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The dirty word

By Nesreen Salem On behalf of the Egyptian Women’s Union, I flew to Sweden to give a speech about Egyptian women’s plight in Egypt after the “spring”. I was a keynote speaker on a panel in the very heart of Swedish parliament. My audience included representatives from every political party in Sweden as well as …

Nesreen Salem
Nesreen Salem

By Nesreen Salem

On behalf of the Egyptian Women’s Union, I flew to Sweden to give a speech about Egyptian women’s plight in Egypt after the “spring”. I was a keynote speaker on a panel in the very heart of Swedish parliament. My audience included representatives from every political party in Sweden as well as a number of representatives from women’s movements from Libya and Yemen. But that pleasant experience was later overshadowed by my encounters with a few (very few) Egyptian and Arab women who were seriously questioning me: what else do you women want?

“Else” was clearly implying that we have reached a point in society where we are practising our full human rights; social and political. It also clearly implies that we are happy and satisfied with how we are treated everyday, inside our homes and on streets. These reports on sexual harassment and gang rapes during protests were clearly a figment of our imagination, or worse, media propaganda.

“When a boy harasses me, I hit him with my shoe!” was one lady’s answer on how to tackle sexual harassment on the street. Also, apparently we have one female lieutenant sitting in a police station somewhere. This, I must admit is news to me. Clearly I am not doing my research properly.

I was taken aback when she told me this and wish I was not so easily surprised. I should have said to her: why don’t you save your shoe, and demand criminalising harassment? Why does it have to fall upon your shoulders (and shoes) to protect yourself? What’s the point of a legal system?

As for the appointment of the female lieutenant; hallelujah! Our job here is done! This is what the feminist movement in Egypt has aimed for all these years, equality with men, and at last we have achieved our goal. We may now go home and do the dishes.

For me, these conversations were an important reminder that there is much to be done. Not just within the constitution writing process, or the upcoming parliamentary elections, but with every woman. I was reminded that more often than not, the real battles feminists face are those with other women. Those who fear the F word and regard it as a dirty word. We feminists are very dangerous people: we want to undress women; we want to make them rebel against their fathers and husbands and brothers; we want them to sell their souls to the devil. That’s how we make our commission. Our intentions are always scrutinised. We are either too westernised and talk from an orientalist perspective, or we are non-religious and want everyone to be infidels, or we have some secret agenda tied to a secret organisation attached to an enemy country that seeks to colonise us and steal our goods. Admittedly, conspiracy theories are the most amusing part of our role. Ironically, if a man stood up and repeated my exact words, then he must be right. Then what are we feminists doing so wrong? I am still unsure.


It is bad enough being brushed away by men when I try to engage a discussion about what’s wrong and what’s right for the simple fact that I am a woman. If I had a penny for every time I was told to shut up because I am missing part of my brain, or because I’m an emotional being, or because I’m naturally inferior to men, I’d have enough money to pay for a brain implant, or even better, a penis. Perhaps that is also how these women see me: powerless because I do not have a male organ.

The UN defines the empowerment of women as follows: “[It] is the process by which women take control over their lives, acquiring the ability to make strategic choices. Women’s empowerment has five components: women’s sense of self-worth; their right to have and to determine choices; their right to have access to opportunities and resources; their right to have power to control their own lives, both within and outside the home; and their ability to influence the direction of social change to create a more just social and economic order, nationally and internationally. Empowerment of women and girls is an important strategy to eradicate poverty. (Based on Agreed conclusions on eradicating poverty, including through the empowerment of women throughout their life cycle, in a globalising world, CSW 2002).”

As far as I can see, there is nothing in that definition that is a threat to men or to women. By that definition, the empowerment of women means that you have the right to walk down the street feeling safe and secure that no one will ever as much as look at you differently just because you are a woman, and as a result, no one will be tempted to harass you. Therefore, you give your shoe a break and use it for what it was made for: walking. It also means that a single occasion of employing a woman in a high and powerful position is not the exception, but the norm that every woman has the right to. To be empowered does not mean that you will rebel against family and society but to cultivate your inner natural strength and to free yourself from the sense of guilt and self-sabotage that is the byproduct of oppression and limitation of roles. At the end, what you decide to do with your power is entirely up to you.

It was amusing to find women who are so opposed to their own empowerment and prefer to take ‘rules’ with them wherever they go and wish to deny women in their home countries the freedoms they take for granted abroad. Bell Hooks says it best: “If any female feels she needs anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining her agency.”


Nesreen Salem is a doctoral student at university of Essex, the Egyptian Women’s Union representative in UK and an Education & Creative Writing Specialist.

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