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Egyptian journalist visits Mills

Egyptian journalist and women’s ac- tivist Gihan Abou Zeid speaks at Mills. (Ari Nussbaum)
Egyptian journalist and women’s ac- tivist Gihan Abou Zeid speaks at Mills. (Ari Nussbaum)

On Oct. 24, Egyptian journalist and women’s activist Gihan Abou Zeid visited Mills to speak about her experiences during the Egyptian Revolution. Abou Zeid is the managing editor for the magazine Politics and Religion and is also a writer for Al Arab, a Qatari newspaper. She is actively involved in the fight for women’s rights in Egypt.

Abou Zeid had spent the week speaking at colleges all over California, but Mills was the first women’s college she had been to. The event was sponsored by the Government Department, the Institute for Civic Leadership, the Muslim Student Association, OSA, the Public Policy Program, the Social Justice Resource Center, Spiritual & Religious Life and Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies.

“I thought it was really powerful and said a lot that it was her first time at a women’s college,” said sophomore Joss Valen, who attended the event. “As a women’s activist, that’s indicative that it’s not something she’s exposed to and it shows the kind of environment she’s in.”

During her visit to Mills, Abou Zeid spoke to several dozen students about Tahrir Square in Cairo, where thousands of protestors gathered in 2011 during the Egyptian Revolution. The Egyptian Revolution was an explosive movement that included large-scale protests against poverty, unemployment, and what they felt was an unjust government.

“The main fear was that they wanted to change our identity,” Abou Zeid said of the revolution and the protests in the square. “They wanted to build an Islamic nation instead of an Egyptian one.”

Abou Zeid spent her time in Tahrir Square taking photographs of the protests and writing down the slogans and chants she heard. During her talk, she told the stories of two of the women she met at the square who had taken off their veils.  Headdresses are worn by many Muslim women, and usually cover the hair and sometimes parts of the face; the two women Abou Zeid spoke of said they felt oppressed by Islam and that they experienced a sense of liberation when they finally chose to remove their veils as a sign of protest. While these two women occasionally don their veils again, they no longer wear the veils constantly as they once felt pressured to do.

One of the women Abou Zeid spoke of was Heba, a woman she met at Tahrir Square and later became friends with. Heba was also writing about the events of Tahrir Square and the two met when Heba asked Abou Zeid for a pencil. After the revolution, Heba told Abou Zeid about her oppression as a woman in a Muslim family. 

According to Abou Zeid, Heba grew up in a small village outside of Cairo and first felt the oppression of women at an early age — when she was 9, she became the victim of female genital mutilation (FGM), which is also referred to as female circumcision and usually involves partial or full removal of the clitoris. Abou Zeid explained that FGM is common in Egypt.

“For [women in Egypt], it’s like destiny,” Abou Zeid said. “None of them would imagine that someone would escape from that.”

Heba eventually left her oppresive home and moved to China, where she became a teacher and learned to bellydance, which she said taught her that her sexuality was not a sin. Heba has since gotten married and begun studying for her master’s degree.

“This is what all of us want to do: change,” Abou Zeid said. She went on to say that the people attending the protests hope to change themselves and their nation as a whole.

The second female protestor that Abou Zeid spoke of was named Mai.

“I asked her why she was there and she said, ‘I was there to scream. I wanted to scream. I needed to scream,'” Abou Zeid said.

Mai’s need to scream was apparently caused by her fiance breaking off their engagement, Abou Zeid learned. He refused to marry her because he believed that she was lying about being a virgin, and she was completely cut out of the man’s life.

When Mai first arrived at Tahrir Square, she was still wearing her veil. During the protest, she attempted to protect a pregnant woman from tear gas and lost her veil in the shuffle. When a woman offered her something to cover her hair with, Mai realized that she did not want to hide her hair again.

“Their personal revolution started earlier than that,” Abou Zeid said of Heba and Mai. “Both were very much ready and wanted to take off the veil.”

Laura Engelken, director of Spiritual and Religious Life at Mills, was a facilitator of the event and enjoyed the stories that Abou Zeid shared.

“I was reminded how personal experiences of cultural, religious and political institutions deeply inform and shape our relationships and responses to them,” Engelken said.

Abou Zeid said that her experiences at Tahrir Square, as well as those of the women she met there, changed her. She was fascinated to see the diversity of people at the square and remembers seeing men and women of all ages. She was amazed that each person had a different reason for being there and a different story to tell. The protests of the Egyptian Revolution allowed different people to come together and share their stories as well as learn from each other’s experiences.

“If I could name the revolution,” Abou Zeid said, “I would call it ‘people-awakening.'”