In Egypt, 'dramatic' push for women's voices

At Cairo's elite American University, the Bussy Project addresses thornier issues confronting women across the Muslim world.

Liam Stack
Skit: Reem Amr (l.) and Passant Rabie perform in a Cairo play that addresses thorny, taboo subjects.

A young woman stands under the spotlight inside a small theater at the elite American University, looking defiantly into the audience.

She is "Muslim Woman," one of four actresses performing a skit of the same name put on by Cairo's Bussy Project, a three-year-old troupe of playwrights-turned-anthropologists.

Project participants say they are tired of women's issues being ignored or pushed aside in Egypt, but are also upset at the way that many in the West think about Arab and Muslim women.

"I'm passive, weak, uneducated, veiled from head to toe, one of his four wives, work in the kitchen all day," says "Muslim Woman." "That's what you think, right?"

"My liberation won't come from the one who has oppressed me – bringing me democracy?" retorts her companion on the stage. "You think you're really gonna send Condi to tell me how to be free?"

Since 2006, the project – named after the Arabic command, "Look!" – has collected stories from Egyptian women about some of the country's most taboo topics, including street harassment, sexual abuse, divorce, female circumcision, and the confusion that arises in a culture that discourages male-female interaction but makes women's primary social responsibilities marriage and childbearing.

Each spring, these interviews are transformed into monologues that the group weaves together into a play.

"The play brings up a lot of issues people here usually ignore, but in an entertaining way," says Yasmine Khalifa, one of the project's directors. "People can have fun, they can have a laugh, and they don't feel attacked."

Bussy was inspired by Eve Ensler's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Vagina Monologues," which played only once here in 2005 before running into trouble with the school.

The actors, too, had problems with it – but for a very different reason: It didn't seem relevant to Egyptian society.

" 'The Vagina Monologues' had stories from Bosnia and all over the world, but only one story about the Middle East, which was about Lebanon," says Mariham Iskander, an energetic director at Bussy.

"We felt like our region was mostly ignored," she says. "These weren't our stories, so we decided to write them ourselves."

Armed with pens and notebooks, the Bussy Project set out to find more Egyptian voices.

Although some monologues look at issues facing poor women, like troubles in the legal system and circumcisions, the project's elite roots still show.

The majority of the play was recorded and performed in English.

One skit is about a girl getting harassing messages on Facebook. In another skit, a girl recounting stories of childhood abuse tells the audience, "it was Oprah Winfrey who encouraged me not to be silent." It is a reference unlikely to be grasped by the great mass of Egypt's rural and urban poor.

The World Bank says that almost 20 percent of Egypt's population was living on $2 a day in 2005, and 44 percent of women are illiterate, according to the government's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.

Figures compiled by the United Nations Children's Fund show that over 90 percent of the married female population has experienced some kind of circumcision.

But the project's upper-crust origins do not make it a less powerful experience for the women involved.

Sondos Shabayek, a director, joined the Bussy Project after watching one of the show's first performances in 2006. Watching it in the audience made her feel as if she was not alone in grappling with harassment and sexism on a daily basis.

The play was a chance to talk.

"For once, I felt like maybe I could express a big part of my life," she says. "I had always thought, 'No, I can't ever let this show.' "

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