In exile, identity is all about moments in our memories and how some of these moments can change our lives, how some stories touch us, some events can shape our identities, and some choices stay with us forever.
Since March 2011, many Syrian activists have been forced into exile out of fear, and thus fled from Syria to different countries all over the world. The majority of exiled Syrian activists cited fear of violence as their main reason for leaving; some fled after being attacked and others fled from threats of prison and judicial harassment. Many Syrian activists have left Syria voluntarily, either being refused permission to return or being threatened with imprisonment or death. They face an unknown destiny in exile.
Questioning the self
M.SH was born in 1986 in Syria, of Syrian parents. M.SH is a doctor, musician, and actor. He speaks three languages fluently, Arabic as his mother tongue, English and French. He is perhaps best known for his involvement with the Doctors Coordination of Damascus in Syria and later with the Doctors Without Borders Organization in France during the Syrian revolution - his journey of exile. He says, “I was a doctor in one of those field hospitals in Qaboon in Syria and it was an extremely cruel and painful experience.”
M.SH left Syria for France in January 2012 because of his involvement in Doctors Coordination of Damascus, where they were cooperating with Doctors Without Borders:
“ I was working with doctors without borders (the famous worldwide NGO) and this put my life in danger, since most NGOs are banned in Syria, especially those who help in the humanitarian domain and show sympathy with the protestors.” He continues, “I still remember having to jump over dead bodies in order to reach the next wounded person coming around. I saw the exposed bone of a human being with skin sagging off his foot. But what felt really the worst was when I was trying to examine the injury of a young guy (hardly 20 years of age) and my index finger just slipped 2cm into his brain.”
M.SH continued his work, but he was arrested and tortured, as it turned out, by his cousin; he explains:
“We had to stand there with our hands handcuffed behind us, facing a wall while the officers started hitting us with cables. Recognizing my last name, an officer who had the same last name as mine, was called over by his colleagues. In fact, he was a relative unknown to me till that time. That was when the special treatment began. I had to kneel down with the officers hitting, punching, insulting and kicking me all over my body. One of them kicked me in the genitals so hard that I nearly fainted. I remember being unable to raise my back due to a kick in the lower part of it. I was literally swinging. My relative then took me to a room where he started hitting my back and left shoulder with an electrical cable. I was so hurt that the skin of some parts of my shoulder was taken off. Finally he released me, threatening me that if I so much as uttered any further protest, he was going to kill me. After this incident, I was known as the person who was tortured at the hands of his cousin”.
M.SH lived in France for almost 6 months before he decided to leave for the United States on June 25, 2012. In retrospect he was sorry that he left France:
“When I was there I really hated it but now I look back on this decision with regret, since it was fine compared to the rejection that I initially suffered in the US. At least I had some friends in France, while, in the US, everybody is first and foremost an alien, so to speak. In France, I did not feel much of an alien: the reason I believe is that European people are geographically and historically much closer to where I originally come from. They are more open to other cultures than Americans despite the US melting pot. I think French people knew more about my country and that is why they were more able to accept me, I guess.”
M.SH had his own fears that if he returned to Syria, he would be arrested, tortured and perhaps killed at the hands of the Syrian security and military forces.
But he thought he would only be gone a short while, nevertheless:
“When I left Syria I never imagined that I would stay away for this long. My calculation was really that far out. Three months in France or four at the very worst, was what I expected and then I assumed that there would be a no-fly zone or buffer zones imposed by the international community. At that point I resolved that I would go to Turkey or Jordan to try to help the wounded”. But when the situation in Syria became really bad and dangerous with no prospect of a dramatic change on the horizon, I had no choice but to consider political asylum as an option, especially when it came to the point that my French visa was soon going to expire.”
So another chapter of his journey started in the United States where he was arrested immediately on arrival at the airport for, as he describes it, just telling the truth:
“In George Bush intercontinental airport in Houston on June 25, after an 11-hour flight and 12 more hours of interrogation, I made only one mistake. I told the truth!! I told the officers that I could go back neither to Syria nor to France. For them I was ineligible to step into the US territory and I had to ask for asylum in the airport. Cuffed as a Guantanamo prisoner, I was taken to the CCA detention center in Houston. I will never forget the humiliation I felt that day and thenceforth.”
M.SH took a long pause as he relived those terrible moments spent in a US prison. As an alien in a strange land, he was deprived even of sleep, as the only thing that he had left were his memories of a past gone by, nightmares of a terrifying present, and fear of an uncertain future. He was in detention for 48 days, with questions spinning in his head every single hour: “How is the situation back in Syria? How is my family doing? What crime have I committed to be put in this place?”
On July 12, 2012, he decided to write to his deportation officer a letter asking him to accelerate procedures, because he was not able to stand it any more. Caught between two worlds, he could no longer survive in either.
I have already been arrested and also tortured back in Syria. Although it’s really different being here from being in any of the Syrian prisons, the feeling that is being deprived of one’s freedom is pretty much the same. I came to the US in order to alleviate my suffering, not to incur another punishment.
In the light of the aforementioned, I wish to ask you to arrange the ‘credible fear’ interview for me as soon as possible.
Many thanks officer.”
In reply, his case was referred to the Houston asylum office, and he was released after that in just a few days. He kept waiting for his two hearings; hoping that things would be OK after that. On the day of his first hearing, he was fully prepared. He had thought about every single word he would say, as well as how he should look. He thought about shaving and putting on some aftershave. Indeed, he was expecting anything to happen but not what did happen!!
The minute he entered the courtroom the judge immediately decided to abandon the person who smelled of perfume because the judge was allergic to it. As a result, they postponed his hearing for another year! M.SH is still awaiting some decision on his destiny, remaining without a job, or legal status. He was eligible to receive a state ID and driver license, yet he still cannot apply to universities to continue his studies or find a job since his fingerprint records have him down as a criminal.
Despite all these difficulties, M.SH managed off his own bat to pass six exams, five of them medical exams and one for a driving license in the space of one year and three months. M.SH has been physically released from Syrian and later American prisons, yet he is still trapped in this unfamiliar world without an identity, a home, a family and nobody to realize that all he wants is to return to the world that is familiar to him.
His final statement concludes:
“Just talking about this is extremely exhausting. I have had to relive cruel events and revive the same painful feelings I had during the past two years. I remember the many times I had to sleep with all my clothes on, anxious about how I might have to jump from the bedroom window of my family’s fifth floor apartment to the two-meter-high nearby building if the security forces gained entry. I remember the hopes I had in France that I would soon go back to Syria and then the fear when I realized the reality and that the destiny waiting for me was actually unknown. I remember the fear and the rejection I encountered in the US. I remember most of all my mother’s tears when she saw my back after the arrest. These memories are a part of my core being now, and they will never be forgotten.”
This article is part of Looking inside the uprising; a joint project between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy.
Photo of Yara Sallam. Maha Turk. All rights reserved.
Last spring, on the way back from a trip to Dahab with some friends, we were pulled over by military officers in one of the many security checkpoints along the road. We were asked to get out of the bus as our bags were being searched.
One bag after the other was opened, turned over and its contents scattered carelessly on the street (one fails to see how that particular routine would help further security and stability). By the fourth or fifth bag, the checkpoint officers lost some of their enthusiasm and became less thorough in their search. As a result, and to the relief of many of us, some of the bags were loaded back into the bus unchecked, including one belonging to Yara Sallam, who upon realizing it, naively declared to the army officer that he had forgotten to search her bag!
But last spring now feels like decades ago.
Today, that young lady with such endearing honesty, is in the Qanater prison, where she had been locked-up in pretrial detention since late June. Yara, currently 28 years of age, might turn 30 in prison, according to the verdict issued on 26 October by the Heliopolis Misdemeanor Court sentencing her and 22 other people to three years in prison, plus an additional three years of probation and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds. The verdict is currently being appealed.
Now to put that into perspective: three of the police officers responsible for the death of the 37 detainees who were left to suffocate in the police truck transporting them in August 2013 received one-year suspended sentences. The fourth officer convicted in that same case received a ten-year sentence, which was later annulled.
So one can only assume that the crime Yara and her 22 co-defendants committed was something of greater gravity than intentionally leaving 37 human beings to suffocate to death. Perhaps something more or less along the lines of embezzling millions of dollars from state funds, the crime for which ousted president Mubarak was also sentenced to three years in prison?
Yara Sallam was sentenced to three years for protesting against, thus breaching, the protest law (Law number 107 of 2013), a “crime” which is exacting a less and less forgiving response from the Egyptian state. And if we have learned anything from the past three years, it’s that protesting is never a stand-alone offense, but one that comes with friends, namely “vandalism” and “displaying force with the aim of terrorizing the public”.
So it was on a dark and stormy night (at least that’s how it felt), on June 21, that Yara was arrested minutes after the violent dispersal of a peaceful-protest against the protest law, and charged with breaching the protest law and everything that comes with that. It doesn’t matter that she was caught by plain-clothed civilians and handed over to the police. It doesn’t matter that she was actually arrested buying a bottle of water from a kiosk in the vicinity of the protest area around the Ethadyia presidential palace. It doesn’t matter that she was arrested along with her cousin, but that he was released that same night. It doesn’t matter that the “violent acts” allegedly committed by Yara and her co-defendants were reported to have taken place after they were already in custody. And it doesn’t matter that Yara was not identified in any of the videos provided by the prosecution as evidence, but was convicted anyway. None of that matters, because justice is blind.
Anyone who has followed to some extent the situation in Egypt in the past months has probably come across Yara Sallam’s name a few times. Friends and colleagues of Yara’s have spared no effort to make her story public and to advocate for her immediate release via all available, or rather all remaining, channels. You don’t need to actually know Yara to believe that she isn’t the sort of person who would “terrorize” anyone or “vandalize” anything.
All the pictures of her, with that now famous smile, circulating social media networks are true to her character. We had glimpses of Yara's smile, and everything it reflects, the first time she appeared before court on June 29, that shocking day when the judge refused to grant the detainees provisional release while the case was adjourned until September 13. That was the day everyone started realizing we weren’t going to celebrate Yara’s release the following weekend…or the one after.
When the revolution erupted in 2011, Yara was in the Gambia working as a legal assistant at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. She returned to Egypt shortly after and took part in almost every protest in the months that followed, almost as though to make up for missing the first spark that promised a better future for Egypt. She worked with Nazra for Feminst Studies, where her work earned her the Africa Human Rights Defenders Award in 2014, before she moved back to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, where she had started her career in human rights, to work on transitional justice.
A holder of law degrees from Cairo University in Egypt, the University of Paris I Sorbonne in Paris, and the University of Notre Dame in the USA, Yara made the difficult choice of working in the non-profit sector as a human rights lawyer and defender in an environment typically hostile towards civil society, and yet she always kept her resolve. She managed to survive, up until that dreary evening, the repressive measures taken against dissent by successive regimes, implemented, ironically, by the same security apparatuses.
We are often accused of intensifying efforts calling on the release of the unjustly detained only when it concerns a "celebrity activist”, someone in the immediate circle of people with access to tools necessary to make that sort of noise, when there are hundreds of other cases that never get as much attention. There is of course truth to these allegations, but when those who have dedicated their careers to fighting human rights abuses against others are subject to such abuses themselves, it merits a special outcry.
Yara might be just one more name to add to the list of people wronged by the Egyptian justice system. But more importantly, she is one more name temporarily taken off an ever shrinking list of those fighting against all odds to correct injustice.
A Palestinian boy sits looking at the ruins in Gaza's Shejaiya neighbourhood,, August 2014. Haitham Nuraldeen/Demotix. All rights reserved.
Together the international community has pledged 5.4 billion US dollars, half of which is solely for reconstructing homes, schools, hospitals and civilian infrastructure following Israel’s 50-day onslaught in July and August.
The terms of the UN arrangement for bringing in building materials, however, leave the Israeli blockade of Gaza unchallenged and barely mitigated. Consequently, donor country aid agencies have an obligation to alert their taxpayer base to the contradictions of rebuilding Gaza while it remains under siege.
Aid agencies generally have an organizational mandate to use public resources efficiently and achieve lasting results with their projects. Yet the administrative and logistical hurdles imposed by the Israeli blockade mean wasted time and money in the rebuilding process. Even more concerning, donors have no reason to believe Israel will refrain from using the same destructive techniques in a fresh conflict in the near future.
To the countries they assist, aid agencies commit to help prevent a recurrence of conflict. Yet the Israeli blockade has repeatedly sparked violence in Gaza since it was imposed in 2007. From their vantage point on the ground, aid workers are best situated to let taxpayers know about the realities of rebuilding under siege.
In August, France, Britain and Germany first proposed an international mechanism to win Israeli consent for the import of construction materials currently prohibited by the blockade. Finalized at the donor conference a fortnight ago, the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism makes the UN responsible for tracking and reporting the movements of steel, cement and other materials; the UN will operate under Israeli supervision.
Unfortunately, the mechanism means aid agencies will be forced to cooperate with the blockade. According to an exposé in The Guardian, the UN agreement includes installing video cameras and creating a database of information about Gazans who receive assistance. By enforcing these techniques on Israel’s behalf, the donor community lends an aura of legitimacy to the collective punishment imposed by the blockade. The irony is that the international community has called for an end to the siege since 2007 because it is in violation of international law.
Yet a press statement from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) following the reconstruction pledge does little more than reiterate the tired call for an “ease” of the restrictions on Gaza. Without accompanying sanctions, Israel knows just how seriously it needs to take this demand.
In fact, as an occupying power in Gaza, Israel is responsible under international law for the welfare of Gazan citizens. Israel could conceivably be charged with bearing some part of the $7.8 billion price tag for rebuilding what was destroyed in July and August. However, the international community has rushed to shoulder the burden for the third time in six years. In response, a spokesperson from the Israeli foreign ministry "encouraged" donors to "invest" in Gaza, but cautioned them to "invest responsibly".
In stark contrast to DFID’s statement, a press release by Oxfam International predicts that it will take 50 years to rebuild Gaza unless the blockade is lifted. Further, Oxfam states that the reconstruction efforts from 2012 were never finished largely because of Israeli restrictions.
Other aid actors have expressed similar concerns. Given the urgency of the situation and the magnitude of the task, the mere feasibility of the plan has been questioned by experienced NGO workers. In addition, the agreement leaves projects at the mercy of Israel’s discretion on a day-by-day basis. As aid actors know from past reconstruction experiences, this arrangement will result in countless hours spent negotiating with Israel, leading to delays and projects going unfinished. Unfortunately, reports are already seeping out that the reconstruction package is likely to stand in for applying any real pressure to lift the siege.
Donors need to avoid inadvertently legitimizing the blockade; they can do so by documenting and publicizing their own experiences dealing with Israeli security policies and procedures. Taxpayers deserve to know why rebuilding Gaza takes so long and costs so much. Aid agencies have a story to tell that the folks at home are likely to want to hear.
By Mina Fayek
Coptic Christian immigrants from Egypt demonstrate in Athens. Giorgos Panagakis/Demotix. All rights reserved.
On 9 October, 2011 a group of Egyptians organized a protest from Shubra district to Maspero, the headquarters of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, to protest an attack that had taken place on a church in the Upper Egyptian city of Aswan. The goal was to also demand the resignation of the Governor, the end of discrimination against Copts and the enactment of a unified law for building houses of worship.
Shortly after the march reached its destination, the military forces violently attacked it with live ammunition and by running over protesters, leaving more than 25 dead and hundreds injured, most of whom were Copts. Tens of civilian protesters were arrested while only three soldiers were convicted, receiving light sentences of two or three years in jail, on charges of “involuntary slaughter”. One and a half years later, two Coptic protesters were sentenced to two years in jail for allegedly stealing a machine gun from security forces during the clashes.
The Egyptian state has a history of discrimination against Copts and a reluctance to protect them from extremist attacks. Back in the summer of 2013, in the wake of ousting former President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt witnessed one of the largest waves of attacks against Coptic churches, institutions and properties by Islamists. The security forces were largely inactive despite the calls by Egypt’s largest minority. Soon after the attacks, the state promised it would reconstruct the damaged churches, which it failed to deliver. However, this inaction comes as no surprise as it’s one of the commonalities between the consecutive regimes that have ruled Egypt for decades.
Yet the significance of the Maspero massacre among the Coptic community comes from the fact that the state was the direct perpetrater of this crime. Copts have become used to state discrimination and its failure to protect them, but to viciously assault them was appalling and surprising for many.
To add insult to injury, state media played a very instigative role during the clashes. Rasha Magdy, a TV anchor appeared on Channel 1 on national television claiming that protesters were armed and that they had killed three army soldiers. She also urged Egyptians to defend the soldiers from what she described as “violent protesters” which further escalated the clashes.
Last month, Ahmed Moussa, another TV anchor and a staunch regime supporter, hosted a guest on his show who claimed that protesters conspired with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to “embarrass” the military and spread chaos.
Surprisingly, when Egypt celebrated the forty-first anniversary of the October war on 1 October 2014, out of all the Egyptian TV anchors, Magdy and Moussa were chosen to host the celebrations on state TV, which sparked anger among Copts on social media. The state’s choice seemed like an award to these two anchors after they sided with the state against the Copts. This also came less than ten days before the massacre’s third anniversary. Thus, it seems to be a part of a broad strategy by the new regime to wipe the history of the past three and a half years from the memory of Egyptians.
Even during Morsi’s rule, in April 2013, police forces attacked the Coptic Cathedral in the Abbaseya district with tear gas after rumours spread that Copts had attacked passing cars. Clashes between locals and mourning Copts broke out during a funeral of four Copts, who were killed in sectarian violence the day before, and while the police were supposed to separate them and protect both the cars and the cathedral, they sided with the locals and attacked the Copts. The president’s aid at the time blamed the Coptic mourners for starting the clashes.
Recently, the pattern of discrimination by the state against Copts has increased alarmingly. Two incidents took place recently that were very similar to the Maspero massacre.
The first happened one month ago when the police brutally assaulted hundreds of Copts in Jabal el-Tair village in Minya. According to the testimonies of the villagers, they were beaten, arrested, and called ‘infidels’ after they had organized a protest to demand an investigation into the disappearance of a Coptic housewife. Ironically, this came just a few days before President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s speech at UNGA where he said that Egypt is a “country that respects the law” and people’s “rights and freedoms”.
The other incident took place three days before the anniversary of the Maspero massacre. A group of policemen physically assaulted and insulted a Coptic family in Cairo’s Imbaba district and kicked its 63 members out of their seven-storey home. The police also confiscated many of their properties as well as their savings.
The reasons behind such assaults are still unknown, although there’s no legal framework or justification whatsoever for what these policemen did. No investigation has been launched into either incident and the silence from El Sisi’s administration and government officials, who claim to be establishing a “state of law”, is almost deafening.
Three years after the Maspero massacre, which has set a new precedent for direct state violence against Copts, no justice has been served. More worryingly, the Egyptian state seems to be increasingly engaging in hostile acts towards Copts. And while the new administration was once seen as a refuge from Islamists, easing the suffering of Copts, it appears to be yet another contributor to their ongoing plight.
By Rawan Maki
In the past ten years, GCC women have made large strides in the political and economic realms. They make up between 40 to 45 percent of the labour force and around ten percent of parliament seats in more liberal states, such as Bahrain and Kuwait. Bahraini women have won the right to pass on their citizenship to children from non-national husbands, and Hanadi Al-Hindi has become the first Saudi female pilot.
However, these strides, one-off appointments, and scattered success stories tend to follow a policy-based approach, which paternalistically and selectively allows GCC women to participate in the economic and political sphere, while continuing to constrain their social self-determination.
These policies essentially showcase ‘modernity’ abroad while brushing over the mismatch between local social norms and norms that allow for true social agency. Ultimately, the development of social norms that are in line with the economic and political opportunities available to GCC women is essential for their pursuit of a fulfilling life.
Bathroom signs in Burj Al-Arab. Flickr/Asim Bharwani. Some rights reserved.
We approached the border, handed over four passports: one Bulgarian, one American, one Jordanian, and one Bahraini. “Who is the Bahraini in the car?” the officer asked, straightening his back and squinting into the car and back at my passport in his hands.
“I am,” I leaned forward from the back seat and waved. I was wearing a flat cap, a tank top, and my hair was not at its tidiest. As the officer walked away with our passports, I smirked, saying, “I’m probably getting the special GCC treatment.”
As our wait drew longer, I started to worry that one of my car-mates’ entry papers were off. As a GCC citizen, I did not need papers or visas to cross borders within the GCC, but they all did. As a GCC citizen, I had nothing to worry about.
The officer came back. “Can I talk to the Bahrainiya (Bahraini woman)?” he asked. Convinced I was going to be asked to join a separate, faster line, I leaned forward and smiled.
“Who are you?” he asked.
I was stunned—was he asking a rhetorical question? “Sorry, but what do you mean? My name is Rawan and I work in Dubai, you’re holding my passport.”
“No, really, I mean who are you? What do you do in Dubai? What are you, a GCC woman, trying to do by crossing this border?”
I responded with the confidence that underlies any casual truth. I explained to him that I was on a trip with my colleagues and friends. We were all twenty-somethings working in Dubai, and were taking a trip to Oman for the weekend.
“Where did you come from?” his response was severe, almost mocking.
“You mean right now? We all drove here from Dubai,” I said, my aplomb quickly souring in response to his disdain.
“Well turn your car around and go back to where you came from. As a Khaleeji woman (a woman from the Gulf), I can’t let you through the border without papers from your male guardian saying you can pass through, it’s the law.” His lips curled up into a self-satisfied, humourless smile.
My initial shock and panic quickly gave way to affront, as I recollected that this was not the law. I argued, and saw the derision in his eyes grow with every syllable that came out of my mouth. I pointed out that a Saudi friend, also travelling as part of our group, was in one of the cars ahead and he had let her through. She had even chosen to use her Saudi passport over her American one, since it would grant her visa-free travel within the GCC.
His response was automatic and indignant. “Well maybe she wasn’t in a car full of men. You’re one of our own, a Khaleeji, I can’t let you pass through. Why are there no other girls in your car?” His displeasure at ‘one of his own’ attempting to travel–and talking back to him in the presence of men–only grew. He asked us to turn back once more.
We parked to the side, letting others pass through. I told my friends I was going to go down and talk to him. I took off my cap, tied up my hair, and put on a sweater despite the blazing sun. On the seemingly long walk to the border, I told myself that I would be kind and patient.
I told myself he had been taught to ‘protect’ women like me. I thought of calmly explaining to him that I did not need protection and that I had not realised I was the only non-male in the car until he had pointed it out. This is what he wanted, right—my protection? I would make sure he knew I was safe, in control of the situation. I would reassure him.
“Hello, excuse me. Hi.”
“Yes? I thought I told you to leave.” His humourless smile was back, and I sensed that the situation had become amusing to him. I tried to look past his mocking grin.
“I just wanted to ask you about the law you referred to. I have never heard of needing papers from your male guardian to travel, unless you are in Saudi. I travel often for work within the GCC and I have never needed it.”
He asked me for my passport once more. Opened it, read it, scoffed. I tried to understand why but struggled.
“Why do you have so many travel stamps?” he finally asked, as if the notion was foreign to a border officer.
“I travel for work. I’m a consultant, and some of our clients are abroad. I’ve also travelled for job trainings, and to study.” I was calm and collected, speaking to him in a professional manner. I have learned over the past few years this was the correct way to deal with travel bureaucracy.
“So, do you ‘consult’ the guys in the car with you?” he asked, the humourless smile giving way to a wider, toothier taunt, culminating in a chuckle.
“No, they are my colleagues.”
At this point, a group of border control officers as well as bystanders were gathering. “Listen Randa, Ranya, Rana, Reem…” he started.
“My name is Rawan,” I said, and I felt my earlier confidence giving way to thinly-veiled irritability. Having studied my passport for four hours, I didn’t think he would brashly play the ‘I forgot your name’ card.
“I don’t want to remember your name. I don’t want to know it actually, it doesn’t matter, and it won’t change a thing. You are one of our own. If you were American, British, or even Lebanese I would let you through. But you’re not, you’re one of our own. If you were my daughter or wife travelling in that car, I would not want you to go through, so go back to where you came from, and don’t come back again or I will get you into trouble.”
A group of men had gathered and was watching the scene, smirking. I could sense them breaking out into a silent cheer, applauding their manly comrade, the protector of their social values.
The deification of woman they had been taught as children evolved into a need to protect her as they grew into teenagers, and then to control her as they grew into men, and ultimately to resent her free will. So they resented this woman standing in front of them rejecting their protection, their manhood, talking stridently and not lowering her gaze.
Such a perilous thing to teach little boys; such a pitiful thing to see full-grown men hold on to.
Four hours I waited. Four hours characterised by mockery from the border control, bystander amusement and curiosity, and frequent orders to get out of the border control line. Four hours of waiting and jeering, which only came to an end with the arrival of the male Omani sponsor of the snorkelling resort we were headed to. He took me through the border.
It took us three minutes.
While at the border, I asked the police officer, almost done with his shift for the day, why he had not let me through.
“Oh, I thought you were under 18 years old. In that case, you would have been legally obliged to have papers from your legal guardian.”
“You had my passport in your hand,” was all I could say before the Omani sponsor, Ali, drove us away.
“Relax,” Ali urged, almost apologetically. “We’re through now”.
I didn’t want to relax, I wanted to cry, but I did not want to cry for me. I wanted to cry, shout, and throw punches against the perception of the Khaleeji woman as ‘national treasure’. No different from the oil, the islands, and the luxuries Khaleeji men fight each other over. We were fertile, treasured, valued–a gem to be protected and displayed at the right time, and in the right way. It all made me sick.
In the Gulf, women are dangerously placed atop the social pyramid, where they can be scrutinised, adored, and resented at the same time as unreachable, fragile beings. This ‘shelved trophy’ mentality is dangerous, because women are so easily and frequently dragged to the bottom of the pyramid through notions of patriarchy—at any moment, every Arab man can assume the right to behave like her angry, dishonoured father.
Khaleeji men are taught to honour women by upholding the pillars of benevolent sexism. Khaleeji women are taught to be beautiful, elusive, and silent, like butterflies. You sit properly in public, you avert men’s gazes, and you watch what people say about you, because you do not want to be hauled off the top of the pyramid.
The GCC woman, even with the law on her side, does not have the social infrastructure to ‘fly’ once laws permitting her to travel, study, and work are in place. A national treasure, these butterflies are kept indoors and immobile, where they can be ready for a man’s gaze, love, and protection.
I am not calling for Khaleeji women to tear off their veils in fury, talk louder, or show more skin. I refuse to feed the notion of the oppressed Khaleeji woman, refuse to ignore the love and regard for the modest woman in her community, and the compassion, strength, beauty, dignity, and assertive spirituality she embodies. This socio-religious status has been a long-standing source of pride for many Khaleeji women.
I am also not attributing the placement of Khaleeji women to backwardness. This is not an issue of modernity or adopting a western social system. The social revolution should not spread through the fetishised western image of screaming angry Arab women taking to the streets, but a cross-gender discourse in Khaleeji societies on the fundamental right to pursue a happy life. The kind of ‘empowerment’ that Khaleeji women need is the development of social norms to complement the expanding socio-economic spaces they are conquering.
We do not need to pat ourselves on the back for the Harvard studies and discussions in the World Economic Forum telling us we are making great strides, that we are converging with the west’s legal standards for women. (The rest of the world is already patting us on the back for that, anyway.)
The rising statistics regarding women graduates and labour force participation should not be celebrated; they should be cemented, by legal and social frameworks that promote female mobility and independence. We need to know that not only are women legally allowed to cross borders, but also that haphazard sexism, masked as an authoritarian argument for protection, is illegal.
While legal frameworks are starting to be put in place, the lack of social equality for women remains an issue. My experience with the Emirates’ border control is anecdotal but it is far from unique; it is not an outlier in a social system that allows and encourages arbitrary paternalism towards women.
For the Saudi women who want to drive, the women in GCC who want to cross borders, and every woman who feels resentful eyes on her when she is laughing too loudly, walking too springily, or showing too much of her calves at a mall, we need to change the way women are deified, protected, and ultimately controlled.
We need to teach our little boys about Khadija bint Khuwaylid, the merchant who sent the largest trade caravans at the time to Syria and Yemen, and the defiant Zainab bint Ali, who stood strong against her captors’ oppression. We need to teach them that these female heroines did not ask boys or men to protect them, but demanded their own respect and social equality from men, so that they could fight alongside them for social justice. We need to teach our boys that, in the fight for social justice, women and men are soldiers alike.
As Khaleejis, we need to know that to truly ensure the fundamental right of the Khaleeji woman’s pursuit of happiness, we must defend her social agency. A Khaleeji woman’s right to a self-determined life is robbed by the social expectation of preserving her ‘treasurehood’. When she chooses to cover her head or avert her eyes, it should never be for fear of losing her good name, but for her individual appreciation of modesty and rejection of worldly vanity.
By removing the Khaleeji woman from her status as a ‘national treasure’, we finally grant her the liberties that our governments say we have on paper. Only then will we able to honestly display all aspects of our determination and character—be it modest, coy, shy, loud, or calm.
Civil society in Egypt has been struggling for a long time with the laws governing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and, over the last few years, this struggle has become iconic in a conflict with the government.
The struggle to freely express and associate has become one of the major battles of the revolution, as political expression and activity have woven themselves into every aspect of Egyptian society.
With over 80 million citizens and around 40,000 registered local NGOs, despite a history of highly restrictive NGO laws, Egypt is described as having “one of the largest and most vibrant civil society sectors in the developing world”. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (“ICNL”) explains that the Egyptian government never used an outright ban on civil society; it conveniently provided “enormous discretionary powers to the Ministry of Social Solidarity.”
Prior to the Egyptian Revolution, on February 17, 2010, the Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”) issued a first midterm evaluation report with 171 recommendations for Egypt that touch on “political and civil rights, including the State of Emergency, the future anti-terrorism legislation, monitoring of elections, the legislation addressing torture, sectarian violence, and the NGO law.”
Egypt accepted 135 of these recommendations, four of which were specifically on reforming the law 84/2002: “The first cycle revision for Egypt was not a genuine opportunity to review the human rights conditions as the Working Group session was overshadowed by the Egyptian government’s use of its diplomatic relations to limit a constructive debate, preventing real concerns from being raised while denying all human rights abuses,” the report said. Egypt’s second evaluation is scheduled for October 2014, to be held during the twentieth session of the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review.
Following the Egyptian revolution and despite a rapid and insistent expansion of civil society, the government’s relationship with NGOs only worsened, due to multiple attempts to pass more restrictive laws and an actual physical crackdown on existing NGOs.
In February 2012, several NGOs were raided and later, in highly contested cases, judges convicted forty-three local and international civil society workers to one, two, or five years in prison for operating in Egypt without a license as well as receiving foreign funds.
Enshrined in Article 75 of the Constitution, all citizens are permitted to form an NGO, and that organization will acquire legal personality upon notification. The article continues to say that “[s]uch associations and foundations shall have the right to practice their activities freely, and administrative agencies may not interfere in their affairs or dissolve them, or dissolve their boards of directors or boards of trustees save by a court judgment.”
Unfortunately, since the passing of the Constitution, government action has not reflected the freedom to associate, a right that many NGOs have been struggling to acquire.
Over the last year, other laws have been proposed and/or passed that appear to target “terrorism” or “national security,” but in reality permit the security apparatus to arrest thousands of civilians and prohibit protests, warrant the judiciary to charge hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters with capital punishment, and the government to pass laws that further restrict the freedom of expression and association.
On June 26, 2014, the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Justice invited several NGOs to participate in the writing of the most recent draft law. In a July 9, 2014 press release, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) indicated that “[t]he result of these discussions was a draft NGO bill that was far better than any of the drafts previously put forward by the government.”
The draft law was submitted to the United Nations High Commissioner, however, it was pushed aside for a different and more restrictive draft. The EIPR highly criticized it as one of the most repressive since half a century, referencing Law 34, 1964.
The draft law is problematic on multiple fronts and criticized by dozens of Egyptian organizations as well as several foreign entities. Riddled with ambiguous language, the draft law provides for a “Coordinating Committee” with regulatory authority over civic organizations.
According to the July 9 press release, the “[c]ommittee is comprised of eight government bodies, including a representative of the Interior Ministry and a representative from the general intelligence.” Laws involving the security apparatus serve as painful reminders to human rights advocates of the unfulfilled goals of the revolution.
EIPR states “[t]he security apparatus has undergone no reform or restructuring despite repeated calls for such since January 25, 2011, and most of its members responsible for human rights abuses have faced no accountability.”
This new draft law requires an association to be registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Justice and the association will be deemed a legal entity after sixty days unless the Ministry rejects it based on the prohibited activities of Article 11.
Prohibited activities include 1) forming a military or paramilitary formation or detachment; 2) threaten national unity, violate public order or morality or advocate discrimination against citizens on account of sex, origin, color, language, religion, or creed; 3) practice any political or trade union activity exclusively restricted to political parties and trade unions; 4) seek profit or practice any profit-oriented activities; or 5) conducting field researches or surveys for projects in the field of national work without obtaining the approval of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (“CAPMAS”).
The law permits obtaining money from within Egypt provided the Ministry is notified, but any activity of a foreign organization in Egypt or receiving external funding is subjected to the review of the Coordinating Committee.
Approval from the Ministry has always been highly subjective to government discretion. The ICNL emphasized that “[i]n practice, [the Ministry’s] authority has been brought to bear against organizations and individuals that have crossed the government’s ‘red lines’ in pushing for social reform and political liberalization. Since the 2011 Revolution, the exact location of the ‘red lines’ has grown less clear, and while civil society remains vibrant, a climate of uncertainty prevails.”
In a report criticizing the draft legislation, Human Rights Watch recalls that in the last year, Egyptian courts banned the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the April 6th Movement. Additionally, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights offices were raided twice in six months. “Egyptian groups have shown great courage, resilience, and professionalism in the face of intense government pressure and repressive laws.,” Joe Stork goes on to say, “If this draft becomes law, it would spell the end of the independence these brave groups have fought to maintain.” However, that independence was never legal, only tolerated by the government.
On July 18, 2014, the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Justice announced that all NGOs (“entities carrying out civil society work”) must re-register with the Ministry or risk being dissolved within 45 days. The deadline was eventually extended until November 10, 2014. However, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) along with twenty-five NGOs submitted a memo to Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab calling on the government to retract the draft NGO law and use the draft law that had been presented to the United Nations High Commissioner, to revoke the notice requiring NGOs to register with the Ministry, and request technical consultation from the UN when developing any association law.
The Minister of Social Solidarity, Ghada Waly, announced on October 2 that the November 10 deadline for organisations to "reconcile their legal status with the existing NGO Law" would not be extended.
Most recently on September 21, Article 78 of the Egyptian Penal Code was amended stating that anyone who receives foreign funding for the purpose of harming national interests will be punished by life imprisonment and a fine of no less than half a million Egyptian pounds.
The article previously was “strict imprisonment” and a fine of 1,000 Egyptian pounds. If the crime is committed by a public servant or during a time of war, the punishment can be increased to capital punishment with a fine of 500 thousand Egyptian pounds.
A major concern with this new amendment is that the term “national interest” is not defined specifically and allows for a broad or narrow interpretation. Furthermore, many NGOs throughout the country rely on foreign assistance for the basic functioning of the organization.
Abla Fahita. Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use.Harming national interest is a recurring theme since the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Thousands of citizens have been arrested and detained including members of political opposition groups, activists, journalists, and the unfortunate individual who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Even Egypt’s most famous puppet, Abla Fahita, was accused of inciting terrorist activity.
The extent of the Egypt’s violations of human rights is well documented in published press releases and statements by international and national civic groups and human rights organizations but no amount of pressure has been able to curb the government’s desire to reign civil society in Egypt. If the law is passed and enforced, human rights groups will have to request permission from the government to collect and document the human rights violations committed by the government.
Egypt is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stipulates in Article 22, that no restrictions can be placed on the exercise of the right to freedom of association, except which is necessary in the interest of national security.
However, in section 3 of that article, State Parties may not take “legislative measures which would prejudice, or to apply the law in such a manner as to prejudice, the guarantees provided for in that Convention.” Egypt is also a signatory to the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights that in Article 10 reiterates the right to the freedom of association.
Egypt is a nation where historically any political expression was limited to football chants and to charitable volunteer opportunities. It is a country where a revolution was fueled by people’s desire to become involved and see positive change. It is a society that survives off civil society, a vast network of organizations that fill the voids where the government is unable or unwilling to do its duty.
A draft law like the proposed one, the amended penal code, and the setbacks to the freedom of association and expression are serious obstacles to civil society and threaten the values that Egypt has expressly committed to upholding through its Constitution, the international treaties that it is a signatory to, and its personal commitment to uphold democratic transition.
“We must declare war on war, so the outcome will be peace upon peace”
This was the famous sentence used by Obama in his speech at the United Nations – quoting the prominent Muslim Scholar Bin Bayyah - to justify renewed American intervention in the Middle East.
However this quote is far from reality, as the outcome desired by the US is nothing related to peace. While the US rallies the international community to form a coalition to target terrorism in Iraq and Syria, represented by the Islamic State (IS), Jabhat Al-Nusra or even the American discovery, Khorasan group, it is apparent that the main target is to preserve the hegemonic American structure in the Middle East.
The recent American intervention started when IS stunned the world transforming itself from a radical militant group, active in Syria (where there are plenty of militant groups) and in Iraq, to a functional body controlling vast areas in both countries, but most importantly threatening the US dominated power structure in the region.
American airstrikes started promptly when IS threatened the Kurdish Regional Government, where the Peshmerga proved inefficient in stopping the persistent march of IS. The US claims that its intervention was mainly to save the Yezidis minority from an imminent genocide by IS.
For over three years, the US silently witnessed a continuous massacre committed by Assad’s regime against its own people. Assad’s regime, despite not being as pro-American as the Kurdish one, nor Israeli friendly like many other regimes in the region, still plays an important role in the hegemonic structure of the region, for which the US has no alternative.
Despite all the horrific atrocities his regime committed, Assad proved to be making more noise than posing an actual threat to the US regionally. This also explains the American rejection of the Turkish proposal to include the Assad regime as a part of a grand strategy to eliminate terrorism and the environment that creates it.
While the US airstrikes proved effective in halting the IS march towards Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, it let the Syrian town of Kobane become a field of mini-Stalingrad style confrontation between IS and the PKK-affiliated YPG. The target was to blackmail Turkey to intervene in the fight and be part of the American strategy to destroy and degrade IS.
While many in the world were crying for Kobane and blaming Turkey for allegedly allowing the barbarians to encroach on the city, nobody seems to care about the hell unleashed by Assad's jets throwing barrel bombs on Aleppo, Daraa or Hama.
'Syria has many Kobanis. What will happen to Aleppo, Latakia, Turkmen and other people after Kobane is saved?'
This question was asked by the Turkish President Erdogan and remains unanswered, as the US along with its coalition restricted the fight to what threatens the rulers of the Erbil, Damascus or Baghdad regimes and not what threatens the people.
Nobody questioned the US polices that support Maliki and turned a blind eye to his repressive sectarian practices, qualifying him for the “Shiite Saddam” title for practices that led to the alienation of Sunni Muslims, leaving them to choose between the sectarian Iraqi army and ISIS militia men.
IS was created by lack of justice, dignity and governance. Instead of tackling these root issues, the US chose to target the outcomes through brutal terrorism to maintain its hegemonic power structure in the region.
Contrary to what many observers believe, the US is completely aware of this complex situation which is not just limited to Syria and Iraq, but to the whole region.
In Egypt, the US favored the continuity of the Mubarak regime, even without Mubarak himself. Despite some diplomatic condemnations, it seems that Washington is welcoming the obliteration of hope for Egyptian democracy by installing a military-backed government through a coup.
While Egyptian university students demonstrating for freedom were being shot, Kerry was posing with the same security forces responsible and endorsing Egypt’s transition to democracy under the rule of the army generals. The same can be seen in Palestine, Yemen and Libya.
With growing instability in the Middle East, it is clear that the favorable conditions for terrorism will continue, especially if we add the term “state terrorism” to the vague definition of terrorism that revolves around threats to western interests.
However, the US’ favored choice of using military tactics and airstrikes to face violence, and terrorism to maintain its hegemonic power structure in the region at whatever price, proves that there is no value for the lives of thousands of innocent civilians.