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Criminalizing feminist solidarity: A firsthand account from Egypt

Rasha Azab is an Egyptian writer and journalist, currently on hunger strike demanding the release of journalist Alaa Abdel Fatah and all imprisoned journalists in Egypt. This is a translation of an opinion piece she wrote in Megaphone, following her conviction for defamation for speaking out against an Egyptian filmmaker credibly accused of multiple instances of rape and assault.  

The hall was of medium size, and the podium was small, crowded with men from every angle. The esteemed judiciary panel comprised four judges, two prosecutors, four assistants, the custodian of the court, the messengers, and the secretariat of the judges. And me, a woman standing alone who would be tried before them for insulting the man standing next to us, who has six testimonies of harassment and rape against him.

A woman with frizzy hair dressed in bright green. A woman who does not meet the specifications of the “ideal victim” required to gain the sympathy of the bench in our country.

The judge was annoyed by my attorneys standing behind me (comprising four female lawyers), so he asked them all to sit, except for the one who would speak before him. The judge spoke to me directly, trying to ignore the only lawyer left next to me. He interrupted the lawyer’s requests with his eyes aimed directly at me and wanted to talk to me from outside the interrogation and before the start of the session and the pleadings and testimony of the witnesses’, who the judge refused attendance in the court. He said: “I want to tell you something: If people did something bad, should we insult them?”

Punishing the truth

The scene brought me back to the day when the entire middle school administration met in the morning lineup to announce my suspension for a week, saying in what looked like a verdict: 

The school administration issued a decision unanimously against the student (…) for insulting one of the teachers.

That same teacher stood proudly holding his stick and waving it to the queue. We all knew he was a harasser and a violent teacher!

Some of the school girls got angry, but not everyone stood up to it. Some students insisted on embracing me and greeting me before I left the school gate, while the rest went up to the classrooms in a system that triumphs through discipline. The discipline of harassers and rapists.

After the queue ended, several friends snuck out. We had a break that I’ll never forget. The week of suspension turned into a week of fun and riots. We went out of the fence onto the streets for the first time.

That snapshot comes back to me while I’m at the end of my fourth decade. The state wanted to re-educate me again, and not just the state, but the society of the leftists, artists, and even some friends. Because I dared to expose one of their men, a rare moment in which the interests of the state and its opposition met, only over our bodies.

The entity of rapist filmmaker identified with the entity of the state. As if he sloughed off and became a piece of the podium, all of them at the heart of one man. Because they preferred discipline to the truth and because shaming is more severe than rape!

"The Womanizer"

The stories of director Islam Al-Azzazi exploded in the feminist space months before they were published on the Internet. Stories about his exploitation of young women artists through his professional position as a director, trainer, and godfather for some promising artists. He belongs to the “Alexandria Group” of the nineties generation. He holds a strong position thanks to his rooted relations with comrades in the open-minded and progressive cultural and political spheres that provide a model for independent art.

This was the space in which the creative director’s abilities thrived, and even before he had a near-complete project, he received the blessing of his peers, the support of his female friends to produce his films, and he received grants to complete his first film in ten years. He lived on little money, as he had previously said – but through these peanuts, he could hire three lawyers for his case against me, besides a new case he filed against his dear friend Salma Al Tarazi!

Islam was a close friend of a best friend, and the circumstances of our mutual friend’s illness brought us together. After a while, we got the impression that he was an uncomfortable person; This is something that every woman understands when she puts her hand in the palm of a man and then looks into his eyes. The matter doesn’t provide a shred of physical evidence that is valid in the courts.

The first testimonies from women against him appeared to be narrow. They revolved around manipulation during casting rehearsals and preparation for the film; at least during the last five years of its production, the director received dozens of girls and women to play female roles in his movie “Anha” (About Her).

He suggested roles to everyone around us, and foolishly, we offered this opportunity to our actress friends. When we learned about the first testimonies, we imagined the size of the women who went through this experience. We knew nothing more than that he was a clingy harasser, turning every normal conversation into a sexual one in seconds and taking the woman into a siege and chase zone.

We went to ask mutual friends about him, and the responses ranged from “he is a womanizer” to “Hakak,” an eloquent slang word describing sticky male pursuits. But it never crossed my mind that these phrases would take us further.

Finally, our collective feeling of discomfort spread, and the matter remained known within some limited women’s circles until the 42nd Cairo International Film Festival approached. 

I received information, as well as others, that there was a victim of Islam Al-Azzazi. This victim wanted to publish her testimony some time ago but she had not yet been able to endure it. Then came the publicity for his movie “About Her”, which the director likes to classify as a feminist film.

The victim saw that letting him be baptized as a feminist director was the biggest new crime added to the series of social collusions allowing this phenomenon to continue.

The victim published her testimony on the night the film was screened at the Cairo Film Festival, and when I started reading it, it devastated me like others. I did not expect all these terrifying consecutive violations. The limitless viciousness was beyond my imagination.

The first testimony was a clear rape. Within hours, the second testimony appeared, which did not diminish in severity, then the testimonies of many other women followed.

I felt widespread treachery, displaying the years of this man’s life who traveled through many circles of friends. I felt betrayed by the wide friendship circle that undoubtedly saw these practices for years and remained silent. The serious matter extended through generations and reached our generation and the younger generation. I immediately remembered their words “Bataa Niswan” (womanizer) and realized it was an inherited euphemism lined with tolerance and forgiveness for what is considered a lapse that falls short of a crime.

But we also realized that they are deceitful words, what our open or conservative society believes to be “Bataa Niswan” (womanizer) in a way that turns out to be criminal. In stalking, hunting, rape, exploitation of power, and the social influence gained for being a creative man who positions himself as a leftist!

Justice for informants and thieves: The death of the citizen

When you discover a harasser and a criminal in your close circle, what are you going to do?

We had this experience, and these are some facts.

The published testimonies shook all circles. Many hid in their holes until the storm passed, and few engaged in the moment. A conflict erupted between calls to cancel the film’s screening or to allow it to be screened without the director’s attendance. The opinions tended to the latter, and I was among them, as I am against banning films at all. Also, the film was the product of many makers, and it deserved to be screened.

The film’s producer and editor, Mrs. Dina Farouk, considered all testimonies as nothing but a conspiracy against her film, which had already been rejected at most festivals around the world and was even rejected at the Cairo Film Festival before the testimonies were published. Still, it was revoked after pressure from the filmmakers. The producer united with her director, insisted on his presence, and even took a group photo with the team, documenting the moment the filmmakers forced female colleagues into a photo-op with the director whose rape testimonies were on the horizon.

Farouk refused all advice about saving her film in isolation from the director’s crimes, and this was the first irony. A woman standing against publishing women’s violations and even insisting on supporting her old friend without taking a moment to think about the nature of the accusations. Without feeling for a moment that her work with him may have facilitated the rapes and the harassment that he practiced during the years of preparation for the movie. He carried out all preparations in the attic of his own house, despite the production company owning an entire building in the Mohandessin area that could be used for these rehearsals. But she certainly knows more than us.

"Cairo Film Festival affirms its respect for women, and rejects all forms of violence against them, including harassment."

Statement from the Cairo Film Festival on Facebook

But, the women spoke out and the solidarity with them remained burning for days on the Internet after the film was screened on schedule at the festival. I was among those who shared the testimonies of the survivors, and I felt a special responsibility because of knowing him, even if it was briefly, and for being someone who helped him to find actresses for female roles. I tried to state my position clearly and demanded the mutual circle to do the same, in order to facilitate an embargo of the harm caused by Al-Azzazi, and the harm caused by the confidence given to him by all of us, which is part of the dilemma, but the shocks do not come alone.

Whoever imagines that we fought this battle on the Internet only and it did not affect our real network of relationships is delusional. We lost companionship, friends and lives, and every confrontation has its costs.

The cultural center defends its usurped director

After that, when the crimes were exposed in public, your elite came to protect you, O Islam, and establish the legitimacy of your practice. Because we discovered at this moment that some of these practices were implicitly agreed upon in circles that define themselves as “progressive and libertarian.”

That the director tries to have sex with most of the young women he passes by during the casting operations; that he is entitled to all the bodies of women who he encountered because he is a filmmaker.

That six survivors published testimonies, besides those that have not yet come to light, and that the whole community knows about these testimonies, are all treated like a legacy of Islam Al-Azzazi among the peers of the Film Institute and then the alternative stream of the industry. And that they used them like an appetizer for telling at all tables that as “a Hakak  man (Clingy, or sleazy  man) what do we do with him?”

And when the testimonies are actually published, and a clear pattern is repeated within them, a pattern that explains the performance of the hunter who is always searching for prey, some intellectuals of this time dissemble.

The favorite director of most of our generation, the great Daoud Abdel Sayed, declares: “Without investigation and without defense, they charged him and executed him,” criticizing the name and shame campaign, rejecting what is said, without reading, without the realization of the mind of the philosopher for which he is famous as a cinematic thinker, ignoring the recurring accusations, in search of law enforcement in this case. The cinema thinker searches for the informant’s law that he fought against in all his inspiring work, and justifies the laws of the thief, to declare the citizen without rights.

He searches for the justice of “Sayed Marzouk” presented by the Egyptian court arenas at this moment of greatness, looking for a rational explanation: How did these testimonies emerge from the land of fear?

He found no reason other than a plot against the creativity of his good student, Islam. Intellectuals seek warmth in the state’s bosom, which is safe from women’s determination when they speak out and shout. And they resist women with the source of their male creative power that derives primarily from a social system that they claim to fight!

One of our great writers Karima Kamal published an article in Al-Masry Al-Youm entitled “The Assassination”, in which she discusses ideas such as “how does a girl visit a man’s house alone, and drink, and get drunk and then complain of rape?!”

She claims:

“Especially since these testimonies are included in the blog, it is stated in one of them that she said “OK” to his request to kiss her. Another woman sat with him drinking alcohol and did drugs until she lost consciousness and was surprised when she woke up to find that he had sex with her. Doesn’t a session of this nature necessarily mean consent?”

Karina Kamal in Al-Masry Al-Youm

Was this your life?

Is this your concept of consent in relationships? You used to spend evenings and nights out to discuss art, literature, and deep philosophy, and at the end of the night, every woman left with her man. As for the single woman, did the stray dogs of the cultural society have the right to harass her – and rape her if possible – because she did not enter your evenings hand-in-hand with a man?

Some female filmmakers stood still watching the farcical chapters during the trial, and some of them have horror stories about the director. An Egyptian female critic asks: What do you want him to do if she didn’t file a case [against him]?

A threat to the creative process

The director’s lawyer presents a portfolio containing an article by the critic Tarek El-Shennawy, in which he talks about a hazy atmosphere to block a movie that could be important – but why wasn’t the movie important before the accusations were published?

Al-Shennawi tries to monitor an incomprehensible atmosphere to him, because women’s issues are not important enough to reconsider a movie that was filmed and produced under conditions that are closer to a continuous process of harassment! Indeed, it is a context that does not pertain to the creative process that the father of film philosophers had supervised.

The Egyptian cultural community feels, in these women’s revelations, a great danger to freedom of creativity. Therefore, after the film came out of the Cairo Film Festival empty-handed without awards and honors, they all pushed for the film to get its chance at the National Film Festival, even after months of the testimonies spreading.

Perhaps the awards were well deserved, but the insistence on the director’s appearance next to the veteran filmmakers, assures us that there is a conscious will that this man represents them all. Rest assured, Egyptian intellectuals and artists:

Islam Al-Azzazi has stood speaking in your name to the judges, complaining about my affiliation and my friends’ with a global movement that believes survivors without evidence. He instigated the fair judges against women who have nothing but words and he demands that they cover up his personal life and what he has done all these years.

The judge declared to those who were present: “I decided to your presence in order to take the verdict in your presence and because you would not have an appellate objection,” so that I would not have an opportunity to appeal the ruling!

They were given every advantage. Congratulations on winning a legal battle against women speaking up in Egypt in 2022.

"Speak of Courage"

This tongue and the attempts to tame and siege it were the target of silencing all the time: from the first sentence of your tongue disavowing you, to your tongue getting you in trouble.

I did not know why insults are poured off men’s tongues like ointment, and sometimes as a way to be proud and show off. But when women do that, this is then this is a cause for wonder, and degrading.

You are shaming women and calling them vulgar and sharp-tongued women. Like me, now! You fear our femininity by protecting your masculinity and by prosecuting those who threaten it.

The lawyers informed me that I must attend the hearing, and asked me to remain silent in order to protect myself and the case because of the sensitive details involved

I had a real desire to speak frankly to the court, to release my tongue, and to confront what is called the right of society and the law, because we are condemned anyway.  But the lawyers confronted me with the important role this case could play in feminist solidarity, and that minimizing loss is important for those who are chased by the justice of the rapists after me.

I obeyed the desire of the defense team, friends, and solidarity to silence, and yet I was also punished.

Though my tongue was silent—except one time, the rest of the words and what I wanted to say, my body might say. Just my presence in my current form inside the court. It was hard to ignore all the glaring eyes that were lurking from the moment I entered the room until the end of the day. I was an imperfect accused, the judging panel clearly resented and the judge even said to me provacatively: “You look brave, why don’t you speak?”

I swallowed my whole voice and locked it in my throat. I almost suffocated a little, and the defense plan almost collapsed as the entire play collapsed, until my friend and lawyer Ahmed Ragheb, said: “the courage was when they published the victims’ testimonies and took responsibility until now.” I returned to silence, obliged but not despairing at what my mere presence here leads to.

What every rapist needs

Did I need to reduce my size and disguise in another self? Before entering and standing in front of the judges, it was clear that it was not enough for me to swallow my voice, for my image imprinted on their muffled questions and the smoke of disapproval of the situation before them, it was clear conviction was coming. 

The condemnation of the sharp-tongued woman who does not find a man to control her, to the point of reaching the court, accused of insulting a progressive intellectual, who has had testimonies of rape, harassment and serial stalking published against him.

He is skilled at using the tricks of market lawyers and buys three of them for revenge, because he has someone to spend money on to clean his reputation and he has institutions that protect family values. ​​He has an Egyptian legal structure that facilitates the punishment of victims and their sympathizers.

He also has a cultural milieu that allows his crimes in silence. And when the women speak up, lawyers come out describing him as an Egyptian human rights defender. A human rights defender who claims that talking about sexual harassment at work will reduce the opportunities for female journalists and working women. He threatens us with unjust laws and threatens punishment if the red shoe continues to be raised in the face of the falsehood of this society. 

What every rapist needs is available here in abundance.

The voice of my lawyer, Aziza Al-Taweel, came as reassuring, because there was a woman’s voice before the judging panel, and the shadow of lawyer Mahienour Al-Masry came walking behind me wherever I moved in the hall, calming my anger for not committing foolishness.

My other lawyer, Azza Suleiman, tried to absorb some of the anger directed at me. I had to sit next to the man who is haunted by all the nightmares of raped and abused women, without doing anything. But I felt for the first time that the mere presence of one does things sometimes.

They were all afraid of my usual individuality of expressing myself. What they call foolishness sometimes and heroism at other times. I didn’t care. I realized that what came out of me, without trying to discipline it, was a defense mechanism for my body that is trapped within this society, this climate, and this trial.

They tie the bait close to the trap; they sit and watch the moment of seduction, the moment of provocation when I step up and speak, but I am silent upon the collective desire, and I am also punished. I became a cursed woman with a court judgment and the seal of the eagle [official seal of Egypt].

From outside the courtroom during the session, the women's group in solidarity with Rasha Azab.

There was no bet to achieve gains in this legal battle, yet we were not defeated in it. We were building ourselves anew, within a larger battle: our position to support the survivors, their anonymity, and the entire feminist cause, and the engagement when the solidarity activists themselves turn into the accused.

As easily and comfortably presented, Islam Al-Azzazi reports that reach the prosecution without investigation, and then reach the court with weak documents and an almost damaged technical report, closer to the investigations of the police. Here we received a fine of 10,000 pounds, as the first official act against solidarity with women.

Although we presented extensive testimonies of solidarity confirming that the dispute with Islam was not personal as he portrayed in his communication and his repeated cheap lies in the case papers, the case was actually referred to the court. At that time, we made a quick comparison between the rate of referral of women’s complaints compared to those of men’s reports of defamation. The law does not take us seriously.

My childhood friend’s ex-husband occupied her parents’ house and threatened them with naked pictures of their daughter for two years in the police’s protection and social order. He added threats of burning their house down the moment he leaves it, and threatened his ex-wife with her reputation and life. When the family last went to the Al Haram prosecutor’s office, the family said: Are you waiting for a calamity to take action in these reports of extortion? The agent replied: These are marital disputes, and so?

I put all of this in one unambiguous context: all our issues as women move along the same line, the line that sits on our chests, the line that we must raise, erase and remove in the best of our endeavors. The law oppresses weak groups in society, oppresses women twice, facilitates their condemnation, and organically plots to save a man, who may not have relations with influential figures, but has the support of every man in his position. 

This system brings us to a defining moment, the moment Egyptian women and girls are killed in the streets, slaughtered, convicted. Their coffins bearing tragedy and suspicion, accusations pursue them even while they are in their graves, and the killer turns into a hero for whom they collect the ransom.

As the intellectuals gather solidarity for their representative, when they turn the intellectual into a beggar to the laws of the reactionary state, united with a regime that he declared he is fighting in the mornings and in the gatherings of friends. But he embraced it in the evenings in order to get a ruling condemning insults in order to clear himself of the accusations of rape.

The battles of artists and progressives of this era are impressive and pivotal under the rule of dictatorship!

Finally, the judge’s secretary announced the guilty verdict. A verdict devoid of any legal material or evidence. The ruling was based on the consensus of the esteemed panel: three evaluating judges who overturned the acquittal issued by the primary court, which was based on legal certainty as stated in the grounds for innocence, as it stipulated that the case papers were devoid of any reliable and certain evidence that the court is assured of convicting the accused.

They overturned the acquittal, so the new guilty verdict was based only on the “certainty of the three judges” that I was guilty!

Some of my friends, also friends with men, were afraid and moved away from the story. I see you dismounting fear for your personal fate, and you are right because you know what you did to the women of this country.

This case has only ended in the courts, but we have other rounds that will document the women of this country who showed  impressive strength amidst the clouds of persistent fear. You were my voice, and this article is dedicated to you!

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