Can the eternal victim ever be empowered?

This article was originally published at BikyaMasr.com

In the intellectually bankrupt world of dichotomies we seem to be living in, the issue of empowerment of women is caught in the middle of a reductionist whirlpool just like every other complex multi-layered issue. Women are either eastern or western (posing interesting identity politics for those of us who are both), they are either oppressed or liberated, and when they are oppressed, they are either eternal victims or they are themselves to blame for their own oppression.

The world has had a strange victim fetish for as long as injustice has existed, and it is by no means exclusive to the realm of the portrayal of women. During the recent Egypt/Algeria scandal we saw this fetish manifest itself in the opinion that the thugs who vandalized and bullied others are just poor Egyptians who have no other outlet for their frustration. As if they are so victimized that they have contracted some irrepressible urge to act as hooligans. The same pattern can be detected when analyzing rhetoric surrounding economic development. For years the dominant development paradigm was based on a theory called “dependency theory”. This theory posits that many nations are underdeveloped because they have been victims of colonization, which is true, but the theory takes it one step further by claiming that their victimization is so extensive that they are no longer capable of even participating in their own development.

When it comes to women, this pattern of thought is alive and stronger than ever. Whether its the cliche Hollywood damsel in distress, or the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim women by the media as oppressed downtrodden souls, the world is always looking for someone to save, liberate, or enlighten. This worldview becomes especially problematic when speaking of women’s empowerment because a belief in chronic victimhood directly conflicts with the notion of self-empowerment. And there is not an issue that stands in the way of women’s empowerment today that can be solved without their own initiative.

The issue of sexual harassment in Egypt provides a prime example. Those who aren’t busy denying sexual harassment usually explain it using one of many predictably simplistic approaches. There’s the camp that feels sorry for the male perpetrators of harassment and blames the female victims for somehow bringing on this abnormal behavior. And there’s the camp that acknowledges the issue, but sees women as the silent victim who can do nothing but wait for the problem to be solved by somebody else.

I am not pointing this out because I am against providing explanations for such a phenomenon. Quite the contrary, I believe that understanding the root causes of any problem is crucial before we can find a solution. What worries me is that such a simplistic perception of a complex phenomenon necessarily results in ineffective solutions.

Consequentially, the “blame the victim” camp, rather than advocating for the education of men, advocates to place restrictions on women so as to avoid posing any temptations to potential perpetrators. On the other side of the coin, the “eternal victim” camp believes women should not speak up against harassment but should rather suffer in silence and wait for somebody else to do the talking. Interestingly, many (and I dare say most) women subscribe to these opinions just as often as men do.

It is important to acknowledge and admit the sad state that many women find themselves in today before we can ever hope to alleviate these horrible circumstances. The problem is that oftentimes the victimhood of women is talked about, and then talked about some more, and then it turns into a kind of obsession. By the time we begin to talk about solutions it’s time to go home.

Any strategy for long-term empowerment must have two wings: the outcome wing and the process wing. Even though the intended outcomes may be economic, social, or cultural, the process must necessarily be political in order for it to be sustainable, and this can never be achieved without the full commitment and active participation of women.


January 22, 2010 Posted by | Development, Egyptian Affairs, International Affairs, Media/Press | Leave a comment

Meeting “Abu Treika” in an Aswan Youth Centre

As the taxi was speeding down the incredibly bumpy alley, I looked around me trying to picture the youth centre that would eventually appear among all this rubble. 1 flat tire later, we finally made it to the centre, which was really just a very run-down 2-story building. I stepped into the centre to be enthusiastically greeted by a group of girls and women, and the director of the centre Hagg Sayed. They proceeded to tell me about the work they’d been doing to get girls more involved in centre activities, and to get women more involved in centre governance. All this was done as part of an initiative that I was charged with documenting as part of my job. This project was implemented by the Future Association for Development and Consumer & Environmental Protection, a local NGO in Aswan, and targeted 23 youth centres across Aswan governorate. Their goal was to open up this traditionally male-dominated space to be more inclusive of girls/women.

According to my guide – a woman from the NGO who was kind enough to take me around to the centres – there is no other form of recreation for these kids other than to play on the streets. These youth centres offer children a much-needed safe space to just be kids, a place where they can run around and play and engage in constructive activities. But these centres have long been non-inclusive of girls, largely due to societal perceptions. The idea of the youth centre as a place unsuitable for girls is deeply entrenched in the community (and probably across the country) and many parents were worried about their daughters’ reputations if they were to become involved in centre activities.

That’s why prior to implementing the initiative itself, it was important to first build trust with the local community. The NGO conducted extensive interviews, focus groups, and public seminars to try to change the community’s perception of the centres as a male-only space that is unsafe for girls.

According to some of girls I talked to, their parents’ fears that rumours would begin to spread about their daughters actually materialized. In reaction, some of the girls stopped coming to the centre, and others were prevented by their parents. But the NGO persisted in talking to the girls and their families and managed to convince a few to pay no attention to the rumours. For anybody who knows Egyptian culture, you will understand that persuading families to ignore rumours about their children is no small feat, for saving face is very important. Eventually, these few girls that continued to attend managed to encourage other girls and their families to follow. Gradually, opinions and perceptions changed.

The next step was to get the girls involved in sports. Now here was a revolutionary idea. They started them off with more “girl-friendly” sports like table-tennis. But eventually challenged them to take on soccer, karate, and even weight-lifting. When the girls started to participate in these more “male-oriented” sports, they were mocked mercilessly by their male colleagues. My guide was telling me all this when she yelled out “hey, Abu Trieka, come here”.  (Abu Treika is the name of one of the most well-known and admired Egyptian soccer players in Egypt). I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see a teenage boy or something, and instead saw a shy 12-year old girl. “Your name is Abu Treika?”, I asked her, smiling. The guide told me that the boys had given her that nickname after she scored a killer goal during one of the soccer matches. The girl beamed with pride as she told me she could beat any guy at the centre.

Today girls are credited with winning numerous trophies in soccer, weight-lifting, and table tennis among others. Furthermore, the once sceptical male members of the centre today attend all the girls’ tournaments, enthusiastically cheering them from the sidelines.

Talking to the girls, it was impossible not to notice how proud they were. Two of them volunteered to sing a song they had just learned the week before about the beauty of Aswan. Another insisted on displaying her weight-lifting skills and proudly carried weight after weight in the tiny broken-down gym. They took me on a tour of the centre  and showed me their library and some of the arts and crafts they had created and displayed on the centre’s walls.

To see firsthand the changes that have occurred in these communities was truly inspiring. This isn’t to say that eveyrthing is now perfect there. Keep in mind that these are some of the poorest villages in Aswan, some of the poorest in Egypt. These villages face a whole host of problems related to poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, lack of healthcare, lack of clean water, pollution, and other problems that are common to most Egyptian villages. These children are deprived of a lot of things and so many of their rights are violated. But this initiative has managed to make things a little bit better by fulfilling a very important right: at least now, these girls aren’t deprived of their right to a childhood.


P.S. The above-mentioned NGO is NOT a foreign organization. It is 100% Egyptian and 100% Aswani.

August 8, 2009 Posted by | Development, Egyptian Affairs, Portraits of Egypt | 2 Comments

Microcredit: Panacea for Poverty or Just Another Buzzword?

In 2006 Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus proclaimed that he had found the panacea that will cure the world of poverty whereby “the only place you would be able to see poverty is in the poverty museums”. This panacea was none other than the age-old concept of providing loans to those who need it, with one important addition: these loans would be exceptionally small in size, and would be provided to the poor. This type of loan ultimately became known as “micro-loans” or “microcredit”.

Microcredit in Egypt is said to range on average between EGP 100 to EGP 3000 and is generally provided by international donors (USAID and Ford Foundation being the largest), the Egyptian Social Fund for Development through NGOs and development banks, and commercial banks. Almost all of the NGO-based micro-lending offers other social services in conjunction with credit such as training for hygiene and health, literacy classes, and skills-building classes. Group savings, which are today formally known within the microfinance field as Revolving Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs), have been present in Egypt for decades. Local moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates and are known for their exploitation of the poor have also been present for years in Egypt’s informal economy. Overall, microcredit is nothing new to the Egyptian poor, but has been largely informal which may have contributed to its limited efficacy.

However, sustainable poverty-alleviation involves so much more than pushing people slightly above the poverty line; it implies a certain degree of independence and freedom. The non-poor have the freedom to obtain a loan should they wish to do so, which is a very different situation from relying on loans as a means of subsistence. Comparing this notion of poverty-alleviation to the actual benefits of micro-credit, an obvious gap can be seen. Poverty is a result of complex historical and economic processes; to even begin to tackle poverty one must look at the legacy of illiteracy, environmental degradation, dependency, economic exploitation, political marginalization and repression, and many other factors. Claiming that a slight increase in income will eradicate poverty is a wildly simplistic approach that views poverty through a strictly monetary lens.

Furthermore, claiming that the poor who obtain these loans will have access to markets and an ever-expanding enterprise is an incredibly naïve assumption. One can immediately see a problem with the assumption of zero-barriers to entry to markets and that micro-enterprises will be able to compete against multinational powerhouses. The idea of micro-credit being a sustainable mechanism for job creation is flawed, for most of these micro-enterprises are in the informal sector.

However, this criticism should not detract from its importance to the actual loan recipients. Many loan recipients – most of whom are women – truly rely on the income they make from the micro-enterprises they have started. They rely on this income to feed and educate their children. Many women are given literacy and budget-design classes in conjunction with the loans they receive. Economic theory portrays the free-market system as instantaneously efficient. However, reality always necessitates a time-lag between the “trickle-down” phenomenon and harsh day-to-day circumstances. Moreover, in environments of shallow poverty, a little extra income, while it may not remove poverty entirely, goes a long way. Micro-credit is definitely not a panacea for poverty, but its positive effects should not be ignored. Thus, micro-credit should not be used as a long-term poverty alleviation tool, but rather as a stop-gap measure to ease the burden of poverty, and to fill in development time-lags. Both its benefits and limitations must be taken into consideration when designing poverty-alleviation projects.

This article first appeared in the May issue of the Ibn Khaldun Centre’s Civil Society Newsletter.

June 24, 2009 Posted by | Development | Leave a comment