Amid endless campaigns to stop sexual harassment and a parliament that has made child brides a topic worthy of discussion, some are taking things into their own hands and empowering women on a grassroots level. Heya, which is Arabic for ‘her’ is an initiative by students who say it aims to empower all women, taking into account their own conceptions of emancipation.
Heya was founded at the American University in Cairo (AUC) but the initiative is expanding rapidly, with recent recognition as a United Nations women supported youth initiative.
“We contacted them and they had heard of our work before,” said co-founder Yara El-Razzaz. “So far they have been supporting us and sponsoring us, especially with the recent sexual harassment week that we hosted in conjunction with Darb 1718.”
Their first sexual harassment awareness week has not been without its share of controversy; images of the exhibition to raise awareness at AUC were reported to be “too graphic” and were forcibly removed from the New Cairo campus, without any consultation with the founders.
“The images are supposed to be graphic and the nudity is used to get a message across. This is a serious issue and we expected the community around us to appreciate the seriousness of sexual harassment, despite knowing that they could be sensitive to some,” said El-Razzaz.
Darb 1718 re-hosted its exhibition on sexual harassment at the AUC library in collaboration with Harassmap, another creative initiative founded in 2005 to allow the public to report sexual harassment via text message. The information is then used to visually represent places that require special attention.
What Heya does not try to do is define who the Egyptian woman is, or how she is to be empowered. “We do not dictate a certain dogma and we do not seek to empower women in any certain way except on their own terms,” explained El-Razzaz.
This decision helps to make Heya a more inclusive environment where everyone, regardless of their feminist politics, are welcome. The name Heya is not a declarative statement but rather, a question to its members: what constitutes empowerment? Who is the modern Egyptian woman today? These questions help remind its members that empowering women is not a defined and set process or an image that women must adhere to in order to be empowered but is rather subject to their own definitions and conceptions of empowerment and emancipation.
Heya will likely see rapid growth as a youth initiative, based on their progress after starting independently on a few months back, and the sexual harassment awareness week will be the first of many activities planned to empower women in the community around them, though El-Razzaz says everyone is welcome.
“Our events and initiatives are always open to everyone whether from this community or not and we are also working on launching a blog and hosting ‘Her Story’. ‘Her Story’ is a week dedicated to telling the stories of women, including narratives that extend beyond a certain category of women.”
Heya has no immediate plans to expand beyond its community for the time being, but the initiative is an example of a grassroots movement that has managed to cause a stir, even on Egypt’s arguably most liberal university campus.