Saturday July 21, 2018 By: May Allam
After stirring up controversy in the Egyptian society for being the first young women to file a paternity suit in 2005, Hind Elhinnawy shied away from the public life to raise her daughter. Leena Alfishawy, daughter of Elhinnawy and actor Ahmed Alfishawy was born out of an Urfi marriage, which Alfishawy denied after Elhinnawy got pregnant. Instead of having an abortion, the young mother-to-be defied the social norms of women in her situation and fought for her daughter’s right to live. In an unprecedented step, she publicly took Alfishawy to court, but he refused a court ruling to undergo a DNA test to prove his paternity.
Elhinnawy and her parents, who are her biggest supporters, didn’t rest until the judge ruled in her favor and Leena was granted her father’s name, two years after she was born. In November 2008, shortly before Leena’s fourth birthday, Alfishawy publicly admitted that he is in fact her father. Elhinnawy’s case and her subsequent efforts to change the laws drove the Egyptian court to include DNA tests to paternity investigations.
Elhinnawy was a costume designer when she met Alfishawy on a movie set. After her dilemma, she shifted careers to become a women rights advocate. She is studying in the UK for her PhD in Gender Studies. Elhinnawy is back again in the news after she filed another four cases against Alfishawy for refusing to pay child support for their 14-year-old daughter.
Hind Elhinnawy opened her heart to Women of Egypt. Here is what she had to say about her life, work, daughter and future plans.
WOE: Hind, having the enriching past you had these past few years in Egypt, why did you leave Egypt? Why did you not pursue your further studies here?
HH: My public battle is now 13 years old, but for me, it is a whole life that separated me from whatever happened before. What I endured in these years may not be imagined or comprehended by many, simply because I focused on working to change the law rather than publicizing the personal. Being reminded of the ‘disgrace’ I committed every time I meet new people, having extreme difficulty working because of the ‘shame’ people felt hiring me, having to work as a mother/therapist to undo what my daughter faces in school; are some of the examples of what I endured in 13 years. I had to go, I needed to take care of my daughter away from all the drama, especially that she was approaching her teenage years. I would have loved to pursue my PhD in Egypt since 2011 when I finished my masters; but the American University in Cairo didn’t offer a PhD in Gender Studies; and Leena was still young and just started to have a relationship with her father, and was difficult to take this away from both of them. I had to shelve my dreams for the sake of my girl.
WOE: How did you find the cultural gap in ideology regarding the role of women in the society between Egypt and the UK?
HH: I travelled to the UK many times since I was a young child. I also travelled to Europe many times. The cultural gap was not shocking for me at all. It felt normal; being respected as a woman, not being harassed in the streets, not being looked upon as a weaker, less smart human being, felt right. What I felt, however, was how I tolerated and lived with the sexism and bigotry in the Middle East; let alone what I bared on top of that because of my ‘shameful’ deed. Of course, patriarchy still exists, but the level of it in the West cannot be compared by any means with what we experience in the Middle East. So, whenever I feel angry thinking of the gender pay gap, for example, I remember the extents of gender discrimination in the Middle East, and hope that one day, we would, at least, reach this level.
WOE: You contributed to altering laws and rules in Egyptian courts regarding the situation of women who are alienated in the society, how do you intend to further widen your contributions after you finish your PHD abroad?
HH: Frankly, I am not sure at all of my plan after I finish my PhD. Where we go next will mainly depend on where Leena will do her university, and on myself finding a job. I am a student at the moment. With the anti-immigration, anti-terror laws, it is becoming harder for Middle-Eastern/Muslims to settle in the West. So the journey to find a job and settle will not be a stress-free quest. In the meantime, in Egypt, the problem I am seeing is not law as much as it is people’s mentality. Saudi Arabia has dramatically developed its laws, but do you think there will be real change on the social level? The way men look at women is a problem and needs more than just law reform. Being away is breaking my heart because it is not easy to make a change from afar. Currently, I am writing, hoping that people read my work and, maybe, offer to collaborate in building ‘something’ that can bring about change.
WOE: Has your daughter understood the role you played not only in her life but in the life of thousands of women in Egypt? How has that affected her perspective of life?
HH: Leena is more mature at 13 than I was at the same age. I do believe that what she experienced through her very short life on this earth has taught her a lot. Some others might have become damaged, but Leena chose to see the positives in her experiences. At the moment, she is preparing to start her own blog where she intends to share her side of the story. This took her a few years of thought. What she told me is that she realized that the best way to heal her wounds is to immerse in them. Apart from this, yes she is aware of my battle, or to be precise ‘our battle’, and she is very proud of what we’ve reached despite the hardships we still face.
WOE: What ideologies do you wish to instill in your daughter and how do you want to raise her, taking into account she has a very courageous and outspoken mother?
HH: My relationship with Leena is more of a friendship, of course with a lot of motherly/ daughterly love. I am very conscious not to own or direct her path. She is who she is, and I will help her pursue her own dreams not mine. I do believe that being in her life has made her a young strong feminist, even more determined and sharp than myself. However, it is not my intention to direct her path or her ideologies. Leena’s outspokenness comes through performing arts, unlike mine that comes from public speaking or writing. Her ideas are not always like mine; I can say she is more progressive, and at times, she sees me traditional. For example, talking about dating I’d say “yea we wait for guys to ask us out”, she would say “why? Is it because you’re a woman! Or because you can’t handle rejection!” I love her, she’s amazing and I grew stronger and wiser because of her.
WOE: Your focus on women empowerment and gender discrimination in your public speeches on TV have touched the lives of many people, especially since you were very transparent in your tragedy and faced it with extreme bravery. What is your advice to other women who do not have your courage and capability to deal with such situations?
HH: The problem I see with women is how they perceive themselves more than how they are actually perceived. Many women do perceive themselves as less than men, and that is what makes them silent about what they face and how they are treated by men and society. It is only when women become aware of their rights as completely and utterly equal human beings regardless of what traditions dictate, is when a change would take place. I would speak out and continue doing so, even if I continue to face backlash. Women need to acknowledge to themselves and to the world that they have rights, not just legal rights, but social rights, professional rights, economic rights, personal and sexual rights. Women need to stop ignoring their needs just to gain men’s and society’s approval.
WOE: Your story is once again in the newspapers, reminding the general public of the distress you once went through and are going through again. How do you intend to deal with this issue once again?
HH: Now, I am even more prepared to battle, and speak out. Now, I am all set to deal with the ‘personal as political’. Leena is a young wise girl who would surely support me in whatever new quest I would decide to pursue. I was silent at times because I had to take care of her. A few years from now, she will be in university, and I will pursue what I started 13 years ago, with even more strength and resilience.
WOE: How is you daughter being affected today, with the recurrence of problems and media circulating about it, especially that she is old enough to read and understand everything?
HH: I would not say that is always easy, neither on her nor on me. It breaks my heart to have to see her having to endure hardships she had no part in. It was not her decision to even exist in this world. She is a girl like any girl who would have loved to have a loving and caring father. I am sure she misses this in her life. I would not say this has not psychologically affected her, it did, but nobody lives a completely perfect life. Again, I believe Leena is making the best out of her experiences, ready to take whatever she would have to take to become a better stronger person.
WOE: Do you intend to bring her back to Egypt or pursue her life and career in the UK, away from external social pressures in Egypt?
HH: My hope is not to do so, at least until she finishes her university and decides for herself, but as I said earlier, it is not just our choice here, but it all depends on circumstances outside of our hands.
WOE: How are your parents coping again with the media circulation of this issue?
HH: My parents and brother are the best thing that ever happened to me. Without their support, I would have not been able to accomplish half of what I accomplished. My parents are always courageously and willingly facing the media. My brother is dealing with the court cases I have in Egypt. He would not even tell me about the progress in order not to stress me. The time he would say something is when we have real good news. My family is not just supporting me in legal and financial issues; they are always ensuring I am in good psychological state that allows me to take care of my daughter and my PhD. They would do whatever it takes to ensure that.
WOE: How do you see your future, once you have finished your PHD?
HH: Of course, how I see my future is different than what would actually happen, because as I said, it is not all in my hands. If it was in my hands, I would travel the world, the developing world, and spend two years in each destination; teach and interview women in hardship where by the end of the two years I publish a book about women. It is a big dream and it might seem it does not include much activism. For me, exposing women’s voices and what they really want is much an activism as social work, or legal fight. The literary world has not heard as much women voices as men, and people like myself need to fill this gap, because simply, they relate.
Photos credit: Hind Elhinnawy
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