Untold Gender Stories in Egypt: Interviewing Mona Al Shimi #supportBussy


No one can deny Egypt’s influence on the culture of the Arab world at large. In the past 3 decades we have been witnessing a rapid growth of religious extremism, projection towards more conservatism, expansion of patriarchy and inflation of masculinity. The Arab Spring brought hope for change, with young women and men activists demanding more freedoms and rights. Unfortunately, our Arab Spring has been highjacked and the aftermath was devastating. Yet, young activists won’t surrender to darkness, because whenever and wherever there is injustice, there will always be justice fighters.

A group of young Egyptian want to challenge social taboos and bring up untold gender stories. It is a great initiative that I wholeheartedly support. I had the chance to interview Mona Al Shimi from Bussy and ask her more about this initiative and the crowd funding campaign they are running to support it.

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Fadi: Tell us more about Bussy

quotesMona: Bussy is a performing arts project/movement that documents and gives voice to censored untold stories about gender in different communities in Egypt. Women step on stage to share stories about harassment, rape, gender discrimination, honor killing, forced marriage, Female genital mutilation, motherhood, domestic violence, child abuse, mass sexual assaults and many others, from different communities and cities in Egypt.

Fadi: I bet that there are many untold stories here and there is a big need to hear those stories. Where did the idea behind Bussy come from? 

quotes1Mona: In 2005 Eve Ensler ‘s Vagina Monologues was performed at The American University in Cairo. While audiences felt very moved by the courage and honesty of its content, they longed for something similar coming from Egyptian culture, something they could personally relate to more. A group of students led by Naz Khan a foreign exchange student at the time decided to create Bussy to give a space for an Egyptian Vagina Monologues. Flyers were created round campus titled “share your story” with the option of anonymity given, and in 2006 Bussy gave its first performance at AUC theatre. Today Bussy is no longer a student organization, has expanded beyond AUC, and is no longer limited to women.

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Fadi: I just read a friend of mine on Facebook saying something that rationalises the globalisation of the feminist movement as a response of the globalisation of same oppressive agencies. Having said that, a culture specific flavour always exists. Who is behind Bussy? What’s your team like? 

Mona: We are a small team of independent youth led by manager and director Sondos Shabayek. She has completely dedicated her life to the project.

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Fadi: Why do you think there is a need for women and men to talk about their experiences that are related to gender?

quotes2Mona: From the moment we are born we are taught to invalidate our own feelings, our personal experiences… To deny our inner worlds, and only accept and communicate what has been presented to us as “normal”. By not sharing we each live in the illusion that our personal experience is shameful and that we are alone. As the mass silence continues this message of shame keeps getting reinforced and individuals suffer from extreme self-judgement. It’s very important to break that silence, challenge that message of shame, and give people a space to express and listen to the stories of others. It helps individuals heal and accept themselves, and on a larger scale breaks the social fallacy that’s imprisoning the masses.

Fadi: How do you think theatre as a medium can help brining these stories up?

Mona: Theatre is a very powerful medium in communicating stories. As opposed to other mediums it doesn’t only capture the content, but also the feelings of the storyteller in flesh and blood. Whether the storyteller on stage is telling his/her personal story or someone else’s, it feels real. Both the flesh and blood of the story and the storyteller are brought to life on stage. It has a very direct and intense impact on both audiences and tellers.

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Fadi: You are going to address taboo issues related to gender. Do you think the social climate in Egypt is ready for such stories?

quotes3Mona: We always have to be a few steps ahead from what the social climate is ready for, otherwise no significant change is achieved. However, it is also important to work gradually. Taboos come in layers, and if you follow the order of such layers in your unfolding process, it makes the process smoother. It is important to understand that the core objective is not to challenge the society, but to heal it.

Fadi: I like what you said about healing society, yet I am sure that you are going to face huge challenges in doing so? What kind of challenges are you anticipating?

Mona:  More of the same challenges we are currently facing; financial sustainability, freedom from censorship, and finding safe performance spaces.

Fadi: You started a crowd funding campaign to overcome the financial side of this initiative. I hope you succeed in securing funds needed to keep this initiative alive. Do you have a certain goal or objective that you want to achieve? How many women and men are you going to reach to? How many stories are you aiming to bring up to the surface?

Mona: So far we have gathered stories from over 500 people in 5 cities and held 20 performances. We aim to expand those numbers, explore more cities, more rural areas and reaching out to those who are isolated and unheard. Next year we are aiming to travel to 3 new cities, collect a 100 stories, and hold 4 performances.

On the longer term we also hope to expand to other artistic mediums. We plan to upload are full archive online in order for everyone to have access to the stories, and eventually create a book in English and Arabic with a selected collection. We also hope to upload filmed testimonies online and keep filming more. Despite the power of theatre, these mediums are more accessible to a wider scope of people, and that’s why we need to expand horizontally.

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Fadi: The campaign is nicely done. It is touching to see young men and women demanding a safe place to tell their stories. So far, you have secured $4,414 out of $70,000 goal and you have only 13 days are left. What activities are you planning to meet your goal?

Mona: We’re trying to reach out as widely as possible on social media round the world especially to those passionate about our cause.

We’re also selling small symbolic items, holding garage sales, and collecting contributions in different events and gatherings round Cairo.

And we’re still brainstorming daily to find more creative ideas to support our campaign. We’re really trying our best!

Fadi: I hope the readers of this blog help in making this campaign successful. Who are your current supporters?

quotes4Mona: Though our circle of support is small, we are grateful for their loyalty without which we would not have been here today.

Famous Egyptian Actor Khaled Abu El Naga has been a major support since 2010, when he co-produced Bussy videos with famous Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy. Khaled continues lobbying for Bussy till now.

The Greek Campus, and Goethe institute have kindly shared rehearsal and performance spaces in the past and continue to support our cause.

We have also previously received financial support from the British council, the Swiss Embassy in Egypt, Frida, and Pioneers of Egypt.

Fadi: Thank you Mona. That is a noble cause what you are after. I hope to see Bussy successful and copies/expanded to come other countries in the Arab world.

Readers, if you enjoyed this blog and feel passionate about sexual and body rights, then go ahead and support Bussy here. Let’s help them succeed.

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Humanly Syrian Stories


Destruction in Syria

Destruction in Syria

During the madness of war, one can’t possibly weave story that tells it all. There is no story that would ever show the whole picture of the horrors happening in Syria. Media news channels may focus on numbers, numbers of bombs, chemical arms, casualties, refugees, migrants, etc. They may focus of the political divide, the power struggle, and the calculations of winning and losing. People from the outside, may take sides, ignoring the fact that the loss far exceeds whatever media channels could cover. It is the loss of an entire nation (not a country) because it is the loss of people that matters. The stories of each individual affected in this power play are the real stories that should be making the headlines.

Last week, during the follow-up of the YLVP13 (Young Leaders Visitors Program) in Amman, I met a young Syrian guy. Ibrahim Al-Assil introduced himself to me as one of the members of the Syrian non-violence movement. A movement that aims to bring back sanity to the country, calling for change via non-violent means. He, along with his fellow members of this movement are courageous admirable people. He was jailed and tortured before, released and moved to the UAE. Yet, he refuses to settle with the comfortable life in Dubai, and plan to go back to Syria in order to push for the non-violent movement agenda. He told, “Syria needs us, we can’t leave to mad people”. He believes that with communication, he, and his fellows, can help those people see the madness of their action and talk them back to their sane self.

Though part of me think he is mad himself, going back in a suicidal mission to convince armed fighters on the ground to drop their weapons and adhere to non-violent methods, yet looking at his passion towards this cause, I could only admire the amount of humanity he has in his heart. It is only because he is humanly beyond our imagination, that he sees the humanity in the hearts of those fighters and thinks that he could reason with them. It is beyond media coverage, beyond political leaders, beyond ignorance and madness. It is people like him that Syria needs right now, people like him that gives me hope.

I am sure that each and every Syrian has a similar story to tell. Wars may have the capabilities of bringing out the worst in us, but they are very well capable of bringing out the best in us as well. I met Dana Dajani, the Director of Madrasati initiation at the Chevening Regional Conference. She was telling me that she wishes she could capture the amount of stories she hears because of her work. One of the touching stories is for a Syrian little girl in 2nd grade who lost both of her parents for the war. She came to Jordan with her grandmother. One day she headed to a nearby school and wanted to get in to study. Sadly, they didn’t allow her in because the school was full and there is no space from more students. The little girl tried to argue with the school principal, telling her how good she is in languages, that she knows how to read and write, and that she even memories poems! They refused her entry, only to see her next day bringing a carpet, placing it on the floor at the gate of the school, and telling them that she will do that everyday till she gets her right for education.

Another story comes from a school in Karak. A little Jordanian girl gives her daily allowance of 30 pence to her Syrian friend. After few days, her teacher got worried, she thought that maybe the Jordanian girl is bullied to do that. She asked her, why are you giving your allowance to your Syrian friend. The girl answered “I would spend my allowance on buying chips, but my friend would spend it on buying bread, she needs it more”.

There are only 3 stories among millions of stories that we fail to capture. I just wish that the media focuses more on the human side of this struggle rather than echoing the loud voice of the political powers.