Saturday July 22, 2017
By Alexandra Kinias
While many women her age dream of their prince charming, wedding gowns and nurseries, Hadia Abdel Fattah dreams of safer streets and workplaces for women, gender equality, and women empowerment. At the age of twenty-nine, she is a face of women advocacy. Her life, time and efforts are dedicated to various women issues. On top of her priorities is the fight against sexual harassment. As a woman who encountered sexual harassment at a young age, like most Egyptian women, it became personal. But unlike many others who accepted in silence, Hadia fought back.
Hadia grew up in the conservative coastal city of Damietta. She wanted to study art, but Damietta has no art school and her parents forbade her to enroll in an out of town university, to pursue her dream. Her choices were to study either commerce or education, the only available faculties in her home town. She despised both, but studied commerce simply to get a university degree. In college, she couldn’t escape the religious groups, their influence or control over the students. And she surrendered to the societal shackles that made her feel, like most young women, inferior to men because of her gender. The 2011 revolution changed everything for Hadia.
As most Egyptians, Hadia found herself amidst a revolution. She joined in the marches and participated in the standoffs in Damietta. She acknowledges this experience as the factor that changed her life. Taking part and playing a role in this major event raised her curiosity to learn more about politics, human, women and children rights. The internet and social media made everything available for her to research and read. She couldn’t travel to Cairo to join the masses in Tahrir Square, her family’s travel ban was still enforced. She followed the news closely online, reading articles published and updated status on social media as the events were unfolding.
Reading about the anti-harassment squads that were protecting and rescuing women in Tahrir Square intrigued her. She wanted to learn more about them and to become a rescuer herself. From the material, videos and pamphlets available online, Hadia learned the basics of rescuing women who fall into a circle of harassers. In the second revolution of 2013 against the Muslim Brotherhood, she formed a team of volunteers who took position at the entrances of Bosta Square in Damietta, where the protesters gathered. The vigilant team observed the activities in the square and helped rescue women, who were participating in the protests, and pluck them away safely.
By 2014, Hadia was able to break her parents enforced travel ban. In Cairo, she joined “The Harassment Map”, which was still an initiative then. She trained to become an anti-harassment squad team leader. It was an eye-opening experience for her, as she was also introduced to different sexual harassment concepts other than what the society made women believe. She also learned about the sexual harassment laws in other countries.
Back in Damietta, Hadia tried to implement what she learned in her training. She called for a protest against sexual harassment in Damietta’s main square. No one showed up for the event, “It was just me, my sister and a couple of friends,” Hadia said in disappointment. “I was attacked by family members and friends for speaking up against sexual harassment, it’s not a subject that women should be talking about, they told me. But that didn’t deter me to continue what I started.” Together with her team, Hadia launched several awareness campaigns, all of which were attacked on the grounds that women should not be discussing sexual insinuations with other women.
Meanwhile she was fighting for women, she was also battling with her family who disapproved her work. She was in constant conflict with her mother who wanted her to abstain from talking about sexual harassment entirely. Hadia was shaming her family, both with her involvement in the anti-sexual harassment campaigns, and for traveling alone to Cairo. Her sister was her only supporter. And until today after every television appearance, Hadia is subjected to her mother’s and family’s endless criticism. Her mother doesn’t think that Hadia’s advocacy is relevant, not to mention that “it’s shameful for women to be discussing such issues.”
Hadia wants to proceed with her studies. However, to enroll in a master’s program requires a high score in the TOEFL exam, but English for Hadia is not a favorable subject. Her loathe for her fifth-grade English teacher resulted in her dislike to the language. She recalls how he molested the girls in class, “especially the pretty ones with fair skin. I hated going to school on the days we had English classes. In class, he pinched the girls, kissed and touched the bodies of the girls who answered correctly or scored high in the exams. He scared me, and the only way to avoid him was to fail, so I never really studied. When the class period ended, he stood by the door and kissed the girls on their way out. Until this day, it nauseates me to think of him.” Hadia said.
Hadia launched an initiative to empower hardworking women by featuring their stories and shedding light on the hardships they face to support their families. She also co-founded Eve in the Factory, a social initiative to fight sexual harassment in workplaces, specifically in garments, spinning and weaving factories where the rate of female employees is high, and thus the rates of harassment, by supervisors and colleagues, is also the highest in the workplaces.
She is also organizing workshop for anti-discrimination against girls in education, to help and support girls to enter colleges of their choice, a right she was deprived from. The workshops will also highlight the idea of gender discrimination and the right to choose. For while male students can travel to receive their education anywhere. Girls are denied such privilege and are restricted to study whatever is available within their own city limits. “I am aware that I am not going to end sexual harassment or gender discrimination, but I am confident that this small effort is a building block that will inspire more women to follow suit. We are all pieces in the same puzzle. All I wish for is to raise awareness and bring attention to these issues because I believe in our ability to change.”
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