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The Day You Catch the Fish: speaking out on domestic abuse

Violence is manifested in so many ways, yet it is always the violence that comes within the domestic space that leaves many women silenced, especially when the violence leaves no physical scars.

"The Day I Ate the Fish is very personal," says Aida El Kashef, Egyptian filmmaker.

Aida was born in Cairo, in 1988, like me. Almost a month ago, she launched a crowd funding campaign on Indegogo.com  to fund her first long film: a documentary on Egyptian women behind bars for killing their husbands.

Aida El Kashef, Egyptian filmmaker. Photo: filmmaker's own

During the past year, and happening too close to home as they say, the interference in arts and culture spaces in Cairo and other Egyptian cities has been causing alarm, and at times stirring fear of what accusations the state could lay your way as you receive foreign funding for a film or an exhibition. Crowd funding became the alternative. People are supporting initiatives of this sort because it is one of the few things you can do under the circumstances we are living in during these times where taking precautions is a must. You could be so easily one of the thousands imprisoned with no just trials in the past two years.

You don’t need to know the people to support an artistic project or to be personally affected by the outcome of it. Yet something about El Kashef's film was personal. Perhaps it was too personal, more personal than I would want it to be.

I haven't killed anyone….yet.  We've all said that someday jokingly.  And yet, not many people have actually held a knife up to someone, or kept a pair of kitchen scissors close to the bed, just in case. As I watched the first video that was posted for the campaign of The Day I Ate the Fish I realized that I related to the back-stories of these women and to that sensation of anger: that rage of wanting to kill someone for hurting you, the rage that makes you wish that this person would die.  

For years I've lived with this feeling towards my father. As I write this, I am ashamed. I do not even fully comprehend what I am ashamed of: the fact that he is hateful or that I hate him. For almost two decades now, I've lived in a terrible fear of him, a fear that lived despite accomplishments, successes, love, and the joy of feeling yourself closer to who you really are. This fear lurked deep inside me, like a fish festering in rotten waters, feeding on insecurities and moving in the dark, when you are alone, to make itself visible and present and always there.

'H'. Photo: Facebook, courtesy of the film director 

As the crowd funding campaign moved on, releasing videos, photographs and posts on Facebook about the film, the cast, the crew and the women behind bars, I felt more personally about it to an extent of wanting to shut it all out. There is something in each and every woman that is hauntingly familiar, that reminds me of myself, and yet they are so unique in their own experiences, that we can't really even begin to find similarities. H, one of the characters in the film, who refused to show her whole face all along the filming days, insisted on acting scenes out. I imagined if I would do the same if I was in her place.

You love living in this drama, dont you? That's what she said, not waiting for an answer. She has already decided that I am being dramatic. 

You think you're on the stage? You think you're doing one of your plays? He said that in the most malicious way possible. It was 2010, and that was the last time he actually managed to hurt me physically. I had opened the door to the apartment and screamed for the neighbors to come and help us. He pulled me away from the door violently, slapped me across my face twice and dragged me from my hair, pulling quite a lot of my hair out. My scalp was swollen for a week. After that he tried, but I had learned to hit back. He is, I think, scared of doing that again.  

Maybe H acts out the scenes from her story because she never got to stand on a stage. Maybe that is her way of pulling herself out of all that had happened. Eventually I know that I cannot lock myself with H in an equation of affinity because we are all so specific.

These women Aida films, they've all killed their husbands. Why? That is what she's trying to get to, to look beyond their crimes to understand why women would kill so close to home. To kill so close to home, you must be pushed beyond your limits, beyond your capacity as a human by someone within this home.

Still from 'The Day I Ate The Fish'. Photo: courtesy of the film director.

I don’t know statistics on domestic violence in Egypt or the whole world, nor do I have any specific numbers of casualties and victims. A very large percentage of women all over the world are killed by someone close to home. Depending on how a specific society thinks of the word "abuse" and "violence" and "aggression", these rates and numbers will vary. Depending on the economic, social, racial, and educational factors that govern households and communities, these numbers will rise and fall. Some of the abused in certain spaces and moments in time will tragically not become even numbers because what happens to them is not seen as abuse. As if it isn’t violence till you're dead, or sexually abused. I think I know well enough that no numbers will ever amount to those actually abused in households all over this country.

Don't use that word. Abuse is a very big word. He isn't sexually abusing you. 

I always tell my students not to generalize. But sometimes generalizations speak for truth more than any statistics can.There are so many women who go through domestic abuse and they do not even realize it. The abuse that is so obvious, so scarring that it cannot be escaped is what will be granted the heaviness and terrifying nature of the word. Those who are emotionally, verbally and psychologically abused on a daily basis by family members - just because this isn't considered abuse or because this isn't seen as abnormal behavior in many communities - exist much more than we think, more than we know of, much more than we want to know.

You live in fear. This fish lurking deep within you grows larger, it shuts out any glimpses of possibilities of getting out, and you feel trapped. You are swallowed whole by it. Once you're in the fish's belly, you will feel that this is where you are destined to end.

One of the faces of the women Aida filmed with crosses my mind. Her voice singing softly to the camera filming her. Perhaps her way out of the belly of the fish that swallowed her has been to kill. Not just to catch that fish, but to kill your abuser so that your fear has no chance of ever coming to life again.

Still from the film 'The Day I Ate The Fish'. Photo: courtesy of the director.

I have stopped – for most of the time – wanting my father to die. I am rather now at a moment when I feel that I can grasp my fish in my hands, slippery and slithering as it is, and look at it. I know deep down that I have it in my hands and that it cannot go anywhere without my knowledge. I wanted him to die because I hated him. But hate is a very big word, and I cannot claim to hate him. I think the confusion of realizing that you are at times unable to hate, is what pushes women at times to think that perhaps this may not be what it is. Maybe, the scars will heal with the knowledge that it wasn't abuse.

There is something almost angelic in the stills and short videos of the women Aida filmed, wearing white, just white, and speaking softly. I think of them, and I think of the moments when I thought that if I could, I would, because at that moment all my hurt would go away. I would get scared and cry myself to sleep.

Domestic abuse is a worldwide epidemic. But at the end of the day, what police force do you have to back you up in Cairo, Alexandria, or Assiut, when you're a women fleeing an abusive house? What judiciary system will take account of how your body and psyche were abused when you are sentenced to life for killing your abusive husband? You have nothing to back you up. At the end of the day, these women have killed their husbands out of fear or would have ended up killing themselves in a moment or in the long run, all along their lives.

When you hold this reality up to the  jokes on women working on any level for other women and for women's rights, stereotyping them as 'organizations of wild, ferocious women,' the irony is too much to take.

When the sentences have been given, how many people will think of a killer this way, how many will look beyond, to the back-stories of this woman's life when she wasn't afraid to catch the fish?

Read more articles in this year's series for 16 Days Activsm Against Gender Based Violence 

About the author

Zainab Magdy was born in Giza, Egypt, and is doing an MA in Performance Theory at Cairo University where she is a teaching assistant. She has been part of writing and storytelling workshops with a gender sensitive perspective since 2009. She has been acting in theatre since 2007 and has recently taken on playwriting and is now part of a new writing and performance project: "The Odd Ducks". Follow her on twitter@ZainabMagdy.

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