Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Conversation with Natasha Smith

Asalamu Alaykom,

This is a picture of a young woman I never met even though we were both living in Egypt.  She's a journalist and her name is Natasha Smith.  She rose to sudden fame when she was viciously attacked in Tahrir during the election victory of Dr. Mohamed Morsi.

This is Natasha Smith's account of what happened.

This is a collaborating account from another woman in Tahrir who helped Natasha.

I wrote about the attack on this post.

Later, Natasha left Egypt and went home to England.  She granted an interview to The Telegraph.

When Natasha first wrote of her ordeal, I responded with a kind comment on her blog.  That was many months ago.  She contacted me last month and I was really happy she did.  Alhumdulillah she is still connecting with people and she agreed to an interview.

Yosra:  Natasha, your time in Egypt ended tragically.  Do you see that as the actual end to your Egyptian experience?

Natasha:  I hope it won't be the end of my Egyptian experience. Immediately after the attack, I hated the idea of leaving Cairo, because it felt like I had been forced out of a country I was growing to love. I came to realise quickly that returning home was the best option, partly for the sake of my family, who were deeply concerned for my safety. But my hope is that one day I will be able to find a safe way to return to Egypt. I still certainly aim to make my TV documentary about sexual harassment in Egypt, however long it may take to plan and prepare. I am glad that I can at least contribute to the anti-sexual harassment movement right now by publishing my article.

Yosra:  Inshahallah.  Up until the time you left, were you able to find beauty in the place and the people?  If so, what were some of the times or memories that still make you smile?  What do you miss?

Natasha:  I found incredible beauty in the place and the people, and gathered some very happy memories before the attack. Some of my happiest memories include sitting with new acquaintances in a riverside bar overlooking the Nile, climbing up onto a roof to film and watch the sunrise across the city, visiting Old Cairo, and dipping my toes into the Nile. I miss the peculiar, unique spirit that Cairo has - there's just something in the air. That's one reason why the spread of sexual harassment, and my own attack, sadden me so much, because Cairo (and Egypt) has such potential to be beautiful and welcoming. With Egypt possessing such a long and fascinating history, it's tragic to see Egyptian people struggling with such a horrible violation of women's basic human rights.

Yosra:  I'm glad to hear that you do have happy memories too. 

In the media, this story was used as another Muslim-bashing incident.  I didn't read that in your writing.  Does that mean that you don't view it as a group of Muslim men?  When you think of the attackers do you attach a religion to them?  

Natasha:  I have been very reluctant to enter into religious debates regarding my attack. Some of the religious hatred in comments on my blog and other articles only provoked more hatred, resulting in ongoing arguments across the internet. This distracts people from actually combating sexual harassment itself. 

I believe we need to maintain a basic focus in battling sexual harassment; rather than debating the extent to which Islam is to blame, we must simply say "sexual harassment is disgusting, shameful and wrong, it is poisoning Egyptian society, there is no excuse for perpetrating it, and it must stop." The number one focus is on securing for women in Egypt basic human rights, civil rights, social rights, and political rights. Naturally Islam has a role to play, but right now we just need to unite and stop the continuing violation of women's human rights.

Yosra:  I agree that the focus is what's happening to women on the streets and not what nasty comments are being played out in the comments section.  There's so much wasted energy used to combat negativity while the real problem is forgotten!

In Islam, we are told to view everything thankfully.  Have you started to view some of the incidents gratefully?  Obviously, this changes a person forever---and not always for the worse.  Are there parts of this sad chapter in your life which you feel are inspiring you to big and better things?

Natasha:  As I have expressed, I am honoured to have made, and to hopefully continue to make, a difference to women who suffer sexual harassment  in Egypt and elsewhere. My ability to raise awareness of the battle against sexual harassment, and my ability to help empower women, through my blog posts and my article, to stand up and make their voices heard, has definitely helped me to recover and move forward with my life. The response of women in Egypt and elsewhere has been inspirational, and it is so rewarding to be part of a movement that will help to empower women in Egypt and elsewhere. I am proud to be part of this cause.

Yosra:  There were photos taken at Eid of sexual harrassment in public.  Someone was capturing the incidents and then putting them on twitter as a way of educating.  There were others who objected, since the faces of the girls were not blurred.  What's your take on it?  If we blur, do we erase some of their humanity and thus distance the viewer from the cause?  Or do we blur since showing the victim all over the 'net is a re-victimization?  

Natasha:  Naturally my first response is to recommend that every effort is made to contact the victims in the photos directly to ask their permission before publishing. If this is not possible, then I would recommend against spreading the photos across the internet unless the girl's faces are blurred. Having been a victim of sexual harassment myself, one of the most hurtful parts is the feeling of powerlessness, of having been violated against your will. If one of the girls found the photos online, they may feel that once again power has been taken out of their hands, since they have not had control over whether their identity is shared with the rest of the world in the photos.

So, in the interests of showing consideration and sensitivity to the girls, I think the photos should be blurred.

Yosra:  I'm with you on this.  I feel that the photos can serve a purpose but not by showing faces and thus identifying the girls and women.  

I'd like to have more info about your project.  Do you have that?  

Natasha:  As for my project, it's very much a work-in-progress, and it's going to take quite some time to plan. So I will keep you updated on the progress as it develops, and will post regular updates on my blog. This article is a short-term way of taking part in the anti-SH [Sexual Harrassment] movement, and I hope that my documentary, when I am eventually able to produce it, will have an even bigger impact.

Yosra:  Thank you so much, Natasha for continuing to be open to dialogue.  I appreciate your openness.  It is only through giving voice to the problems that the problems will cease.  

Readers, this is why I have stated time and again that I am a sexual abuse survivor.  Natasha had thought that I had been attacked in Egypt.  No, I was not and inshahallah I never will be.  My abuse was when I was a child growing up in The States.  

Part of the reason I liked hijab is that I re-claimed my body as being mine.  I am a covered woman in Egypt.  When I say "covered" I mean that I really do follow hijabi dress; I wear shapeless outfits to hide my body.  I can still look nice but not overly attractive or seductive.  In this way, I feel that I have asked for Allah's protection and in exchange I have felt Allah's protection.  I do not suffer harrassment on the streets and haven't for three years despite being a white American.

I do lower my gaze when I'm outside the home.  I do not project friendliness to unknown men and as an American that's been a hard one!  We Americans love to be smiley and outgoing.  

The closest I came to being attacked was a few months after I arrived in Egypt.  It really caught me off guard.  I had relied on a network of helpers; both male and female.  I was alone in the country with my four-year-old son.  Since that time I have come to realize that a single mom in Egypt is actually LESS respected than a single woman; the assumption being that women like me are dying for sex again.  You can read more about it by following the link.

I want everyone who has been violated to throw off the victim shame and claim the survivor status.  Claim it!  Name it!  Fix the issues inside yourself which have had you doubting your worth.  Talk to a professional and get clean in your mind. 

Your abuse or harrassment doesn't have to be as huge as a group of strange men in a public square.  It could be the neighbor boy when you were too young to stay, "stop".  It could be the uncle who shouldn't have.  It could be the teacher or mentor you trusted.  Or maybe it was the nice guy who was supposed to be on a date with you.  I swear to God that you deserved better.  Go and get better now.

Natasha's victory over her attackers is proof that you can too.

May God continue to heal Natasha and all the women in the world who have suffered.  May Allah protect our mothers, sisters, friends, and daughters as they navigate this big and sometimes frightening world.


Thankful Slave said...

Assalam Aleikum Sis. Yosra,

This is an important topic indeed. It is sad though that there are no lessons learnt pulled from the interview, or at least, I did not really see any...

I have 3 daughters and I constantly remind them about the "big wolves out there"...The big wolves can be indeed among the very close relatives, these are the ones to be more cautious about as they are already within the circle.
Certainly, the Best Protector is Allah, one Should rely onto Him at first and keep making duas for Protection, but then, as I keep repeating to my daughters, make sure you do not put yourself in a place where you should not have been in first place. This is not me saying this, but the Ulamah. I listened to many khutbah and lectures, and this comes back very often. One Imam went to a gathering once, and in that gathering, people started backbiting, he reprimanded himself first, as he said that he was the one to blame for going to such place as he should not have gone there.
Don't get me wrong, what happened there in that square was not acceptable at all in Islam, people should be free to walk without fearing being the prey of men without any morale. However, we need to learn from the mistakes of others, and we need to learn from the experience of others. I will share this entry with my daughters, Jazak Allah khairan for the entry.

May Allah Protect All the Ummah,

Yosra said...

Wa Alaykom Asalam TS,

I really appreciate you giving some feedback. What I like is that you were able to relate it to an Islamic teaching.

I agree that we need to learn from mistakes. Subhanallah, I no longer do the same things I did when 25. I am saddened SO SADDENED that young women in their twenties have to keep re-learning and getting hurt in the process.

Yes, Natasha was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She admits in another interview that she was naive. She thought that being accompanied by a male was enough. It wasn't. Previously, an Egyptian co-worker of mine was accompanied by her hub in back and her bro-in-law in front and STILL was accosted. So, frenzied crowds in Egypt are to be avoided all together.

May your daughters benefit. I hope they do :)

Love and Light!