The opportunity to interview the second-highest-ranking official in Hamas came suddenly, unexpectedly and at the very worst possible time: just before Passover. The Forward staff was shorthanded. Worse, at home, we were shifting into full Passover house-cleaning mode. I tried hard to argue for doing this any other week. But Stanley L. Cohen, the attorney for Hamas’ Mousa Abu Marzook and the midwife for this meeting with him in Cairo, relayed back that it was that week — or there would be no interview.
Ultimately, I concluded this was one of those stories that defined my sense of mission as a journalist, not to mention as a Jew who cares about Israel. So I approached my spouse, Dianne, who is a Conservative rabbi, full of apology. She stopped me in mid-sentence.
“When have you ever helped out anyway?” she asked. “Go.”
She laid down one obvious stipulation: Whatever you do, don’t miss the Seder.
So I got to Cairo late on Monday night; conducted my interviews with Abu Marzook on Tuesday and Wednesday; got back to the Cairo Marriott (a very nice place!) early Wednesday evening and left for Cairo’s international airport at midnight that same night in order to be home Thursday afternoon — the day before the first night Seder.
Abu Marzook could not believe I was leaving Cairo so fast, or understand why I’d end up divorced if I didn’t. I explained about the Seder, and about Passover, when the Jews had to…well, leave Egypt really fast. He said, “But that was 4,000 years ago when the Pharaoh was trying to kill the Jews. No one’s trying to kill you now.”
“Actually,” I said, “kind of, you guys are.” And we were off on what ended up being a five-and-a-half hour discussion over those two days.
As it turned out, he was fascinated with my wife; downright astounded, in fact, to learn she is a rabbi.
Before, during and after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, women have been the focus of the protracted conflict in Egypt between grassroots protesters and the military regime. First it was the attack on CBS reporter Lara Logan, then the so-called ‘virginity checks’ on women protesters detained by the Egyptian army. And this past week the world was shocked by to the horrific photographs of female demonstrators being beaten with metal poles, kicked and stepped on and then discarded like garbage. What galvanized world opinion was one photograph that will become iconic, of the demonstrator whose black robe was ripped from her body, laid prostrate on the ground with her blue bra exposed. Max Fisher wrote in The Atlantic that:
there is something especially barbaric about this photo. The taboo of violence against unarmed women is unusually strong in the Arab world. But to watch three soldiers beat a defenseless woman with batons, their fists, and for one extraordinarily cruel soldier with his boot, is not even the most provocative part. For these men to pull her black abaya above her head and expose her midriff and chest is, for Egypt, a profound and sexually charged humiliation. And there is a certain awful irony of using that abaya, a symbol of modesty and piety, to cover her face and drag her on the street.
American-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy has been freed after being beaten, arrested and interrogated by security forces in Cairo. Eltahawy, 44, has reported that she was also sexually assaulted during her 12-hour detention. She is in Egypt covering the violent protests in Tahrir Square and its environs. Eltahawy is the first Egyptian journalist to have lived and worked for a western news agency in Israel, and she continues to be a columnist for The Jerusalem Report.
Early Thursday morning Cairo time, Eltahawy tweeted that in Tahrir Square it was “Pitch black, only flashing ambulance lights and air thick with gas.” Three hours later, she tweeted, “Beaten arrested in interior ministry.” She was able to do so because, although her own phone had been lost during her beating, an activist lent her his phone so she could get the tweet out. His phone battery apparently died right after that.
It was only after Eltahawy tweeted, with what turned out to be a broken left arm and a broken right hand, “I AM FREE” around 2:00 PM Cairo time, that she was able to get out more about what had happened to her. She tweeted that she had been detained by riot police of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (who have control over Egypt’s political transition) and sexually assaulted. “Five or 6 surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count how many hands tried to get into my trousers,” she wrote.
In a naked display of solidarity, 40 Israeli women recently took off their clothes to support an embattled young Egyptian woman who is under fire for posting a nude photograph of herself online.
The Egyptian woman, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, 20, posted the picture and allowed it to be put on Twitter in order to protest sexism and the oppression of women in Egypt. She told CNN that she did it because:
I am not shy of being a woman in a society where women are nothing but sex objects harassed on a daily basis by men who know nothing about sex or the importance of a woman. The photo is an expression of my being and I see the human body as the best artistic representation of that…
There’s a new female heroine in the Arab world. A brave 25-year-old Egyptian marketing manager named Samira Ibrahim is suing the Egyptian military for the trauma she experienced during their so-called ‘virginity tests’ she suffered while being held in a military detainment center.
Ibrahim was part of the group of 17 women arrested in Tahrir Square on March 9 when they were demonstrating at the height of protests against the Mubarak regime shortly after Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
While in custody, the women were beaten, strip-searched and given electric shocks, and violated sexually, while being told that those who were not found to be virgins would face prostitution charges. The women’s mistreatment at the hands of the military officers was documented by Amnesty International. The women were released five days later and some of them received one-year suspended prison sentences.
One of the most bizarre and horrifying stories to come out of the protests earlier this year in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the headline that the Egyptian authorities, had, for some bizarre reason, conducted ‘virginity checks’ on female protesters who were detained by the military.
The accusations were part of an Amnesty International report, which said the women were beaten, strip-searched and given electric shocks. They were told that those who were not found to be virgins would face prostitution charges. The 17 women who were detained at the height the protests that led to the resignation of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak were tried in military court and released on March 13. Some of them received one-year suspended prison sentences.
The part about “virginity checks” sounded too strange to be true, which is why the military authorities probably thought they would get away with their repeated denials of the women’s descriptions of the invasive examinations by a doctor and a nurse. But now, a military official — an unnamed “senior Egyptian general” — has come out and confirmed it in an interview with CNN. The jaw-dropping part is that the confirmation didn’t happen because the general confessed it with any kind of regret or apology; instead, he did so in order to defend the practice and offer his explanation.
CBS newswoman Lara Logan — who, as The Sisterhood has reported on here and here, — spoke out recently about her experience being sexually assaulted (stripped, beaten and raped with the hands of a large group of men) while covering the protests earlier this year in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. She said she was coming forward in order to assert the rights of women. But if that is the case, then there are so many stories here that are not being followed, ranging from the culpability of her employer to Egypt’s societal attitudes toward women to laws in the America that would deem that Logan had not, in fact, been raped.
Let’s start with the last one. Ms. Magazine notes that the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR), defines forcible rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” But the definition of “forcible” rape “excludes most rapes,” Ms. reports. “It leaves out oral, anal and statutory rape; rape with an object, finger or fist; incest; and, for many police departments that misinterpret the definition, women raped while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol are excluded, as well as unconscious women and those with physical or mental disabilities. That means our national dialogue on rape is diluted; it’s based on bad numbers and faulty reporting–and that leaves women like Logan to be ignored.”
Some days I think, Jews are the new women. Jews are like the woman in a room full of men, the ones who are supposed to stay quiet and nice and not talk too loud or even at all, not appear in any way strong or assertive, and never make any waves. Just as society prefers women when they are passive and submissive, the world at large prefers Jews that way, too.
I thought of this as I watched the “60 Minutes” interview with CBS correspondent Lara Logan as she described being sexually assaulted on February 11 amid the uprising in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Her graphic descriptions of hands and nails everywhere on her body — groping, grabbing, pulling and scratching — are a woman’s worst nightmare. She was the only woman on the CBS team that night, and she was isolated from her crew and throngs of Egyptian men had their way with every inch of her body, inside and out. It was a harrowing account, and most definitively a woman’s story, in the sense that it was her womanhood that made her a victim.
But it is also a Jewish story — and, actually, an Israeli one.
In what can only be described as a case of terrible timing, I wrote my previous post reporting on how joyous and safe women were feeling in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Egyptian protests. The post appeared only hours before CBS News made public the brutal attack on journalist Lara Logan in the square.
The description of her attack, as released by CBS, was horrifying on many levels. The New York Post reported: “‘60 Minutes’ correspondent Lara Logan was repeatedly sexually assaulted by thugs yelling, ‘Jew! Jew!’ as she covered the chaotic fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo’s main square Friday, CBS and sources said yesterday.”
Interestingly, the cries of “Jew! Jew!” were not in the initial description of the event released by CBS.
Any woman who has spent time in Arab countries was likely to have been particularly impressed by the strong presence of women in the Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests. Whether it is Cairo or any other Arab city, walking around unaccompanied in public is not always a comfortable experience.
But the spirit of fellowship and common cause seemed to have united those who gathered to throw off the reigns of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. And the diverse array of women in the square not only looked as if they were at home, they appeared to be at the center of the action. An Indian television station took a close half-hour look at the women of the Egyptian revolution in a short documentary called “The Women of Tahrir Square.”
The film brings the camera into the crowds, capturing pictures of women of all ages, from teens to mothers with children and babies, from those tented in long black robes, to those wearing colorful headscarves to those in thoroughly modern Western attire. The monitors in charge of checking those who entered the square for weapons were women.
The overwhelming assumption in many circles is that anti-Zionism is the only authentic feminist position. This knee-jerk position assumes that caring about human rights and equality necessitates a view Israel as a great patriarchal enemy.
I support Jewish-Muslim women’s peace efforts, and I completely support the notion that women must play a key role in bringing change to the Middle East. Women’s language, social tools and shared cultural history have the potential to alter the discourse of Palestinian-Israeli relations, by placing human relationships and care above power politics. But I don’t believe that by saying this, I should have to denounce Israel’s right to exist. I live in Israel; my family proudly serves in the army; my efforts to promote equity, fairness and democracy in Israel are based on an unwavering belief in Israel’s right to safely exist and defend its people. I believe in fighting injustice within Israeli society — not in attacking Israel at its core. But this nuanced approach rarely finds public expression, and that’s very challenging for me.
Once, an essay I wrote for The Jerusalem Post about anti-Sephardic discrimination in state-run religious schools was picked up by Web sites calling for the destruction of Israel. Shortly thereafter I was invited to contribute to an international feminist news portal as the sole Israeli representative. I still have not contributed, simply because I haven’t worked out how to write a feminist piece about women in Israel without it being used as fodder for Israel-bashing.
This issue came to the fore recently as Israelis were barred from a breast cancer conference held in Cairo.