From eight governorates across Egypt, the Feminist School brought together young women and men to learn feminist leadership, participate in school governance, and engage in communities to raise awareness and counter violence against women and girls.
Problems and Purpose
In Egypt, one in every three women between 18 and 64 is subjected to violence. According to a UNFPA survey, 32% of women are subjected to physical violence, 43% subjected to psychological violence, and 12% subjected to sexual violence across the country. As for violence in public spaces, Egyptianstreets.com and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality Survey (2013) found that “99.3% of Egyptian women are sexually harassed in one way or the other, 96.5% of whom said that harassment was physical, and 95.5% experienced sexual harassment through verbally abusive language." The regime in Egypt has used sexual violence against women and girls to ensure that women’s image, social places, and actions are regulated through their bodies. According to a 2013 Harassmap report, in 2005 (specifically, 25th May in what was referred to as Black Wednesday), people could see state-recruited thugs sexually harass women activists who were protesting against the Constitutional Referendum and police forces were watching without interfering. The lack of a fair justice system signaled to the public that harassing women was permissible, as perpetrators regularly got away with it. Further, while sexual harassment was almost non-existent in Tahrir Square during the first 18 days of the 2011 revolution, it reappeared as a problem following the state-orchestrated sexual violence against women who participated in protests.
To address these issues, a Feminist School was set up in 2014 and used as a space where young women and men could come together to unpack the lived realities of women and tackle the complex issues of VAWG. Through participatory approaches, the Feminist School utilizes feminist leadership to address women’s issues, such as violence against women and girls (VAWG). This approach was selected as there was readiness among young women and men to engage in feminist social change initiatives to amplify women’s voices. More broadly, the purpose of the Feminist School is to strengthen the feminist movement at the grassroots level and enable women to challenge and overcome the different types of violence that they face. This is done by helping young women understand what violence is, how and why it is perpetrated, and how to overcome it. It is also done through participatory approaches that strengthen their alternative sources of power: (a) their “power within” as they strengthen their own perception of themselves and change it from being unable and vulnerable beings to strong and able persons who have rights and entitlements that they can fight for; (b) their “power to” take action to change their own lives and be part of social change processes; and (c) their collective “power with” others, as the group (the Feminist School itself) becomes a unit of support and a safe space for young women.
Background History and Context
The feminist movement in Egypt started as early as the 1920s with the Egyptian Feminist Union (est. 1923), which addressed education, social welfare, and amendments of private law. According to Kamal, the movement in Egypt is divided into four waves. The first focused on women’s right to public education and political representation. The second was marked by women’s achievement of constitutional and legal rights in the context of state feminism. The third was characterized by feminist activism in the context of civil society organizing, and the fourth wave extended its struggle into addressing women’s bodies and sexuality. As part of this movement, women’s rights and feminist organizations were established in Egypt over this period.
Those aimed at addressing issues of VAWG have focused on three main approaches. One approach was the empowerment of women to speak up and challenge VAWG, discrimination, and inequality. This has been through awareness raising and building women’s agency to enable them to face this issue. The second approach was advocacy for national strategies addressing VAWG to support their work at the national level. This was through negotiations as well as lobbying efforts to convince government organizations and state officials that VAWG is a priority. Finally, the third approach was awareness campaigns to raise local community members’ awareness of the effects of VAWG at local and national level. This was through the use of media campaigns, printing pamphlets and posters, and the use of art and culture. Building on this history, Feminist Schools were created in 2014, aimed at developing and supporting young women’s agency to take the lead in addressing VAWG in the post-revolution period.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
In 2014, the NWRC for Research and Studies (est. 2004) (NWRC), started a pilot for the Feminist School for young women (minimum 70% of total enrolment) and men. Funded by an international non-governmental organization,** the pilot phase included facilitating discussions and reflections with the young women and men and exposing them to literature and cinema addressing women’s issues around the world. With increased interest from participants, this phase developed into practical work in local communities when the Feminist School members (young women and men) took lead in implementing awareness raising campaigns in three local communities in 2015, to combat VAWG, and a second phase (2016–2017) focused on young women and men forming their own local schools in their communities. This continued from 2014 until 2017. Throughout this time, the Feminist Schools were considered an open structure allowing new members to join to create an inclusionary space.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participation in Feminist Schools is voluntary and based on the willingness of any members to be part of a group, free of charge. That said, for the first cohort, the NWRC developed a set of selection criteria based on which they recruited and selected potential members. These criteria included:
- ensuring that the group is made up of at least 70% young women;
- ensuring diversity of backgrounds;
- engaging youth from local initiatives and civil society organizations; and
- engaging youth who are between the age of 18 and 35 and have a minimum high school-level education.
Based on these criteria, an advertisement was posted on NWRC’s social media and a mobilization process was led to select participants. Twenty-five young women and men were selected from the eight governorates where NWRC had existing initiatives for youth and women. Their travel was covered to participate in the first Feminist School, in Cairo.
Methods and Tools Used
Facilitated Feminist School sessions included reflection sessions in which the members discussed issues from a feminist perspective. To this end, two main methods were used, namely, the Transformative Adult Education Cycle and feminist leadership. The transformative adult education cycle is based on Paulo Freire’s work (reflection–action–reflection). During this process, the focus is usually on the citizen/participant and the ongoing learning process of adults. The methodology also includes a focus on the rights-based approach, which includes a power lens and a feminist perspective into analyzing issues. Feminist leadership focused on giving power to participants in controlling in-school governance. Therefore, Feminist School facilitators ensured that members were exposed to a model that is more inclusive, participatory, and respectful of diversity. Within these two methods, art and literature were used to stimulate reflections on women’s issues, image, and status at local, national, regional, and international levels. To ensure that participants put the knowledge in practice, additional training was conducted to build the required skills and knowledge for implementing actions (e.g., awareness-raising campaigns with direct interactions with local community members and other stakeholders).
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
A Feminist School is a flexible, safe space for young people to discuss issues related to women’s rights violations and challenge their perceptions around VAWG. NWRC’s vision was to utilize the Feminist School as an organizing mechanism for young women and men. This is in addition to the availability of groups and initiatives that are willing to support Feminist Schools. The organization also saw the Feminist School as a means to address the critique to the feminist movement as an elite movement, led by rich, educated women, disconnected and alienated from the daily struggles of ordinary women and, in some cases, against religion. Therefore, the organization saw it fit to work with young women and men on their perceptions around the movement, as a base for them to start understanding that the real aims of the movement are to achieve social justice and equity for all regardless of sex or gender.
Practically, the Feminist School also addressed issues related to reaching out to local communities/villages as its participants entered the homes of villagers and conducted activities in closed communities. It also addressed power relations in the family structure that does not allow women to participate in such forums. Several young women, however, faced backlash and the organization itself faced some challenges regarding their security and continuation as the feminist schools became popular among young women and men in the three governorates where the campaigns were implemented: Port Said, Dakahlya, and Al Minya.
The Feminist School rolled out in two phases. The first, implemented in 2014, focused on the launch of the school and the formation of a capable and knowledgeable group of young women and men. This was through a focus on enhancement of their knowledge around feminism to develop a feminist awareness that can be used in working with women from various backgrounds and social categories. It also focused on bridging the gap between feminist theories and daily struggles of women at the local level. This phase also continued through 2015 with the implementation of three awareness-raising campaigns to challenge VAWG. The second phase, implemented in 2016–2017, focused on establishing local Feminist Schools in other governorates to ensure they are grounded in local communities. This helped in the transfer and expansion of the experience as well as the development of its working tools to be tailored to the needs of young women. Through these two phases, the Feminist School’s activities moved from indoor spaces to outdoor spaces where young women and men were able to discuss issue of VAWG with people in local communities.
Overall, as part of the structure of the Feminist School, decisions were made in a collective manner. This was to emphasize the ownership of young people to the structure. Therefore, discussions were conducted based on the needs and capacities of the group in which these decisions were made. This also included flexibility as the Schools were seen as the young people’s space. Discussions were also focused on the broader understanding the status of women at the local level, and their concerns through feminist research methods and tools, through which they had the opportunity to explore women’s issues at the local level as researchers. In addition, feminist leadership and the human rights-based approach were the main principles governing the deliberations and decision making. The school were also seen as an open and voluntary space, so new members can join and current members can decide to leave at any given time.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Impact was achieved as Feminist School members used their learnings, which occurred at two levels. First, knowledge was put into practice through three awareness-raising campaigns in local communities. Through these campaigns, interaction with local community members was a key aspect to achieve the objective of raising public awareness around VAWG. One main achievement was increased interactions between community members from various religious backgrounds, which is typically a challenge in many villages. Campaign leaders also managed to reach out to the elderly women and villagers to raise their awareness about VAWG.
A second level of impact was around Feminist School members’ ability to challenge VAWG in their own individual and private circles. When discussing how the Feminist School affected her and other young women, one of the young women participants explained: “Women always have to stick to the roles prescribed to them even if it is opposite to their will, and any refusal or disobedience is paid for in [social] persecution and…oppression or alienation inside their safety circles. The Feminist School [on the other hand] is a space for support, safety and tolerance, young women talk freely and express their feelings and through the discussions, they could see themselves in a better lens and feel they are not alone. They strengthen one another. …They gain confidence in themselves and discover their strengths that society always hides [or rejects and ignores] in the name of customs and traditions. …The feminist school helped in correcting wrong information on feminism [and feminists] socially, making a link with the daily life details that we face, such as violence and discrimination”. She also expressed that young women started to understand the conflicts that take place around them. They started to understand what they are exposed to, that is VAWG, and why it was perpetrated.
The Feminist School also helped the young women notice the small actions that they were socialized to accept. They began to realize that they are a part of systems of discrimination and violence that should not be accepted. Some of the young women, mothers themselves, started to think of their children’s questions about gender. They reflected on the ready-made answers and social narratives, and instead provided their sons and daughters with more gender-sensitive answers. In so doing, they began to change the power relations and understandings in their households to ensure that they do not reproduce discriminatory models. Young men reported that the Feminist School helped them understand what women go through when they face violence. It helped them shape their own definitions of masculinity which allowed them to eventually become supporters for women’s issues beyond the Feminist School work.
Additionally, in the beginning of its implementation, NWRC did not foresee how the Feminist School could be used as a vehicle to increase young women’s participation in governance process, as the main aim was to work on VAWG. However, by the second phase of the project (2016–2017), three local Feminist Schools joined initiatives that worked on this aspect. Through this engagement, young women were able to facilitate community actions and start discussions with local decision makers and service providers to enhance women’s participation and access to resources at the governorate level.
Finally, young women started to be more accepting to the others and their choices. Overall, they thought that their experience in the Feminist School was an important one that made them stronger, provided them with more self-confidence, and helped them take stronger steps in their lives to ensure that they are not hurt or subjected to violence.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Overall, the implementing organizations considered the Feminist School a successful initiative as it impacted young women’s lives individually and helped them take the discussions around women’s rights to the streets. The Feminist School was assessed in terms of the quality of exchanges and the safety that was created among the members as well as the methodology used to create and maintain it. Implementing the Feminist School effectively created safe and supportive spaces for young women’s participation in Egypt. It provided them with a much-needed, safe opportunity to be themselves, express their own opinions, and challenge their own internalized perceptions of their socially-constructed images and roles.
The Feminist School also helped young women reframe their experiences of violence and provided them with strength to face it. It also gave the young men a clearer understanding of their own perceptions around how women and girls feel about violence and what could be the consequences of being exposed to violence. The project also created solidarity among young women through their engagement in the Feminist School activities and exchanges as they listened to one another’s stories and were supportive to one another. It helped and supported the decisions of young women to assert their right, even if it was against dominant social values.
Moreover, the methodology, centered on transformative adult education and feminist leadership, exposed young women to a different experience that allowed them to gain more confidence as it strengthened their voice. They also learnt that people need the chance and the space to expand their potential and be creative in contrast to what society dictates. The methodology of implementation supported the members’ ownership of the School itself, as participants experienced power shifts between the facilitator and themselves. This was also supported by collective decision-making and planning processes, and the use of innovative and creative tools to mobilize more young women and men to be part of the Feminist School (e.g., interactive theatre, graffiti, stand-up comedies, story-telling). In addition, promoting feminist leadership in the Feminist School was important in showing a model that young women and men can relate to and replicate in other settings.
There were two major challenges in implementing Feminist Schools. The first related to how the security forces saw the Feminist School as a threat to the socially-constructed image and role of women, and to their acceptance to VAWG. To overcome this, some of the activities had to be delayed in local communities. The second challenge was the social backlash that a number of the young women had to face while going through the process of learning (and unlearning) their socially-constructed image and role and in challenging VAWG. To address this, the young women discussed their issues together openly to address these issues on a case-by-case basis.
 UNFPA. (2016). The economic cost of gender based violence: Survey Egypt 2015. Cairo, Egypt: CAPMAS, UNFPA, NCW. https://egypt.unfpa.org/en/publications/economic-cost-gender-based-violence-survey-egypt-2015
 Al Mashad, S. (2015). The moral epidemic of Egypt: 99% of Egyptian women are sexually harassed. Retrieved from https://egyptianstreets.com/2015/03/05/the-moral-epidemic-of-egypt-99-of-women-are-sexually-harassed/ para. 3
 Harassmap. (2013). First annual report: December 2010–March 2012. Retrieved from https://harassmap.org/ar
 VeneKlasen, L., & Miller, V. (2002). Chapter 3 Power and Empowerment. In L. VeneKlasen, & C. Clark (Eds.), A new weave of power, people and politics (1st ed., pp. 44-45)). India: Practical Action.
 Kamal, H. (2016). A century of Egyptian women's demands: The four waves of the Egyptian feminist movement. In S. Takhar (Ed.), Gender and race matter: Global perspectives on being a woman (Advances in gender research, Vol. 21, pp. 3–22). London, UK: Emerald.
 NWRC (2017). Personal communication.
 Lina* (September 2018) personal communication
Wikipedia. (2018). Feminism in Egypt. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminism_in_Egypt
A Solidarity Statement from the Egyptian Feminist Organizations Coalition with Nazra for Feminist Studies: https://nazra.org/en/2016/03/solidarity-statement-egyptian-feminist-organizations-coalition-nazra-feminist-studies
The makings of feminist schools across the globe: https://www.kappanonline.org/nuamah-feminist-schools-worldwide/
*Lina’s real name is not revealed to maintain her anonymity.
**The funders of the Feminist School have chosen not to add their name.
This case was produced and submitted by a graduate of the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University with the support of its staff, Julien Landry & Rachel Garbary.