It’s Not Your Fault: Five New Plays on Sexual Harassment in Egypt

Edited by Jillian Campana, Dina Amin and the Cairo Writers Lab
104 pp. American University in Cairo Press

Reviewed by Patricia Keeney*

This unusual book showcases a theatre project focussed on the ways in which a range of sexual abuse can become embedded in a culture. In so doing it wakes us all to the nuanced history of harassment hiding in so many cultures around the world.

Hadda Elsadda of Cairo University, co-founder The Women and Memory Forum writes in her Foreword to the volume that it was the Arab spring of 2011 that pushed this once taboo subject into meaningful public discussion as did social media. Elsadda cites a breakthrough on Instagram by a group of male and female students who exposed the harassment exercised in intimate campus situations, “violations that were not committed by strangers in the public sphere.” The American University of Cairo (AUC) followed up on these revelations with a SpeakUp Dialog series covering legal, political and cultural challenges around the issue.

Tackling such topics as consent, psychological trauma, patriarchal attitudes, and the repercussions of speaking out, five sharply honed, open-ended 10-minute plays emerged enacting “the revolutionary afterlives of the 2011 moment.” Transcending easy labels like “theatre for social action” and “theatre in education,” they exist in a category of their own. Collaborating closely with The Cairo Writers Lab, a group established in 2017 to develop a verbatim theatre piece about post-Revolution Cairo, the editor/dramaturgs Jillian Campana and Dina Amin acknowledge that the title of this collection alone reflects a problem so thoroughly woven into the fabric of Egyptian life – that nobody takes blame. Until now.

More specifically, the volume was conceived in response to a series of assaults by a student at the American International School (AIS) who had also been a student at AUC. Formally accused of sexual crimes by over 50 women, the charges made international news. As well, the case was publicized by Assault Police, a social media platform, created to respond to the lack of support for women dealing with such issues. Assault Police eventually uncovered multiple incidents including one in which a young woman was drugged and gang raped by a group of wealthy young men at a luxury hotel. Of interest here, the Prosecutor eventually dropped the case, “citing insufficient evidence,” an example, declare the editors wryly, of justice routinely repressed. 

At some point during each play, it was agreed that a staggering statistic be included: “This happens to 99% of [Egyptian] women and girls.” Indeed, in early discussions, “over a hundred different aspects of sexual misconduct were identified, ranging from verbal and visual harassment to physical actions.” Accepting that there is “no recognizable global definition of sexual harassment,” the editors provide a short history of the term, arriving at its current understanding in Egypt. Legally, the term divides into categories of “misdemeanor” and “felony,” the latter including rape, kidnapping and genital mutilation, but the former including a variety of behaviours ranging from flirtation to defamation. There is nothing clear cut here since the Arabic word, tahararush or harassment “connotes many different types of sexual and non-sexual acts…and therefore lacks specificity.”

However, the lack of discussion around any of these issues convinced those involved to choose areas of investigation they felt would most “encourage further conversation and empower others to tell their own stories.” These included “the patriarchal nature of the family unit in Egypt; the disconnect between generational views;” the victimization of accusers and “the silent shame of domestic abuse.”

Around these topics five mini-plays were written and performed. The plays published here are in English with a brief glossary of Arab words. Taken together, they show what legal definitions cannot. Each has its own introduction signalling a particular issue.

Each uses deceptively naturalistic dialogue fraught with subtext. One mini-play, Forget Him, whirls around the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder suffered by a young woman whose flight or fight response is constantly activated by an incident that happened four years prior. See Me traps father and daughter in a web of cultural imperatives that prevent the family patriarch from defending his sexually-harassed daughter because he knows society would blame him for not protecting her in the first place, thereby undermining his masculinity.

The Report emphasises “the discrepancy between the prevalence [of harassment incidents] and the reporting of the crimes.” In this case, a female student is compromised by a charismatic young male professor. If reported, the young woman risks losing both social and academic status. What do You Know? treats domestic abuse across class lines. Campus cleaning women, regularly beaten by their husbands, discover that even privileged students have also suffered sexual violation within the family. Eventually the women bond in a sisterhood of humour, anger and sorrow.

When We Met, the final play in this small volume, presents Mr. Nice Guy as Aggressor, exploring ways in which Egyptian men often mistake female refusal for shyness or coyness thereby revealing “unspoken patterns of violence against women within relationships.” 

The editors note that all the directors, actors, designers, and managers involved in the project have themselves experienced sexual harassment of one kind or another and brought those events to the work making this project a form of “ethnotheatre,” “playwriting as participatory research.”

Site-specific campus productions of these works helped reinforce the concept that “harassment and assault reside among us…occurring at all locations and at all times.” Animated discussions with audiences, led by student “tour guides,” were part of the experiences which were later streamed on YouTube.

In total, some sixty people were involved and all agreed that the process shone a light on  perspectives of a problem otherwise unavailable to them. Audience members wanted even more. “Why didn’t you have a play about cat-calling?” [wolf whistles]. And they wanted answers: “How come none of the plays had a clear ending?”

There were no answers of course because the questions they raised must be dealt with by the society from which they emerge. And the differences in male and female perspective opened eyes. One male actor described feeling as though he represented an entire community of men who care, yet do not know how to deal with the issues.

In the end, the editors suggest that “by acting out real-world scenarios in a fictional sphere participants and audiences… come to understand the situation from the perspective of the other.”

Would these playlets work in other contexts and other countries? Campana and Amin offer them here royalty-free in the hope that they will be performed elsewhere and in the belief that theatre can effect social change. 


*Patricia Keeney is an award-winning Canadian literary and theatre critic as well as a widely published and translated poet and novelist. Her most recent books are the novel One Man Dancing (Inanna) based on the history of Uganda’s legendary Abafumi theatre company and a collection of poetry and dialogues called Orpheus in Our World (NeoPoiesis) based on the earliest Greek hymns. Keeney is a long-time professor of Literature, Humanities and Creative Writing at Toronto’s York University. Website: wapitiwords.ca.

Copyright © 2023 Patricia Keeney
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