The participation of women in political events was a real battle that they paid for dearly, not only as political players but as women as well - A portrait of Mozn Hassan a feminist and human rights activist.
This piece is part of our dossier "No Women - No Peace: 20th Anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security".
In 25 May 2005, when mobs attacked women journalists and activists in Cairo as they took part in a protest calling for the boycott of a referendum on constitutional reform, only a few people looked at the assault as something more than just an attempt by Mubarak’s regime to terrorise women out of public life and the developing political movement against his authoritarian rule. Mozn Hassan, 41-year-old feminist and human rights activist was one of the women attacked in what was known later as Black Wednesday, and was also one of the few who insisted that the attacks that day and in the years that followed reflected a misogynistic attitude deeply rooted in Egyptian society to enforce social dominion over women.
‘I am proud to be part of the Egyptian feminist movement and one of the generation that dared to speak about daily sexual harassment and violence against women in the Egyptian street, workplace and other public spheres after years of social denial and systematic shaming of the victim’, Hassan says with a smile that reflects both bitterness and hope.
In 2007, Hassan joined ten other young Egyptian activists to found Nazra for Feminist Studies, an NGO that aims mainly at nurturing young feminists and mainstreaming gender equality as social and political issues that affect the freedom and development of society as a whole.
‘We always believed that female empowerment and gender equality cannot be achieved without realising that upholding bodily integrity is essential for self-ownership and self-determination.’ In a generally conservative society facing escalating political turmoil, Hassan struggled to find a place for this rhetoric on a packed stage. However, 25 January 2011 and the societal upheaval that Egypt witnessed during and after the days that led to the fall of a 30-year-old dictatorship was full of unexpected challenges and opportunities.
Sexual assaults on women participating in public protests
‘The revolution changed my life’, says Hassan, who is still paying a price for the role she played during these years. Right after the 18-day sit-in that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, women started reporting harrowing incidents of sexual violence against them in political demonstrations and events. ‘The participation of women in political events was a real battle that they paid for dearly, not only as political players but as women as well’, she adds, ‘and as an essential part of the revolutionary wave women were able to address their concerns and demand their rights more boldly and freely.’
From March 2011 to June 2014, Nazra, among a number of other NGOs, documented a number of cases of mass sexual assaults on women participating in public protests and gatherings, making sure that the survivors received medical, psychological and legal aid.
‘The testimonies we heard were horrifying to say the least. It wasn't easy to not get emotionally involved with every case.’ Hassan remembers training herself to control the anger she felt every time she and her colleagues received word of an assault. She also remembers how proud she felt every time she realised that young women did not refrain from participating in the public sphere and insisted on practicing their right to expression and organisation. ‘All the pain would disappear when we received a phone call from young women in Upper Egypt informing us that they are organising a support group against sexual violence or asking for legal advice about a case they are providing help for’, she says.
For Nazra, supporting the survivors of sexual violence with the legal and psychological support was always part of a bigger strategy aiming at structural reform of legislation and social norms. ‘Women fight daily battles to participate in all spheres of life in a patriarchal society and they face countless abuses every day. This cannot be the responsibly of support groups or activists promoting women's right. The revolution proved that there is a political perspective behind gender-based violence and resisting this should be the responsibly of everyone, feminist groups, political parties, the media and the state.’
Ensuring the protection of women against violence
In 2014, Nazra, among other gendered NGOs, made a tremendous effort to find a clear place in the constitution to ensure the protection of women against violence. ‘The seven articles that were included in the 2014 constitution were only a fraction of what we really advocated for; however, we still see them as a remarkable victory in a very long and vicious war.’ Nazra also supported a number of women candidates to run for parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2015, assisted others in underprivileged areas to form trade unions or have an influential role in them and supports different initiatives dealing with prejudices against women in the Egyptian society.
Hassan, who is under a travel ban and asset freeze, is currently working on her second master’s degree. She received her first one in international human rights law at the American University of Cairo, and she also holds a diploma in civil society and human rights from Cairo University. ‘I learned a lot from women in my life’, Hassan says. Coming from a conservative family, Hassan's mother had to challenge her parents to finish her education. ‘When I look at my mother and how she managed to become a university professor and to bring up two independent women who later became active feminists, I realise how strong women can be.’
Another strong woman who played a major role in the life of Hassan is Magda Adly, the director of El-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, established in 1993, and the one in charge of the programme to support women victims of violence. ‘I was very lucky that my first years as a feminist activist was under the mentorship of Magda, who inspired me on many levels. She taught me to listen and support women in what they want without imposing where I stand or what I believe on them.’ Hassan says that learning to respect the pace by which the survivor of gender-based aggression decides to deal with her problem is a virtue, ‘because only when human rights defenders realise that they are fighting side by side with the people and not fighting for them will they be able to make a real difference’.
Hassan herself is a very strong woman. In July 2020, a Cairo criminal court rejected another appeal against a travel ban imposed on her since 2016, and another order that has frozen the assets of Nazra for Feminist Studies since January 2017. In 2016, when Hassan and Nazra were awarded the Swedish Right Livelihood Award, also known as the ‘Alternative Nobel’, though she could not travel to attend the award ceremony in Stockholm. Hassan and her organisation received the award ‘for asserting the equality and rights of women in circumstances where they are subject to ongoing violence, abuse and discrimination’.
However, years of restrictions that started in 2011 when the state orchestrated a crackdown on a number of rights activists did not stop Hassan from continuing what she started 15 years ago. ‘Everything comes with a price, and we in Nazra and other women’s rights defenders are aware of this fact’, she says. As the witch hunt against human rights defenders, political activists and opposition figures continues, and with many of them currently in jail, Hassan knows that she herself could be sentenced to up to 25 years in jail under tailored-for-her accusations and false crimes.
It is women's story and women's battle that make a difference
‘I am optimistic’, Hassan says with a smile. ‘Egyptian society is changing and no one can deny that, maybe not as fast or as radical as we dream of, but there is change nevertheless.’ For Hassan, the spontaneous campaigns against sexual harassment that Egypt has been witnessing the past three years is the fruit of the struggles of generations of feminists and rights activists. ‘Many of the young women who are engaged in these campaigns maybe never heard about Nazra or similar groups, but the fact that they are using the rhetoric that we dedicated most of our lives to advocating is very inspiring, not only to me, but to everyone in my generation’, Hassan says.
Hassan sees the struggle against gender-based violence in Egypt as a part of a bigger struggle all over the world. In 2015, she collaborated with fellow activists to establish the Women Human Rights Defenders in Middle East and North Africa to collectively respond to the challenges in the region. WHRDMENA also facilitates and coordinates work with other WHRDs all over the world as defined by the international Women Human Rights Defenders Declaration adopted in 2013 by the UN General Assembly. ‘The feminist movement in Egypt and developing countries needs the solidarity and support of similar movements everywhere’, Hassan says. ‘Many times I think that I, and others like me in the region, wouldn't have been able to survive if we hadn't shared our experiences and even sometimes, fears.’ Stories of resistance and success from Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Kenya and even Latin America are stories that deserve to be told and heard and their protagonists should be empowered if the world really year for a real change’, Hassan insists. ‘It is women's story and women's battle, not the world’s perspective on the story or the battle, that can make all the difference.’