El Bent, the award-winning short film by Sondos Shabayek, follows a young woman walking down a street in Cairo. The film reveals what 99% of women in Egypt—the percentage of women who have been harassed in Egypt according to a U.N. survey—know as an innate truth of public space: it is hostile.
Shabayek’s work challenges this hostility in many ways: El Bent deals with this as its subject content, but the bulk of her work has been in theater, making interventions in public space in the act of performance. Shabayek, a writer, theater director, and storyteller, created the Tahrir Monologues in 2011. The project included storytelling classes and public performances of real stories from Tahrir Square during the January uprisings.
However, in the three years since that time, Shabayek has kept her work current, directing and performing with the BuSSy Monologues. Like Tahrir Monologues, BuSSY features stories from real Egyptians, however this time the narratives tackle “gender issues from the perspectives of both women and men.”
At a time of horrific and visible mob assaults on women, endemic sexual harassment and new legislation to combat it, and a proliferation of civil society organizations that address the issue, everyone from President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi to everyday citizens on the street have engaged in the discussion on gender in Egypt. Despite this vigorous public debate, BuSSy’s subject matter is still considered taboo in many ways. During a June visit to TIMEP’s offices in Washington, D.C., Shabayek explored the challenges in dealing with this sensitive subject matter in Egypt.
Sondos Shabayek: We used to perform inside AUC, the American University in Cairo, because that’s where the [BuSSy] project originally started in 2006. In 2009, I contacted a venue in Cairo called El Saqyaa—this is one of the very famous independent, not state-owned, private spaces—and we were supposed to perform there. But then, last minute, I was asked for a censorship permit. I explained that getting a censorship permit would take months, because you have to submit the script, and then you have to wait for approval, etc.
So in 2010, a few months before I actually book the space for a performance, I did submit the script — and not the original, actual, script. I knew they would probably have issues with some of the topics, so I censored the script, and pretended that was the [real] script. I submitted half of the stories that we were supposed to perform. And then, they even censored out more of the script.
They would remove things like: two guys would be sitting and talking, and one guy would be saying “I want to sleep with a woman,” and they would censor out “to sleep with a woman.” It would just be “I want.” And then his friend, instead of saying “I also want to sleep with a woman,” he would just say “I also want.” It’s impossible to say anything. It’s impossible to do anything when censorship is at this level.
But nevertheless, I took the permit, and I went back to El Saqyaa. They ignored me for the longest time, and then finally the coordinator there told me that the owner of the place had a problem with the script and with the topics: we were turned down.
I had quite a tour with different venues (private and governmental) and I was turned down by everyone. And then when we finally found someone who was open-minded enough to support us, he didn’t have a space, but said we could use the space downstairs in front of the parking space to set a stage and do the performance, so we just did that.
The next day, we found the people from the moral police, from the tourism police, from state security, and from the censorship [waiting for us at the performance space]. Basically, it was that either we had to cut out all the testimonies that they said were problematic, or we couldn’t perform, or we would have to go with them. We even had to cut more things than what had already been cut.
We had the testimony of a girl talking about what had happened to her when she took off the veil, and the double standards of society. And they had an issue with this—they called it apostasy. This was in 2010, and then I learned to avoid anything governmental all together.
The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP): How has your audience responded to the subject matter?
SS: People are shocked. They watch the performance and they are still shocked. Even the ones you expect to kind of know [about sexual harassment]—they don’t know! And that just gives you an idea. You would think that they don’t need to see the performance, but in fact every single time they come, you have people breaking down in tears, or people in complete shock, or people in complete denial, saying “those are not true stories, this can’t be happening.” So it just tells you that this audience needs to keep hearing [the testimonies].
TIMEP: Regarding censorship: do you think that there is any free space or do you feel like you’re more underground [when you perform]?
SS: All the projects are underground, whether it’s art, regardless of if it’s gender work, all the underground projects have the same problem: it’s very hard for them to function. I keep trying to expand, trying to attract a larger audience, then I feel like my hands are tied because there’s only so much I can do.
TIMEP: You have talked about how you would be performing in a subway car and then you would have to keep moving around because the police would be chasing you, so it’s obviously very frustrating. What makes you keep going in spite of the frustration and repression?
SS: I hope that the projects we do, like the performances in the subway, reach to the general population. I don’t have a tangible, fixed, plan on how we’re going to reach [all Egyptians] but I am hoping that bit by bit, then we’re able to reach other audiences.
I don’t feel that I have a choice. It’s either I continue this, or I leave the country. And maybe one day I will wake up and decide: “that’s it, I’m never doing it again.” But as long as I’m living in Egypt, this is what I’m doing and this is what I’m passionate about, and this is what I wake up with the urge to do. Maybe if we were in a different country and if things magically change, probably I will not have the urge to speak up and share stories because it will be accepted to share those kinds of stories. Because there is pressure, there is the urge. But if there wasn’t so much pressure, there wouldn’t be a need for that.
Sondos Shabayek is an Egyptian filmmaker, theater director, storyteller, and activist. Since 2007 Ms. Shabayaek has been one of the main driving forces behind the “BuSSy Project,” featuring annual performances telling the real stories of women in Egypt. Ms. Shabayek is also the writer and director of the award-winning short film El Bent (The Girl). El Bent recently was awarded the top prize in the “Women in New Egypt” film competition organized by the British Embassy Egypt and Misr International.