From FGM to the power of media and education, Sara Ahmed chats with 'Enti Elahm' Initative founder Dr. Amr Hassan about combating abuse and getting men involved in women's plights through his latest campaign.
There are some mind-boggling things about Egyptian culture that continue to surprise me. Sure, we’ve come a long way in the last 50 years in terms of women’s rights, but have you ever heard your friend/aunt/neighbour reveal that they have been experiencing domestic abuse only for you to simply nod in sympathy and offer a few words of encouragement? Your classmate showed up one day with a big shiny black eye and you opted to stay silent and looked the other way? It’s not that you don’t care, really, it’s that the same old tape has been playing for years to the point where - as much as you hate yourself for it - you have acknowledged that this is simply the reality in Egypt.
Well, biased or not, I’m not the only one who opts to assert that this cannot continue; in the latest efforts to combat violence against women and domestic abuse, the ongoing initiative 'Enti Elahm' (You Are More Important), supported by the NGO Misr Foundation for Health and Sustainable Development (MFHSD), has launched a Say No campaign. The initiative itself aims to protect women’s rights by getting both women and men involved in promoting better health and quality of life for women. Dr. Amr Hassan, a Consultant of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Cairo University, is the brain behind the initiative.
The Say No campaign provides a focused and specific aim to combat all harmful practices to women in relationships, family settings, and in daily life, and is the latest in their series tackling several issues concerning women. Say No because a lot of people spot harassment and don’t react; Say No to rape; Say No if you someone locks you in the house purposefully; Say No to FGM.
In their quest to raise awareness, the initiative opted for a strong online presence for this campaign so it's accessible for individuals of levels of society. Dr. Hassan explains that on Facebook, for instance, reading the comments helps the initiative understand the Egyptian mentality of those who support FGM, as most who justify the practice do it through religion. Moreover, they’re currently trying to expand their campaign through older media – television and radio interviews – as well as new media strategies of Facebook and YouTube. Holding events at country clubs, at the Sawy Culture Wheel, or beyond –one of which was on Women’s Day at the pharaonic village to promote a campaign against anemia – their aim is to truly reach all Egyptians through media and raise awareness even to those who don’t need it.“What I noticed in previous women campaigns in this country is that the women only talk to women about women, and that’s not right. They don’t include men in the equation except to attack them, but we make it our goal to talk and get both involved,” explains Dr. Hassan with a lot of fervour.
“Let me give you an example of how the narrative goes: for example, Ahmed hits and harasses Mona, then we say Mona got harassed by Ahmed. This changes to Mona just got harassed. We take Ahmed out of the picture and the entire emphasis goes to Mona. From there on, people start saying, maybe Mona was wearing something provocative, maybe Mona was at the wrong place,” he continues, explaining that to fix all of these realities for women, men must indisputably be put back in the equation, not necessarily for blame but to improve conditions.
Other campaigns they’ve been working on have been on raising health awareness among children, promoting natural pregnancy, and getting older generations of Egyptians to keep a tab on their health through paying attention to numbers (testing blood, weight, pressure, etc). “We try to look for innovative tools,” explains Dr. Hassan about how they decide to carry out their campaigns. He tells me that, for the previous campaign, they launched the first medical comic for pregnant women in the Middle East, Super 7amel, but they also created playing cards about potential diseases. When asked how this current campaign is different from the previous ones, he responds that while the entire initiative is focused on promoting women’s rights, this campaign is clearly about rights rather than health.
Dr. Hassan strikes me as a deeply passionate man. I can't help but think that, if there was such a thing as Egyptian male feminism, he would surely be an inspiration. As our conversation continues, Dr. Hassan asserts that he really does believe that education and media can turn these realities around. “If you want change to happen, it has to be done properly; it has to be that a child in primary school opens a book and sees FGM being wrong explicitly stated,’’ he says, believing wholeheartedly in the power of education. Naturally, he believes that religion is also needed to help in reinforcing policies but that "any problem you want to change, you do it through education.”
Inspired by the HeForShe campaign, as well as being highly affected by the early deaths of young mothers, birth complications of teenage mothers, and overall ignorance, he decided to raise awareness about women’s issues in Egypt by creating the Enti Elahm initiative more than two years ago. “I always noticed what poverty and ignorance engender,” he says, narrating the cases of teenage pregnancies that resulted in death due to pregnancy poisoning, as well as women in their forties who discovered they had diabetes, all because none had been educated about the importance of getting checked up. Dr. Hassan explains that the problems for Egyptian women tend to be flagrant because of economic depravity tends to affect them most and because they’re not encouraged to take care of themselves.
The initiative celebrates every little slice of success, even if that means only reaching more people, because in a country where society is resistant to mentality change like Egypt, convincing people of one’s groundbreaking ideas can often be controversial. Dr. Hassan knows that change is hard, but he is not afraid of facing criticism and engages others in discussions to clear away misconceptions. For instance, when individuals reason that FGM is Islamic, he calmly rebuffs that if that were the case, then that would have been the reality in Saudi Arabia, not the fact that there aren’t cases like in Africa. This leads him to once again repeat that education is key, especially when it comes to religion.
“The sheikhs that you see on TV preaching against FGM, those aren’t the local ones in mosques who deal with people and villagers. The ones you do see on the ground are often not properly educated, they’ve just watched religious tapes from the 60s and memorised them,” says Dr. Hassan.
He reveals that during the period where the Muslim Brotherhood were in charge, the practice of FGM increased, and since the 2011 revolution, awareness campaigns decreased. The latter was caused by the fact that important topics weren’t being tackled on private media channels due to the idea that they wouldn’t generate profit and that it was useless to promote them on national TV. Moreover, private shows tend to trivialise important issues like early marriage, FGM, violence, and harassment by not properly addressing them – opting instead to feature social influencers and chefs in the aim of finding a money-generating angle. “TV is bewitching, the poorest inhabitants in the poorest villages watch television,” he says, reiterating that media can ensure that a message can reach every home.
In the future, the initiative is seeking to reach a younger, more energetic audience. Dr. Hassan has hopes that, as of next year, Enti Elahm can spread to universities in the forms of clubs to help them plant their ideals in the upcoming younger generation.
Thinking about it, I’m a big endorser of UNWomen and all those big international organisations that seek to enhance the realities of women in underprivileged countries, but seeing an initiative and campaign like Enti Elahm restores all of my faith that we can tackle these realities ourselves; after all, we’re the ones living them.
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All images and videos were provided by Enti Elahm.