Visual artist Sarah Seliman created a photography and documentary project about harassment of women in public spaces in Cairo; but it took a visit to Germany to reveal the difference in social gender perceptions between the countries.
Sarah Seliman, a visual artist and graphics designer who lives in Cairo, is well versed in the language of harassment on the streets of Egypt’s capital. “I can go out on the street and maybe every second man will comment on my hair or my piercing or my clothes, even if I'm not wearing anything noticeable,” she says.
In Germany I had the taste of freedom for the first time in my life. I could walk freely without people looking at me, I could smoke cigarettes freely.In 2015, she was one of three women who initiated Sidewalk Stories – a project dealing with questions of public space in Cairo, and how women navigate public space and cope with regular harassment – in cooperation with the Tahrir Lounge@Goethe in Cairo. The project included an academic component and workshops with 24 women living in Cairo aged between 20 and 30, both Egyptians and foreigners.
Seliman, who was raised in Saudi Arabia but later moved to Cairo, conducted a photography and documentary project. She photographed 12 of the women, and six appeared in her 40-minute documentary, each talking about their own particular coping mechanisms and a specific object they use as a totem to help them feel safe – a ring that was a gift from a father, headphones to block noise, a veil – in public areas.
With German academics involved in the broader project, there were plans for Sidewalk Stories to travel to Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, but Seliman was denied a visa to Germany. She then turned to Moving MENA, a Goethe-Institut programme which provides funding and administrative support to cultural actors in the Arab region to help them travel to Germany to participate in cultural events such as festivals, exhibitions or conferences. Since it started in 2012, about 560 people have benefited.
Society in Egypt is pressuring you so much as a woman, as an artist, to feel like it's your fault. With help from the programme, Seliman was then successful in her visa application and received support to organise the exhibition, and she travelled to events in Frankfurt and Berlin where the Sidewalk Stories project was shown. It was Seliman’s first visit to Europe, visiting cities and seeing architecture she had studied when at university.
But the biggest revelation was the absence of harassment. As a woman from Cairo, visiting Germany changed her whole life, she says. “In Germany I had the taste of freedom for the first time in my life. I could walk freely without people looking at me, I could smoke cigarettes freely, I could do whatever. I didn’t feel the air sucked out, I was normal, I felt human for the first time. It felt like I was breaking free. There was no noise in my head.”
The experience was both heart-breaking and revolutionary, says Seliman, a brief taste of a life without continual pestering. But the lasting impact was the realisation that “the harassment is not my fault, not because of how I dress. It's not my fault that I'm a woman, period. It's the society, the misunderstanding and ignorance of people. Society in Egypt is pressuring you so much as a woman, as an artist, to feel like it's your fault. They always blame the victim.”
Seliman sees parallels globally, perceiving similar comments around rape cases in Europe, such as ‘it’s her fault, she asked for it’, and feels a connection between harassment in Egypt and discrimination against women elsewhere. “Even if it's not the same issue, it's a global feeling. It's easier to blame the victim. Except here in Egypt, it's much more; women are more supplicating, and most women don't know their rights or how to stand up for themselves.” Seliman describes the trip as having a huge impact on how she sees and perceives things. “It changed me. When I came back after a week, I felt at peace as a human.”
The project garnered positive reactions in Germany and Italy, especially among Europeans who had not visited the Middle East, who had a very stereotyped image of women in Egypt or the wider region, says Seliman. “For them, they think of women as completely veiled, wearing a niqab or hijab. They have in their head the idea that women cannot talk to males, or cannot have a normal open mind. Seeing the photography and documentary really changed their minds a lot. They saw women who are strong talking about their rights, and who have a normal life, each with their own story. That was a big success for me.”
This content was produced by zenith staff for the Goethe-Institut. The Goethe-Institut’s Transformation Partnership projects are supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.