of Egypt’s future I became more nervous, my face flushed a bright red and my skin burned, my voice quivered and my hands shook, but I kept going.

After introducing myself to the class, giving my nationalities and making sure that they knew that although I am of mixed ethnicity that I was also ‘ONE OF THEM’, an Egyptian woman. This seemed to wake them up a bit and grab their attention. I discussed the different forms of sexual harassment (Degrading and graphic terms said, the skin crawling looks of being undressed and devoured by the other person and the physical (which on its own comes in many forms))

I told them that most people assume that women or teenage girls must have done something or dressed provocatively to have provoked or asked for the attack to happen. I then told them that my earliest memory was between the ages of 10 or 12 and I was in a shopping mall with my family when I had my first experience and that is when I saw the students get their wake up call! I had reached them; they were seeing it not only from an Egyptian woman’s point of view but from a kid’s point of view. They knew that there was no way at such a young age I could have provoked an attack or had known what sexual harassment was.

Unfortunately children here lead very sheltered lives and do not know what dangers await them outside their apartment doors. They know that there are bad people and that there are thieves but they aren’t made aware of the others that are lurking about. Our girls are clueless and defenseless, I am certain that none of them would know what to do if they were put in a situation like that.

There are many subjects that are taboo in this part of the world and have been locked away in a dark corner of everyone’s mind, simply because they choose not to believe it exists and it will go away on its own. In a perfect world, perhaps it would work, but we do not have that privilege.

Not talking about ‘Sex’, ‘The Body’ and ‘Sexual Harassment’ makes things worse, the predators and prowlers who take advantage of the women walking in the street minding their own business may not have been made aware of what some people will do and how they may violate them. They mightn’t understand or know what their instincts are telling them when they sense an intruder in their personal space. Women being shamed in to guilt and silence just make the offenders more powerful and willing to repeat their acts on other innocent and unsuspecting women?! How can we condone such a thing? We need to arm these women with knowledge of how to recognize a potential offender and how to fight them off. Letting them walk around unarmed with the basic knowledge is just as bad as the person committing the acts themselves.

I know full well what goes through a woman’s mind and the mental torment that follows after an attack. The incident replays itself over and over in your mind, you wonder what you may have done to have provoked the attacker, what you could have done differently. How dirty you feel and no matter how hard or many times you try to wash yourself, the dirt doesn’t seem to go away. It seems to linger on and beneath the skin. You just want to curl up somewhere dark and hide away, BUT if we do that, they win and they strip us of our dignity.

After one of my attacks, I said enough is enough, I will not be silenced! I am not doing anything wrong and I certainly DON’T WANT this to happen! I am going to fight back and I will not let them silence me. This is MY body and they have NO right to touch me!

The examples I gave not only hit home with the girls in the class but it also hit home with the boys. Especially when I told them that on more than one occasion there were men who saw what happened and did nothing. No one came to my aid and I had to fight the sicko off myself!

It isn’t only the women who have to stand up but it’s also the men who have to as well.

I am grateful that the school and the teachers are broaching the subject and are discussing it openly and honestly with the students. I feel that more schools and homes should do the same, If we are ever going to make the streets safer for women to walk down without constantly having to be alert of everyone one around her.

After the talk, four of the staff members who had been present for my talk said that not only were they moved by the talk, but that the students seemed to really relate and were fired up about bringing about change and doing something to make more people aware.

I know I had my doubts about giving the talk, but I am glad that I did. I may have reached someone that day and given them some tips to recognize the warnings and let them know that they are not alone in this.

I have been a victim of Sexual Harassment, I will NOT be silenced and I AM speaking out against it.

NB: My Mom just called me in a panic, because she thought that I had been raped and not told her about it. Sexual Harassment doesn’t have to be an assault to that degree. No, I have not been raped, but I have had men full clothed try to force themselves on me and touch me in places that is in appropriate. That is also sexual harassment and it isn’t right!

Primary School Students in Alexandria-Photo by Thom Harwell

Primary School Students in Alexandria-Photo by Thom Harwell

The entry below is hypothetical; it is something I have been mulling over in my mind for quite some time. Being an educator I have found that one of the many joys of teaching is being able to pass on knowledge to the future generations. I have dreams and hopes that one day the Egyptian people will climb back up to the top and impress us with their capabilities once again and achieve great things.
For decades we have been experiencing a brain drain. Families who have had the means have immigrated to foreign countries to seek a better life and education for the children. The education system I regret to say, presently is not nurturing our nation’s future. With classrooms that hold between 30-70 students in a single class, how on earth can the system expect teachers to be able to reach or teach students? It isn’t a wonder that there is an abundance of private tuition that goes on!
If Egypt is to change, the education system and its curriculum has to be one of its focal points.
If I was given the opportunity to be Minister of Education, I would make a lot of changes, which  would also probably put a price tag on my head and move me to the top of many people’s HIT LISTS, but somebody has to step up to the plate and take charge.
Egyptians at one point in history were the leaders in Science and Mathematics, the Pharaohs were living proof of that. Over decades our position among the leading educated nations has slipped to the lower end of the spectrum which is very upsetting.

The public school system, (by public I mean government run schools) is lacking in so many areas that it is very difficult to find a starting point. Below are a few areas that I have been thinking about, but before I do that, let me paint a visual picture of what a ‘Government School’ is like; the following paragraph you are about to read is an excerpt from my Masters Comprehensive Exam Essay;

“For me to describe the ‘high quality education’ that I envision for schools in Egypt In the 21st century I need to give a brief description of what public/government run schools are like presently.”

“The land and building on which the schools are built on are not only structurally depressing to look at but to be in. The exterior walls of the school are colorless and lifeless. They look more like prison blocks than they do institutions for learning. The classrooms are small, poorly lit, desks are crammed in tightly next to one another to form as many rows as possible. There is a huge worn out chalkboard at the front of the room where the teacher stands and regurgitates and spoon feeds lessons. Students from as low as 30-70 in a classroom is best described as a can of sardines. The play area is a small patch of land with sand. I won’t even go in to describing the washroom facilities because I will only make you queasy. The sounds that ring out and across the school are mainly the voices of teachers shouting their lessons, banging their desk, children reciting and repeating phrases and scolding. “
This is not learning… this is programming. If the founding Theorists of Education could see the state of these schools, they would probably be turning in their graves. I don’t know how we as a nation have allowed or permitted education to be put on a back burner and for our countries future to be taught under these conditions.
For the school system to improve we need to improve not only the conditions of the learning institutions but we need to rectify teaching methods, because they are stuck in a time warp. Teachers need to teach not only for the present time but for the future.  Educators need to be re-educated themselves, sending them all back to school probably isn’t going to be feasible and will be very expensive, so an alternate way to go about doing this would be by asking teachers who have gained their Teaching Certificates or Masters in Education to volunteer their time to show teachers different methods and techniques for teaching phonemic awareness, reading, math fundamentals, writing, free thinking as well as how to plan a lesson. These courses would cost the teachers nothing and it would be in the form of ongoing professional development that in addition to asking teaching professionals, we would also extend the invitation to professors to lecture them in theory and practices as well as child psychology.
While the teachers are being re-educated I would have the employees of the Ministry of Education evaluate the current curriculum and together decide what areas need to be amended, changed or dropped all together. Part of the revamping of the curriculum will include hands on learning. Let’s face it, there is so much you can learn from a text-book and not everyone can absorb what the teacher is lecturing about.  According to Howard Gardener there multiple Intelligences, ( ), in summary means there are several ways people learn and we as a nation need to understand and accept that. Knowledge of the world and its people is something students need to be exposed to. We fear what we do not understand, the more we understand, the less fear we have of the outside world. I would also insist that trades men from the rural areas demonstrate and show students their trade and teach them some of the skills. This would be a stepping stone to start building pride in professions as well as a sense of community.

I don’t expect that with the wave of my pointer all shall be fixed and there won’t be any problems. A lot of damage has been done and a lot of rectifying will be met with resistance. I don’t expect everything to be fully implemented for at least 5-10 years, but changes would be underway before the start of the academic year of 2012, if I had my way, that is.
How to put money back in to the schools and the school system?
I have no idea what the government’s budget is for education or if there are any funds for that matter, so I am going to presume that we have NONE.  To find funding for this enormous project is far from being easy. One idea that does come to mind would be to re-invest a percentage of the sales of the needed textbooks and uniforms back in to the schools as well as having a percentage of our salaries taxed to be reinvested in to the education system. By this we would be making sure the classrooms would be in a condition that is safe and a comfortable learning environment.  We would also be able to reduce the number of students in classrooms and increase teachers’ salaries. Each classroom would have the proper lighting, ventilation and furniture and eventually resources. The bathroom facilities would be sanitary and the playground a place where students can enjoy running around and playing at recess.

I would also look for private and public donations by setting up an account for people to donate money to help improve the education system. I’m sure along the road my team and I would find other ways and means of finding funds.
I know that I am probably going to be shot for having suggested that we pay a tax where the money goes towards the education system, but if we profess to love this country as much as we do, shouldn’t we reinvest in it and by doing so through the education so that the future generations of Egypt, lead this country out of the third world country bracket but towards the 21st century and a better nation?
Education is the weapon to fighting ignorance and I hate to be the one to admit it or to point it out, but there is a lot of it here. For Egypt to make a 180 degree turn in the right direction, we need to educate the people of this nation, re instill the self-worth and pride in who they are. If we accomplish that, trust me their voices will grow strong along with their spirits. We need to start from ground zero, from those who are less fortunate than most and work our way up. Think of it as rebuilding our heritage.

On a final note, from what I have been reading on twitter, there is a movement called #tweetback that is working towards raising money for a slum on development projects, aside from regular donor packages, they are adding a twitter campaign component. The recipients of the donations are Ezbet Kheiralla. I know that they are also working towards improving the conditions of some of the schools in that area, if you would like to contribute;
“#tweetback  donations: CIB Bank, Semiramis Branch, acct number 2240000220-SWIFT CIBEEGCX 002, under name Peace and Plenty.
As relayed to me by @TravellerW-Mohamed El Dahshan on twitter.