"This girl is like the boy"

Street Girls in Cairo: An Interview with @NellyAli

Nelly Ali teaches childhood studies and children’s rights at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and is studying the International Childhood Studies PhD at Birkbeck. She recently edited a special issue in Global Studies of Childhood on methodological and ethical difficulties of studying sexuality and childhood. She did ethnographic research in Egypt for 3 years, working with street girls, specifically, girls 9-16 who have children of their own.

She keeps a blog where you can read more about her experiences and thoughts doing research in Egypt.

I had a chat with her about her research.

Street girls – Does that mean they’re homeless and live on the street?

Yes, or moved into shelters or lived at shelters while living on the street.

Are there any street boys in Egypt?

Yeah there are but what’s really interesting is when you refer to “street children” people are often referring to street boys, and you know that because when they’re talking about street girls they say “street girls.”

That’s really interesting.

Isn’t it? And it’s important because a lot of facilities that provide for street children are very boy-focused. For instance, in Egypt, the shelters for girls only started providing services that were gender-specific in 2003. So the same NGO was working for street children – street boys – since 1998, and it took them 15 years to catch on that girls would need services as well.

And it wasn’t like, “Now we’re providing these services for girls; everything is wonderful.” They found so much resistance from the local community. The local community felt like, “This shelter is like a brothel. You bring them in, you wash them, and you let them back in the street where they’re being prostituted for higher prices now that they’re clean and well-dressed.” They were breaking the windows of the shelters. There had to be a lot of community work and awareness-raising. They eventually had to move to a different location altogether.

Before I went out, I read 187 books, journals, and articles about street children, and only three of them were about girls and they were written from accounts that boys made. When I went out to Egypt, my research aims were to research resilience in street boys between the ones who left home and the ones who carried on in their poverty or abuse at home. When I went to Egypt in 2011, the uprising happened and they overthrew the government. I was part – I’m originally Egyptian – of this activist movement – I put the PhD on hold and started going to these demonstrations – realising then that there were street boys and girls at the protests.

So when you saw them you thought, “Wow. This is missing from the literature!”

Yeah. I’m definitely going to start researching this. And of course all my research aims changed when I started living with these girls. The one physical characteristic that I noticed on all the girls is that they had a scarring under their eye and a bit of flesh hanging off their cheek. When I got close to the girls and I asked what the scar was, I realised that within 24 hours of being on the street the girls were gang-raped, and after the rape, they were scarred like this to mark them as no longer being virgins. They were like spoilt goods.

So, the theme of violence came up as a research theme because they suffered domestic violence, then they were on the street suffering a completely different type of violence, and the shelter violence, the governmental institutional violence … My whole study became around the experience of violence and the everyday lives of street girls, and around gender and sexuality as well. You know, living on the street as boys to minimise the risks associated with being a girl on the street … and many that I worked with were lesbians who would pretend not to be once they were in the shelters because they knew their access to care depended on them being good Muslim girls, and being a good Muslim girl meant they can’t be a lesbian. And then their struggle around how they live with and marry boys when they don’t actually want to be in a sexual relationship with these men. Really fascinating.

Yeah.

I get really passionate about it (laughs).

There are so many issues there.

So you mentioned girls who are lesbians will try to hide that. You edited a special issue called “Young People and Sexuality” in Global Studies of Childhood, and in your introduction you mention  that some shelters will make homophobic comments.

Going off that – what are the challenges with researching childhood and youth sexuality, especially in Egypt, in a different culture?

It was difficult on many levels.

It’s so difficult being the outsider. The children do see me as someone who came from Western culture, and sometimes in Egypt, even if I’m Egyptian myself but have lived in the UK, I’ve come from a very loose culture where the devil does his work, and I can’t be bringing that in. So I had to be really careful because I could compromise my access.

The conflict comes in part from the needs-based approach that these shelters have versus the rights-based approach that I was coming in with – children have the right to choose their private life and part of that is their sexuality. It’s a value I hold very strongly, so I found it very challenging,  for instance, when I was speaking to a girl and she was trying to tell me about a relationship she had with a girl but she was really testing my waters because she wanted to know whether I would relay that information to the shelter, and the shelter would know she’s a lesbian. She would say, “She was a really good friend of mine; She understood me so well.” She said, “One day she hugged me”, not at the shelter but at the governmental corrections centre, and the supervisor came in while they were hugging and tied them to the bed and beat them with a wooden plank until their bones were broken. So expressing her true sexuality was associated with getting punished.

This girl was telling me an experience she had in childhood. Now she’s heavily addicted to drugs and married to a guy who is a drug addict and doesn’t work. She prostitutes herself to provide money for her husband, her child, and herself. When I was speaking to her about why she even bothers to get married – this was her 4th marriage – when she’s a lesbian, she says, “So people can say I’m a good girl.” The idea of getting married in a heterosexual relationship would mean she’s a good girl, despite being a prostitute and being reliant on drugs. She’s self-harming to cope with having sex with him. All of this so that she would have access to the shelter, access to that respectability that she would have in that social network.

The struggle came from me listening to this and not being able to tell her, “So what if you’re a lesbian? Good for you,” and leaving her with that conflicting information because she’s not going to get that reinforcement from anyone in the shelter.

Also, I could put them in danger, because if I encourage them that this is ok, and then they say, this is ok, this is the way I am, they won’t have access to care … I’m not there for them all the time and I don’t have an NGO of my own that I could then refer them to. It was one of the worst challenges I had because I was compromising my own integrity.

Did you find that there are NGOs that are more accepting of non-heterosexual sexualities?

They can’t be. They wouldn’t be able to be in business. There’s this one NGO that is run by a Christian lady, and maybe my own prejudices made me think there’d be a little bit more lenience or acceptance. The Christians who tend to be in managerial positions come from a different class than the Muslim ones. It’s a strange structure. Class is a big deal there. People from a higher social class in Egypt tend to be more open-minded about things, like sexuality, but then I realised that the people who run these NGOs are very religious people who are very anti-homosexuality.

And they rely a lot on private donations, and people like to give to charity a lot in Egypt because it’s part of the almsgiving of their religion. So, they don’t encourage homosexuality of course but they’re not even accepting of it because it would give the NGO in Egypt a bad name. There’s this one woman who’s Egyptian, born and brought up in the U.S.A., who went to open an NGO during the time of the uprising, and she’s now behind bars because in her NGO it was ok to be gay. She’s serving nine years.

Is homosexuality a criminal offense?

It’s not illegal to be gay in Egypt but there is a very wide spread of arrests of gay people going on at the moment. What are they being arrested for? Carrying out immoral acts.

In 2004 there was a huge political issue as well and the government was cracking down on homosexuality to prove that they were religious so people wouldn’t go and support the Muslim Brotherhood, who are fanatics. And the same thing is happening now. The government, which is military-based, want to prove that they are also religious so you don’t have to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood. And they do that by arresting gay and transsexual people. There’s this transsexual woman who posted pictures of herself dressed as a belly dancer and dancing online, and she got arrested. The headlines read, “The Most Dangerous SheMale in Egypt.” … This is what’s happening.

Do you think it was any easier for you to make connections there because you have Egyptian heritage?

There were certain things for which it was very important that I spoke Egyptian. For instance, before I left, I decided I was going to do a study on shame. With all the reading I’d done, I felt like I really knew what I was doing. There seemed to be a theme running through all these stories about shame. When I went to Egypt, I realised the concept of shame doesn’t actually exist. It translates into “dishonour.” You bring dishonour to your family, to the society; you haven’t been well brought up by your family. I wouldn’t have caught that if I weren’t a native Arabic speaker.

It made it easier because I had access – especially at that time it was really difficult because there was political upheaval, and having Egyptian identity was really important. There were a lot of researchers and journalists who were getting arrested at the time. Prior to 2011, I always walked around with my British passport to help protect me. After 2011, I had to get rid of anything that showed I was British or affiliated to a British university because that would have gotten me arrested, just by the fact that “everybody was a spy” trying to tarnish the image of Egypt at the time.

Do you have an Egyptian passport?

An Egyptian ID. Always coming out (laughs). So I was doing an ethnography, which means I was doing a lot of observation, and being Egyptian meant I could become a participant instead of just an observer. I could offer services; I could volunteer; I could do things. When I was working out there I volunteered as a project manager. I volunteered at the office for two days and they gave me five days access. It was great to have access through the NGO because of safety … It was very difficult to access street girls in particular because they were always protected by street pimps who were very dangerous and wanted to know why you’re talking to them.

What brought you to focus on Cairo?

I focused on Cairo for really practical reasons: I had a place to stay, I had access to the NGOs – they’re mainly in Cairo.

Why Egypt?

I used to go from a really young age and this issue of street children was always really interesting to me. I went to a sports club once with my cousin, and my cousin’s husband physically pushed the street kid out of the way – he was trying to sell him something. When we got inside, I started talking about street kids and he said, “We don’t have street kids. What are you talking about?” And I was like “Oh my god, they’re so invisible, they’ve become so marginialised that despite you physically touching one, you didn’t even realised you’ve got street kids.”

Did you find that ideas about gender in Cairo were different from here?

Fundamentally it’s more about struggle, so the struggle women have to go through there. It’s not that they’re different – it’s just that they’re a step behind. Struggles we’ve kind of won, they’re still fighting for. Again, the timing was really interesting. Had I done this research prior to 2011, I would have said, “Yes. They’re at home, and they’re being oppressed,” but in 2011 there was this really big push in women’s rights; there was a huge push in equality. Six years ago, women in Egypt were given the right to file divorce. There were all these laws made against FGM. So there was a movement for claiming rights and equality but of course it’s a struggle.

The biggest struggle there is sexual harassment. You cannot go out on the street without being harassed, either physically or verbally. No matter what you’re dressed in; no matter what you look like; no matter whom you’re with. So I think that’s the most outward expression that there is a gap.

Last year, when the military took over, one of the laws they brought out to try to gain people’s support was that if anyone sexually harassed a woman in the street, even verbally, they’d immediately – without a court trial – be sentenced to two years in prison. Has it deterred people? It did for about a month. People were sentenced to 2 years, it was actually implemented, and people are still being harassed in the street. It’s so deeply inbred that it’s ok to do this to women.

Under different regimes that take power, they struggle differently. When the Muslim Brotherhood came in for that one year, they didn’t want to sign the UN convention to end violence against women. They said it was against the religion and family values. Different governments bring in different ideologies, but women still suffer under all of them because the culture is still very closed against women’s outward demand of their rights.

You mentioned that a lot of the street kids took part in the uprising. Was that street girls and boys?

Yeah. Basically all the demonstrations took part in Tahrir Square – Tahrir means ‘freedom’ in Egyptian … So on the 25th of January when the uprising started and millions of people were coming down to Tahrir Square, the kids got word that the whole of Egypt were becoming street children … They didn’t know what was going on, but they were like, for years you’ve been telling us to get off the streets, and now you’re on the streets: The streets are our home, and we’re going to show you what it really takes to survive on the streets.

Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP
Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP

What was really amazing was that the street kids, during the fights – when the police threw tear gas and opened live bullets on us – would physically not move from the front lines. They wanted to protect us. To them, we’re the only people that would tell the story as it really was – the media wasn’t saying what was really happening – so they said we can’t afford for you to die.

They started off stealing mobile phones, then they realised everyone is chanting for justice, freedom, dignity, bread – stuff that was really basic, that they could relate to. And there was this really nice relationship that developed. We were teaching them to read and write and taking them into our tents, and on the other hand, they were sharing their street knowledge that we didn’t have – where to hide from the police, where to get medication, which pharmacies were sympathetic to our cause, where to get cheap food. It was the first time they weren’t just receivers of charity – they could have a really active role in it.

But you know it wasn’t all positive. There was one street vendor who was shot. He was 13. I have something about this on my blog. It was really tragic. His name was Omar Salah. This boy became iconic because one day we interviewed him on why he was selling hot potatoes in the street. At the end, the guy videoing him said, “What are your dreams?” And he said, “I don’t have the right to dream, Sir.” … The next day he was shot by military in front of the US Embassy, and that was it. He was shot, no one knew to where he was taken, if he was going to be buried, and no one was going to question why he was shot.

We had a blogging campaign; everyone changed their profile pictures to this boy; we changed our flyers to his “I don’t have the right to dream” quote: it was a really big push. And only then were we able to get it to people’s attention. Despite it all – the hundreds of article that came out – they had a little mock trial, where they said it was accidental killing, and the soldier who shot him was dismissed for three years – so no real punishment. That was one of the really sad examples of what it meant to have your children in the street.

So some of us came together, PhD students who were Egyptian but lived in different areas … We created this campaign called “Paper Tissues” because paper tissues are what most street children sell. We were working on rights more generally, but we did some things like train doctors to use the law to … because in Egypt you can’t report abuse unless you’re part of the family, which is ridiculous, so we had a whole training session on how to do that.

One of the things we did was get shelters to come out and physically move the children out before the demonstrations before the violence starts. Again there’s a conflict there with children’s rights. You’re bumping up the hierarchy of the child’s need for protection over the right to participate – in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child they have the right to participate.

Did you find that there were different levels or kinds of violence towards the street girls during the protest?

I think it would be fair to say that both street boys and girls go through a very significant amount of violence. But it’s a different type of violence.

It’s not just about it being sexual: The girls get raped, but boys also get raped … It doesn’t have to be by a criminal paedophile; It will be by older street boys. It’s almost like an initiation process. But the result of it will be different. They will both be raped, but only the girl will get the scarring – because her virginity matters more than the boy’s. So there will be a physical violence in addition to the rape, but also a societal violence. Once she gets that scarring, she will be forever labelled as a street girl and her re-integration will be far more difficult. A great example of this is, before 2008, if a girl was raped on the street and she had a baby, she would be charged with prostitution, her child would be forcibly taken from her and registered as an unknown birth so she would never be able to find her child again, and then she would be sent to a correctional centre for punishment.

Do you still keep your blog updated?

Yeah. One of the ones I update all the time is the accomplishments and achievements one because it always reminds people how doing little things can make a huge difference in a kid’s life. That’s my impact blog. That’s the one I like.

Credit: WordPress - Nelly Ali
Credit: WordPress – Nelly Ali

Did you start that blog when you went to Egypt?

It was my personal blog before I went, then one day I was with the Paper Tissues campaign and we were talking about how shelters decide which girls go to which shelter according to if they’re virgins or not, and we all sat there tutting … how could they do that, they’re reproducing the stigma around being non-virginal. The very next day I went to the shelter and I learned why this separation exists. [Read the story here].

I didn’t know where to go with these emotions and I felt kind of selfish that I was suffering. I thought … why am I suffering as a researcher that has the option to go back home. I used my personal blog to write about this and overnight it was re-tweeted and visited over 6,000 times. Why I kept going wasn’t because it was being read so much, it was because of the impact it had on people. From the surgeon offering free services to remove the girls’ scars, to people sending blankets or having a clothes campaign – all from reading the blog. [Read about the many accomplishments here].

I feel like the research I do in academia might be cited a few times if I’m lucky. To have impact, I felt it had to be a non-academic audience. I’ve dealt with a lot of the ethical issues I had through the blog. You know, I’m gonna come in, I’m gonna get my PhD and live a nice life because … I’ve exploited your stories. It might not be true, but it’s how I felt. I’ve seen so much pain and abuse, but when this happened with the blog I felt so much better. Ok I’m leaving you with something positive for you out in the streets.

Would you say the blog and activism have been you coping with these frustrations?

Yeah, I’m actually writing a paper about that now, with Jessica Ringrose and Emma Renold. They’re writing a volume about academia and activism – and it’s all focused on sexuality really – so I’m writing a chapter in that.

And I think that’s the way I think I can deal with the traumatic things I’ve seen – through activism and the blog. I always say the street children have shown me the worst humanity has to give as well as the best.

Sara Raab
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Sara Raab

Sara Raab is a graduate of Birkbeck, Master of Gender and Sexuality studies.She is passionate about feminist and queer issues.She also likes books, beer, and fantasy.Sara now resides in Maryland, U.S.A.
Sara Raab
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