The American University in Cairo Press has released It’s Not Your Fault, a collection of original short plays that address the issue of sexual harassment and assault in Egypt.
A group of Egyptian AUC students and alumni wrote the five 10-minute plays in a project that started in 2020 and is led by theatre professors Jillian Campana and Dina Amin.
Campana also serves as the university’s associate dean of the school of humanities and social sciences, and Amin is the director of the theatre programme.
“Theatre is an incredible medium to discuss this topic of sexual harassment and assault,” Campana said, at the book launch event at AUC on Monday evening.
“It always comes down to: what are you going to do about it? So this was our attempt to do something and to involve a group of young people in that particular process.”
A 2013 UN survey found that 99 per cent of women in Egypt had been sexually harassed, a statistic that is cited in all five of the plays.
“Ninety-nine per cent of women experience sexual harassment on the streets, at home, in the workplace, and somebody needed to talk about it,” Amin said.
In the book foreword, written by women’s rights activist Hoda Elsadda, a professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University, she marks the January 2011 uprising as a turning point in bringing the topic of sexual violence against women to the forefront.
High-profile incidents included horrific sexual assaults against South African CBS TV reporter Lara Logan, musician Yasmine El Baramawy and others.
Groups such as Shoft Taharush (I Witnessed Harassment), Tahrir Bodyguards, HarassMap and Operation Anti-Harassment exposed incidents of harassment and formed intervention teams to rescue women during protests.
In 2014, the Egyptian penal code was amended to define and criminalise sexual harassment for the first time.
However, the impetus for It’s Not Your Fault (or Mish Zambik in Arabic) came years later, stemming from what became known as Egypt’s MeToo movement in the summer of 2020.
The project began in July 2020, when former AUC student Ahmed Bassam Zaki made international news after being accused of sexual crimes by more than 50 women.
Assault Police, an Instagram account founded by then-AUC student Nadeen Ashraf, had helped uncover several incidents of assault and harassment by Zaki and others.
Among the crimes exposed by the account was a gang rape that had occurred in 2014, when a young woman was drugged and assaulted by a group of wealthy young men at the luxury Fairmont Hotel.
“In the summer of 2020, when the recent stories gained media attention and the cases became more openly discussed in Egypt, we felt for the first time that it would be possible to explore the topic theatrically and publicly,” Campana and Amin write, in the book.
After discussions with a group of AUC theatre students and alumni interested in social justice, they decided the project would focus on five sub-issues: post-traumatic stress disorder, family and patriarchal attitudes towards assault, the consequences of reporting abuse, domestic abuse and consent.
Campana and Amin put out a call to students and alumni to create proposals for 10-minute plays dealing with one of the identified sub-issues.
The playwrights — Yehia Abdelghan, Marwan Abdelmoneim, Nour El Captan, Passant Faheem, Nour Ibrahim, Noran Morsi and Omar Omar — include two men and five women in their twenties who come from varying socio-economic backgrounds.
The five plays
Forget Him (Insih) tells the story of a sexual assault survivor who is haunted by visions of her perpetrator years later.
See Me (His Biya) shows the disconnect between generational views of sexual harassment and assault during a family dinner.
The Report (Al Taqrir) unpacks the reasons many women are afraid to come forward and report sexual crimes.
What Do You Know? (Ish Fahimik?) shows how two women from different social classes find it difficult to escape an abusive relationship.
Finally, When We Met (Lamma It’abilna) zeroes in on how partners can view sexual encounters very differently and highlights the call for consensual intimacy regardless of the stage of the relationship.
Much of the dialogue is written in a hybrid form of Arabic-English, reflecting the way many young, privileged Egyptians speak.
The directors, which included the professors, two students and one alumnus, cast the plays in December 2020.
Covid-19 restrictions presented additional challenges, as the participants had to conduct rehearsals over Zoom when the university elected to hold classes online for the first part of the 2021 spring semester.
The plays were performed at the university’s New Cairo campus in March 2021 in a socially distanced way, outdoors and with small audience groups of between 10 to 20 people. Each group watched a play at a time and then walked to the next one.
This opportunistically led to discussions and reflections among audience members in between the play viewings, Campana and Amin said.
The production then moved to the downtown Tahrir campus, but after two participants tested positive for Covid-19, live performances were cancelled and the recorded version was streamed on YouTube instead.
Goals and messages
During this time, AUC also launched the SpeakUp campaign, aimed at making the university’s learning and work environment safe and free from all forms of harassment and discrimination.
One of the SpeakUp dialogue events included a live-streamed performance and discussion of the plays.
Actress Nadia Ahmed said at the event that the project’s title “is not just a name, but a message: it’s not your fault that this happened”.
In a post-production survey, the 60 project participants said the issues of sexual harassment and assault are very pertinent in Egypt today. They felt the plays helped in understanding others’ perspectives and provided a safe space to talk about the problem.
Campana and Amin are now working on a series of four videos that will address key issues, such as defining sexual harassment, assault and consent. These will then serve as anti-sexual harassment training for AUC students, faculty and staff.
“It’s an ongoing issue. Even though it’s quieted down at AUC recently, it doesn’t mean that the issue has quieted down,” Campana said.
The pair hope the plays will be performed widely in both Arabic and English-speaking communities, offering them royalty-free as long as the plays and authors are referenced in programmes and promotional materials.
AUC Press will also be releasing an Arabic edition of It’s Not Your Fault in July.