JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Michel Martin is away. It's been more than three years since demonstrators in Egypt crowded Cairo's Tahrir Square and demanded a new government. A few leaders have come and gone since then, but the fight for the country's future and what will be written into the history books is still playing out.
And that's especially true when it comes to the role of women in Egyptian society. It's one of the topics of a United Nations discussion happening now. Maissan Hassan has been in attendance. She's the program manager at the Women and Memory Forum, which is a research organization based in Cairo. And she joins us now from New York City. Maissan, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MAISSAN HASSAN: Thank you for having me.
LUDDEN: So, first of all, tell us what is the Women and Memory Forum? What do you do?
HASSAN: The Women in Memory Forum is a research organization. We're based in Cairo, Egypt. And the main thing is that we rewrite history. We think that if we rewrite and reread our own history, we can do a lot for Egyptian women in our contemporary society not only in Egypt, but also across the Arab region.
LUDDEN: So how do you go about that?
HASSAN: We try to first of all document all the history of pioneering women who're still alive with us. And now we have more than 100 life stories of pioneering women who've done remarkable things in different walks of life. At the same time, we've been working on documenting and collecting personal and private collections - mainly that we go to women who've been doing so many things and we just collect their photos, personal papers, personal letters. And it's an idea that we collect all of these collections and we make it accessible for researchers and for the general public.
LUDDEN: Can you tell me about one of these women? Who is someone that had a big role that you've brought new attention to?
HASSAN: One of the women - one of the private collection that we have is for Miss. Widad Mitri .She was born in 1927 and she died in 2007. And during all these years, she worked a lot with education and schools helping students, Egyptian students - especially women students actually - to get their education as well as to be introduced to the public activism.
LUDDEN: Now you actually have your own oral storytelling project. Tell me about that.
HASSAN: Sure. Another project that we're working on is documentation as resistance. And we focus on documenting women's experiences in the public sphere who are engaged with politics after January 2011.
LUDDEN: And so what are these women bringing to the discussion and the debate?
HASSAN: First, they bring personal stories. And this is very important because you hear and you watch TV and you see all of these political events, but sometimes people forget that they are real human beings who've been going through these moments. Most importantly, they bring women's experiences and women's of voices into the history. So instead of waiting 10 or 15 years for our history to be written by other people, we decided that we will write our own history right now.
LUDDEN: You have also been politically active more recently since the Arab Spring in helping to write parts of the new Egyptian Constitution. How did gender play out in that process?
HASSAN: We started a Working Group on issues of women on the constitution back in April 2011. And at that time, the constitution question was not on the table, but we decided as women's groups, as feminist groups, to get together. And what we've done is that we studied old Egyptian constitutions and we studied other non-Egyptian constitutions that we thought were interesting to our experiences, especially when it comes to human rights, gender equality and women's rights.
LUDDEN: You said that you see tensions between the Egyptian government and feminist groups in Egypt, that their interests seem to be often at odds. How so? Why do you think that is?
HASSAN: We think that this is relevant to our history, the history of the Egyptian feminist movement and that this tension between women's movements, feminist movements and the state was there for decades. For example, in the beginning of the women's movement, we find that one of the triggers of women mobilization was the revolution of 1919. And at that time, women went out on the street and they participated, which was a great moment for Egyptian women, but at the same time, when the constitution of 1923 was written, women's demands, especially the right of women to vote, was completely neglected.
LUDDEN: Is that what you mean when you say that Egyptian women have essentially been written out of the country's history?
HASSAN: I would say that they've been marginalized and neglected. The problem is that in Egyptian history and mainstream history we find that women's voices are not represented as appropriately, and at the same time, mostly the focus would be on one or two figures instead of portraying the history that there was a movement, there were women in different walks of lives, there were women participating in political life in the public sphere.
LUDDEN: One of the big stories that came out during the Arab Spring protests was actually the assaults that took place on a number of women. When women who were protesting and, there in the square, started being assaulted, what - I mean, what went through your mind? What did you feel?
HASSAN: It felt that it's another chapter of women's struggle, Egyptian women's struggle, and where Egyptian women's resistant towards freedom and towards rights, actually towards gender equality. Of course there were moments that were very painful, and they were very shocking actually. And no one can deny the emotional roller coaster that we've been through in the last three years. And - but at the same time, we know that we have this history that we rely on. And that tells us we can do a lot of things, and that this is not the end for us.
LUDDEN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Maissan Hassan. She's with the Women and Memory Formum in Egypt. Do I understand that you're even going back in time and kind of retelling traditional Egyptian fairytales and folklore?
HASSAN: Yes. This was one of our projects that the Women and Memory Forum started years ago. And it started as writing workshops that the founders and members of the forum would rewrite folktales from a gender-sensitive perspective. And they published a few books on children's stories that, instead of portraying traditional gender roles, it would portray different gender roles that we would like to see in reality.
LUDDEN: Can you give me an example of a character in a fairy tale that was changed?
HASSAN: One of my favorite stories actually is (Arabic spoken), which is - it's a - in Arabic folktales, you find that, generally, values of being clever and witty are attached to male characters, while beauty and physical appearance are attached to female characters. And in one of those stories, actually, it's very interesting because the intellectual values and the being witty and clever are attached to the girl. So instead of being the most beautiful of the village (Arabic spoken), she is (Arabic spoken), the cleverest one.
LUDDEN: Have you faced any pushback for what you're doing? Are there men or even women who just think you're going too far?
HASSAN: Sometimes we find that men and sometimes women believe that it's not the priority, for example, to talk about women's rights and gender equality and feminism. And while we are in this political situation that we've been through in the last three years, and this has been one of the arguments that we have to actually counter and we have to deal with during our work. And it happened with our work on the Constitution, for example, that there were so many voices telling us that working on women's issues is not the right time, and you should wait until everything would be OK on our society. And then women's rights would come naturally. And we believe that it cannot go this way. It's a matter of working parallel on all of the issues at the same time. So we would work on human rights, freedom of expression, political participation for all citizens. But at the same time, we would focus on women and women's rights on different things.
LUDDEN: How about people in the government? Do you face pushback there?
HASSAN: Yes. We find that the feminist movements, in general, are in this tension with the state in different contexts, and for so many different reasons. And one of it is that in most cases, the state is the face of patriarchy and of patriarchal values. And this is something that we found that older feminists, our icons, the icons of the Egyptian feminist movement had to deal with, and we are working on that as well. But of course, under the Muslim Brothers, for example, it was very difficult for us to advocate for women's rights within the Constitution. And the fact that they were not supportive to women's rights and to feminist demands, there was so much attacking to us as activists who are working towards representation of gender and women's rights in the Constitution.
LUDDEN: So now that you have, you know, gender equality in some form in the Constitution, can you give me - I mean, how specifically do you hope that that might play out and in what kinds of circumstances?
HASSAN: For example, on the article of criminalization of discrimination, so now we have this breakthrough in the Constitution. So when cases of - we come across a case of dissemination in the workplace, for example, now we have the constitutional, legal framework that we can use to get the legal reform.
LUDDEN: Maissan Hassan is the program manager at the Women and Memory Forum, a research organization based in Cairo. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
HASSAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.