Image of Zainab Mahdy, shared on social media.
The other Zainab
As I write this, I am aware of how easily she can be turned into an icon. Perhaps that has already happened. Yet again, perhaps it hasn't happened yet, as we become accustomed every day to the death of peers, idols, and dreams. I am also aware of how easily she can become commodified for a moment and then she will be a haunting memory of one of our generation who took her own life.
Zainab does not haunt me. She has been following me since her death. Almost every day I think of her face which I only saw when it spread in pictures announcing the news. This other Zainab, whose second name matches my own except for one letter: Zainab Mahdy, follows me, nags at me, and as I write this, I am well aware of both the heaviness and symbolism of her final act.
When I first read the news I misread her name and read mine. In a moment of reading what is more familiar to your mind, I saw my own name next to the headline of suicide. I read the news and went online to search for more and as I did that, I found myself thinking if I would take my own life. I wouldn't. I also would never be able to understand the amount of futility, desperation, pain and feelings that I cannot think of, that grow inside of someone leading them to that decision.
As I write about Zainab, I do so knowing that she is unknown to me. However, the 'facts' as I know them are that she is a dear friend of friends from different circles. That was all I knew from common friends. What I found out from headlines was that she was politically active, took to the streets in 2011, worked in the Abdel Monein Aboul Fottouh presidency campaign, was veiled and took it off, was affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, and that she was working on political detainees, specifically the female detainees and the torture they were being subjected to. Online there are headlines to stories of how Female Genital Mutilation ruined Zainab's life with a link to a Soundcloud track where she reads her story with FGM.
Some of the above 'facts' are lies, most are true, but what is definite is that all of them are judgments and labels.
Zainab's last known words come from a Facebook message she sent to a friend, Ammar Metawaa, who started working on female detainees in Egypt through Zainab. Metawaa copied and pasted Zainab's message to him in a long Facebook status following the news of her death on November 14th, 2014. The screenshot, which doesn't show her name as she had deleted her Facebook account, says the following: "I'm tired, I'm drained, and there is no use. They're all bastards, and it's like we're digging in water. No law will bring justice to anyone. We are just doing what we can, so that when we look to ourselves in the mirror we don't spit on our faces. There is no justice…I am aware of that…there is no victory coming…we are just lying to ourselves so that we can live."
Zainab's reality is a reality of generations who are being disillusioned, whose 'every day' is being cracked down upon in every possible manner so that the room to breathe and hope to dream is too narrow to even see through. Her death, not too long before Mubarak's epic exoneration, is perhaps too painful to comprehend when this was what she said last to a friend who was working on cases of hundreds of young women detained in the past year and a half under the regime which has declared Mubarak innocent. Everything around me tells me that Zainab has seen so much worse than I have. She has seen the worst and the most terrible of the past eighteen months. That, and other personal matters which we know nothing of, are things that would push a human being to such an act of pain and desperation.
And yet, when I think of Zainab, I cannot stop thinking that being a woman in this country was also one of the reasons Zainab's reality was too dark to glimpse hope.
I do not want to genderise matters. I do not want to genderise her death. I want to write about Zainab, but when Zainab comes to my mind, the comments that followed her death push me to think of our sex and how our lives are shaped according to it. Zainab's decision to take off the veil caused her to be labeled as an "infidel" by her own friends and peers who did not accept her decision. The Soundcloud track where she reads another girls' story on how FGM destroyed her life suddenly becomes her own story, and it becomes one of the reasons she killed herself. Something pushed her to work on the cases and files of female detainees and the torture and injustice they face.
Some will frown on what Zainab's death reminds me of. I don't really care. What I care about is how at moments in the past four years, the issues of women were always put in second place by this society because other matters were more important. In the wake of the first few months of January 25th 2011, when the first women's march took place, it was deemed as "not important now" to protest for women. I find that unjust.
I find it unjust that even in the beauty of insisting on justice for a people, the justice for women also came second place in importance.
Zainab's memory brings to me the injustice of looking at the rights of everything else, of the importance of humanism, before looking to the state of women in this country. Not because women are more important. No, but because in almost every corner where an injustice happens a woman will pay double the price for her sex.
When I think of what Zainab faced, of what little I know, and what I will never get a chance to know of, I know that it was beyond what a whole generation has suffered. I know that she was a young woman in this country and that is enough to make me imagine what other matters could have pushed her so far away from what she believed in four years ago.
When I think of Zainab, I do not lose faith. I see her smile and her cheeks. I think of her and I pray that she is at rest. I also think of her and I see the injustice that has spread like the plague in this country; the injustice of the disillusionment that the people have to face. The many horrors happening in prisons that we know so little of, that Zaianb, and others still, were strying to bring to light. And in the middle of all the terror we face every day as people, I see the injustice of ideals of 'humanism' that strive to bring justice to all, but that forget that women have not yet been treated as equals.
This is the final article in 50.50's series 16 Days Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014
Since January 2011, 50.50 has been monitoring the uprisings and social movements in the Middle East and North Africa, providing a gendered analysis of developments across the region. Read articles on 50.50's platform Women and the 'Arab spring': the gender sub-texts of the uprisings.
Get our weekly email