On September 23, 2015 the Egyptian regime of President Abdel Fattah el Sisi pardoned around 100 mostly political prisoners. Included in the pardon were seven women human rights defenders (WHRDs) – namely Yara Sallam, Sanaa Seif, Hanan Mustafa Mohamed, Samar Ibrahim, Fikreya Mohamed (known as Rania El-Sheikh), Salwa Mahraez and Nahed Sherif Abdel Hamid (known as Nahed Bibo) – who were arrested on June 21, 2014 following a peaceful demonstration calling for the repeal of Egypt’s draconian anti-protest law. While the prisoners’ release was cause for celebration, it was a bittersweet one, as many pointed to the fact that they should never have been locked up in the first place and that thousands continue to unjustly languish in Egyptian prisons.
On this International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, the Young Feminist Wire brings you the story of Nahed Sherif Abdel Hamid, one of the young WHRDs who were recently released in the pardon. We also speak with Amal Elmohandes, who works with Nazra for Feminist Studies. Amal closely followed Nahed’s case and says the violations against WHRDs in Egypt are systemic.
Arrested, assaulted, beaten and jailed
Nahed Sherif Abdel Hamid (also known as Nahed Bibo) is a 33-year-old Egyptian activist and mother of a 10-year-old child. Nahed was also a factory worker before she was detained for the first time in 2012. Unfortunately, Nahed’s story of imprisonment and abuse at the hands of the state security forces starts long before June 21, 2014.
Nahed was first detained in June 2012. At the time, she was volunteering as a first aid responder at one of the field hospitals in Tahrir Square. That day, Supreme Court judges were staging a sit-in in front of the Supreme Court building protesting proposed amendments to the law.
Clashes erupted at the sit-in and Nahed responded to a call for help. When she arrived in front of the Supreme Court building, Nahed recalls: “All of a sudden, someone grabbed me by the shoulder and dragged me by my arm all the way up the stairs leading up to the court. My face was being smashed against the cement stairs.” Her face was unrecognizable, her upper lip was cut open and her eyes were completely swollen. She kept trying to show one of the attackers her first aid responder ID, but she says he kept pummeling her as he ripped off her ID and started tearing it apart with his teeth. “The guy was really strange-looking; he was dressed all in black and had guns,” she recalls.
As if all this wasn’t enough, her attackers also tried to sexually assault her. She says: “I was putting up a fight because at that point, I thought, they can beat me up but I don’t want anyone touching my body [private parts].”
Nahed says with her hands and feet tied, she was thrown in a small room where she endured a barrage of insults and more beatings. At that point, no one knew where she was.
She was eventually taken to a police station where the head of secret police for that station continued torturing and beating her. That went on until she eventually was sentenced to two years and transferred to Qanater Women’s Prison.
At Qanater Women’s Prison, Nahed was subjected to more horrible beatings and she was even sexually assaulted by another woman at the prison. When she complained about the sexual assault to the prison administration, she was thrown in solitary confinement for three days without any access to a bathroom, food or water. “I felt I was dying,” she remembers.
Nahed says things only started improving for her after Nazra staff and novelist and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif came to her defense.
Nahed was released after a year and nine months. Unfortunately, she was arrested three months later on June 21, 2014.
Strategy, Solidarity, Sisterhood
Amal Elmohandes is the director of the Women Human Rights Defenders Program at Nazra for Feminist Studies, an Egyptian feminist organization. Nazra generally responds to the criminalization of WHRDs by providing legal support, conducting visits to police stations and prisons and advocating for WHRDs at the international level. Amal says Nazra provided Nahed with the legal support she needed. Amal and her colleagues also regularly visited with Nahed at Qanater Women’s Prison, standing by her and helping her with whatever she needed.
“When we first learned that she was among those who were arrested in the Itehadeya Presidential Palace case, we were horrified,” says Amal. That’s because, the same police officer who had previously arrested and beaten her, spotted and arrested Nahed before she could even make it to the June 21, 2014 protest. The officer proceeded to kick her on her nose with his boot.
Nahed was further beaten on her way to the police station and denied medical care even though she had a bleeding, broken nose.
Compared to her previous imprisonment, Nahed says she was treated much better when she was imprisoned this time around with the 6 other WHRDs at Qanater Women’s Prison. That’s because there was much more pressure and international advocacy.
Amal explains: “We’ve had immense support from international feminist organizations that we consider our dear, dear partners such as AWID, such as the International Service for Human Rights, the Nobel Women’s initiative, ICAN and many others. We conduct advocacy campaigns internationally to try to pressure the Egyptian government but also locally by working with other human rights defense organizations by producing joint statements to also try to pressure the state. In terms of international advocacy, we also highlight WHRDs in our written and oral statements made at the Human Rights Council at the UN or at the CSW.”
WHRDs suffer “more atrocious violations” than their male counterparts
When it comes to WHRDs, Amal says that because they are women, WHRDs tend to experience greater threats and violations. Over the past four years, Nazra has documented many violations against WHRDs. Amal says in most cases, WHRDs are usually threatened with rape and subjected to sexual assault when they are being arrested. They are also subjected to smear campaigns in the media.
Amal says that these violations don’t only happen to WHRDs, they also happen to women in the public sphere. Nazra and other intervention groups have documented around 500 cases of gang-rapes and mob sexual assaults between June 2012 and June 2014.
Nazra has also documented violations related to “vaginal checks” on prisoners at Qanater Women’s Prison. The administration claims they conduct these checks to make sure prisoners are not hiding mobile phones, drugs or razors up their vaginal cavities.
But Amal explains that these vaginal checks are usually done in a very intrusive and violent way. “Unfortunately, a vaginal check is seen by the Qanater Women’s Prison administration as a normal procedure,” says Amal. But there’s nothing normal about this procedure. Amal recalls that a nurse who was imprisoned during Morsi’s presidency testified that the prison warden at Qanater Women’s Prison was conducting the vaginal checks using a plastic bag, stored in one of the pipes in the bathroom. “She told us that this plastic bag is used on all women. This is very unsafe and unsanitary because you can easily have tons of diseases being transmitted from one woman to another,” says Amal.
Another violation that WHRDs face when imprisoned are forced pregnancy tests. Amal says these checks and tests are done in very demeaning ways and are meant to shame and embarrass women.
For her part, Nahed says she wants to see reforms at Qanater Women’s Prison. Specifically, she says many of the prisoners are held for more than 6 months without charges, some going on 8 years of arbitrary detention without being charged. She says that’s unfair and needs to change. Further, she wants to see an end to the insults and beatings prisoners face.
Nahed says the police stations are also the sight of gross human rights violations that go unpunished. “Someone needs to urgently pay attention the violations and rid us of the corruption.”
Long road to change and the release of all unjustly detained
“There is obviously an escalation of violence against women in the public sphere and WHRDs [in particular]. And, from the work that we have done, we humbly reckon that across the different governments and the different times after the January 25, 2011 revolution, the violations are systemic … regardless of who is in charge,” says Amal.
Nazra has been advocating for the Egyptian government to adopt the WHRD resolution that was issued by the United Nations in November 2013, calling for the work of WHRDs to be recognized by the state. This resolution would provide mechanisms for the protection of WHRDs against violations by both state and non-state actors and the recognition of WHRDs as agents of change. In the current political context in Egypt, this resolution is not even being considered.
Even though Nahed was released, she still has to undergo two years of surveillance. That means she has to report to the authorities every week and has to be home by 6 p.m. every day. She says: “I left one prison only to enter another prison. The first was a small prison but now that I’m ‘free’, I’m in a very big prison where I’m still told what to do and what to say and how to move. So I sometimes wonder, ‘What’s the point of this supposed freedom?’
“I’m broken. I just keep thinking: ‘What did we all do to deserve this?’ All I wanted was to demand our rights so that my son doesn’t have to face the same issues we are facing now. I want my son to have a bright future.”
For Amal, as much as the release of the 7 WHRDs and their return to their families is welcome, even one day spent in prison is one too many as they shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place. And the continued detention of WHRDs like Mahienour el Masry and Esraa El Taweel begs the question: On what basis were some pardoned and not others?
And, as Nahed puts it: “I want an end to injustice. I want all those who are unjustly detained to be freed and not with a pardon. They don’t need to be pardoned because they did absolutely nothing wrong.”
Watch Amal Elmohandes explain the cases of Mahienour El Masry and Esraa El Taweel.