CAIRO, Egypt — Ahmed Awadalla’s a dude, Egyptian-style.
The young male activist, defender of women’s rights and anti-discrimination blogger, claims to be part of a growing youth-led movement to reclaim national dignity in Egypt.
“A lot of young people around me, people around my age are speaking up more, they’re defending women rights, also, they’re going to protests. They would also write about these issues, also get engaged in that struggle,” the young Egyptian told GlobalPost recently at a café just off Tahrir Square, where demonstrations have once again been drawing thousands of people after last year's protests there led to the historic overthrow of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
Awadalla has large, heavy-lidded eyes prominently set in an almond-shaped face. His has one of those age-confounding natures, someone who can speak with the gravity of a man twice his 27 years without losing the bright enthusiasm of youth.
His sister, Alaa Awadalla, said by e-mail that growing up, her younger brother always managed to “remain calm, even in the most aggravating circumstances.”
A regular participant in women’s rights protests around Cairo, Awadalla also regularly takes on taboo issues like gender discrimination on his “Rebel with a cause” blog.
“I think more people in Egypt in general are demanding their rights,” he said. “And more women are not afraid to say, ‘that is our right to do this, or to have this,’ and more men are joining that movement, and supporting their rights.”
The son of a single mother and brother to four sisters, Awadalla was inducted into the world of difficulty confronting many Egyptian women at the impressionable age of 13, when his father died.
The event left his young mother vulnerable as a single parent in Minia, a town in the country’s hyper-conservative Upper Egypt region. Soon, there was talk. The townspeople gossiped. The pressure mounted.
Five years after his father’s death, Awadalla’s mother remarried because, according to her only son, “she felt that she had to fulfill that expectation from people around her.”
His mother’s experience is not uncommon. Women who lose their husbands are expected to remarry within a certain timeframe, and it can be equally catastrophic for a woman’s reputation if she remains single for too long. Egyptian women are simply not expected to manage their lives independently for any substantial length of time.
And because Arab societies traditionally see a woman’s honor as intimately tied to that of her partner (or her virginity), alternate lifestyle choices like being a single parent tend to attract suspicion.
“Being a male does not exclude me from observing the injustice women are facing,” Awadalla said. “Women are not always given the choice to do what they want with their lives.”
So Awadalla got involved. For those Egyptians with more conservative opinions regarding a women’s role in society, “I challenge their views,” he said. “And I’m also male who is forcing this issue, so sometimes they make fun of me, sometimes they get [to make] some negative comments. That’s the downside.”
It doesn’t seem to phase him.
“Ahmed in particular is exceptional,” said Heba Habib, a member of a new Egyptian initiative called HarassMap, which uses text messages to warn people about high-harassment areas. Part of that is because “he’s been committed for such a long time” to the “very unpopular cause” of women’s rights in Egypt, she explained.
“Any male activist, really, working for this cause is, to me, not just a rarity, is obviously just an exceptional human being.”
Also unusual is Awadalla’s dedication to issues like sexual education, a topic generally seen as off-limits in conservative Egyptian society and usually discouraged even in the privacy of the home.
In 2009, he joined “From Youth To Youth with Cairo Family Planning and Development Association,” an NGO-led program focused on teaching sexual and reproductive health in Egyptian schools and universities. Although he no longer works at the NGO, he continues to lead awareness activities for them as a volunteer.
“We have to emphasize the importance of giving such information to young people, and we have to emphasize the problems, or the issues, unfortunate issues, health issues, that arise from that knowledge gap,” said Awadalla, who used to dream of being the country’s health minister one day.
Egyptian youth “have a huge amount of questions, a huge amount of concerns, about their bodies, about their differences, about this particular phase of their lives,” he said.
So he came up with creative ways to broach the controversial topic.
“In Islam, Prophet Mohammed would talk to his friends or followers about things related to sexuality,” he explained. “So that’s an example in religion, a positive example, that you could use to tell young people [that talking about sex] it’s something that happens, it’s something that is needed.”
The fact that it is so difficult to address something as basic as human sexuality in Egypt underscores the challenges facing those trying to end sexual harassment against women here, among them Awadalla. A staggering 80 percent of Egyptian women say they have been the target of sexual harassment, and almost half say they experience it on a daily basis.
Awadalla is worried for his younger sisters. He’s given this a lot of thought.
The result is a provocative theory about the abuse of women in Egypt. He believes the very same frustrations that led to the overthrow of Mubarak by popular protest last year are also causing men to harass women on the streets.
“One of the things that led up to the revolution is young people are not heard, they do not have opportunities to invest their dreams, and their energy, and that’s where it’s a frustrated generation,” said Awadalla. “I believe that it’s one of the things, also, that drives sexual harassment.”
Much of the unrest in the country over the past year has been attributed to masses of embittered youth, a huge population limited by lack of employment opportunities and a poor educational system.
If you take the feelings of disillusionment and anger that prompted people to take to the streets in protest and you mix them “with patriarchal values,” what you have is a recipe for the abuse of women, he says. Awadalla also blamed popular culture, saying soap operas and local press coverage commonly portrays women as subservient to men and makes light of harassing them, further entrenching a culture of abuse.
“A lot of people assume that sexual harassment is about sexual frustration, and I would say it’s not sexual frustration in general,” Awadalla said, going on to dismiss another oft-cited culprit: Islam.
“Religion, in itself, is not the issue that’s oppressing women,” he argued.
Street abuse in fact contravenes many Quranic teachings about the kind of respect that should be afforded women, not to mention the more-virtuous behavior expected of men.
There are “deeper factors” at play when it comes to harassment, Awadalla said, suggesting a loss of dignity within the Egyptian people themselves. What with decades of foreign occupation and military rule, he said, Egyptians have become estranged from their communal conscience and sense of national self-respect.
“The lack of independence and democracy or self-governance for our societies, that was the main obstacle for our society to progress toward more gender equality,” he said.
“It’s not only a matter of, like, showing statistics, and showing that there is a high rate of sexual harassment,” he concluded. “It’s about analyzing where this comes from.”