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Women for Expo 2015 – Interview with Rana Allam: Women’s empowerment has a very long way to go in rural Egypt 0

Brussels- After the Egyptian Revolution got dragged into a cycle of violence and complicated politicking, numerous stories have come out describing how daily life has failed to improve for ordinary women. Rana Allam, former Editor in Chief of The Daily News Egypt, discusses the aftermath of the Arab Spring, journalism in Egypt today and how the “Empowerment of women has a very long way to go in rural Egypt” in in this interview for Women for Expo, a project promoted by Expo Milano 2015.

Much of your journalistic career has been based around the support of Human Rights for all. However, in the current climate of intimidation and violence in Egypt, is independent journalism still possible in Egypt?

Since the military took power, over 90 journalists have been arrested, of which six have faced military trials. Independent journalism is suffering badly as journalists walk a very thin line and self-censorship is prevalent. We have very few independent media-outlets, most of which are online. Investigative journalism is almost dead for now and the job has become quite risky.

When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, the western media covered the revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere in detail. However, as the Arab Spring became bogged down in violence, there may be a tendency in the media to move on to the “next” crisis. How do you assess the coverage of the Arab Rising by the Western media?

Journalism is about the news, and yesterday’s news is not considered news anymore so the media has to move on to the next crisis. I think that during the uprisings and their aftermaths, the Western media was able to cover the events effectively because they wrote what they saw, which was quite simple. The problem arose after the uprisings, when everything became political and complicated. It was no longer about people on the streets getting killed, it was about the inner workings of the country’s politics. A journalist who does not know the country very well would not be able to report on it correctly.

For example, it took months for many foreign journalists to realize that Egypt has three camps not two. We have the old regime supporters (who now support the military), the Muslim Brotherhood (who want an Islamic state) and the democracy advocates (who want neither military nor Islamic government). Many western media outlets fell into the mistake of thinking that the fight was only between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, while democracy advocates were also being killed and jailed. If you don’t know the inner political workings of a country, you cannot report effectively on post-revolution events.

As a woman journalist, can you describe how the national broadcasters cover gender issues? And what role do women journalists play in the national media?

There is huge lack of coverage of women’s issues on national media. The media is helping to exacerbate the problem by having misogynistic TV show hosts discussing women.

As for journalism, women are making their way and at times doing amazing work. However, they are not getting the deserved acknowledgment of such work. There is not one female chief editor of a print Arabic newspaper in Egypt, nor a female head of a major TV network. Women are left to small jobs or, at best, manage women’s or culture sections of Arabic papers/TV channels.

A report published in November 2013 rated Egypt as the worst for women’s rights amongst 22 Arab states, including Iraq and Syria. Similarly, a UN Report from 2013 states 99.3% of women have been victim to one form or another of harassment. Are these figures not only a damning indictment of Egyptian society, but also of the failed legacy of the Arab spring?

The figures are indeed a damning indictment of Egyptian society, however this is the natural outcome of the country’s decades of bad education, oppression and a terribly unjust social structure, on top of the consistent failure of the authorities to uphold the law, thus creating a climate of impunity, and instead keeping busy with policing political thought.

As for this being a failed legacy of the Arab Spring, I disagree as the Arab Spring occured for these precise reasons. You must remember that it was the educated middle class that initially rose up, and it was more of a cultural revolution than a political one. The Egyptian Arab Spring was itself a reaction against the police and the unfair social system that were the reason for such societal failures. Had the Arab revolutions succeeded, there may have been progress in the status of women and a stop to violence against them. However, you cannot blame the above figures on revolutions that did not win.. on the responsibility instead lies with decades of failed governance.

Little is known in the West about the role of women in rural Egypt. What are some of the challenges that they face?

Egypt has a legacy of ignoring its rural areas and many villages have no schools, hospitals or social services. Children have to walk for hours to go to school and in such areas, girls are not allowed to walk so far away from home so most of them do not get an education at all. Most girls in rural areas are raised for marriage, not to get an education and be empowered. When they grow up and do get married, they often do all the work and yet they remain in the shadows of their husbands. Empowerment of women has a very long way to go in rural Egypt and first step is to acknowledge the work that they do.

Do you have any particularly striking memories of rural Egypt?

Yes, the hospitality of the women! When I was about 8 years old, I travelled with my family on a road trip through some rural areas of Egypt. The trip took about a week, and the only strong memory I have is how the women were so secluded from the men, and how hospitable they were. That was quite strange for me, eating my meals away from the male relatives, and to have my plate filled up with food continuously until I could not breathe from the amount of food being served and having the women help me finish it. They were brilliant!

Is there an Egyptian dish that has an important meaning for you? Why?

Yes, it is called “Fatta” and is made of bread, rice, chunks of meat, with garlic and vinegar dressing. It is originally a Nubian dish, and is the main dish in the Greater Eid (Eid Al Adha – Feast of the Sacrifice). Egyptians have this dish for breakfast on Eid day.

It is important because most Egyptians cannot afford to eat meat during the year, and on this feast, richer Egyptians give away free meat for the poorer ones so they get to eat “fatta”. If you are on the streets on Eid early morning, you can see all people either giving away or receiving meat. Some Egyptians never see red meat on their plates except on this particular day of the year. It always feels good on that day to know that almost all Egyptians are sharing this dish at the same moment.

By Kevin Hind –

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