Randa AbulDahab is a blogger working with the New Women Foundation and the “Women of Minya Day by Day ” project. In addition, she is a filmmaker and has been leading the video and photography workshops with the women of the project. She has been working with civil society since 2001 to work specifically on women's issues. I conducted an interview with her to know more about her experience with the Egyptian civil society, and with the Rising Voices project in particular. The audio file is in the Arabic, but an English transcript is written below.
Rising Voices: First, please introduce yourself, and tell us about your role in “Women of Minya Day by Day” project.
Randa AbulDahab: My name is Randa AbulDahab, I started working in civil society since 2001. At first, I worked with New Women Foundation, and then I left them for quite a long time. During that time, I traveled to work in the civil society in Italy, and then other institutes in Egypt. Later on, I returned again to NWF, but changed my category of work. At first I used to work in social studies concerning violence against women, and domestic violence; the feminist movement in general. When I returned to NWF, I wanted to work more with the electronic space. Therefore, I worked with the team responsible for the foundation’s website. Also, I went to study cinema for a year, and made few short films. Therefore I wanted to mix both things together, working with video and in civil society.
As for “Women of Minya day by day” project, my colleague Nevine Ebide in NWF, read the announcement for the Rising Voices grant to fund small media projects. She thought about the idea, and suggested if I’d give sessions about video editing and photography. I was so enthusiastic about the idea. Nevine always have some great ideas, that you feel you want to take part in it – despite the too much effort you will have to put in. She told me that I will have to go to Minya, I told her there is no problem at all. And from there I started working in the project.
RV: During your work in NWF, what are the projects you took part in and left unforgettable impression on you?
RA: There were two projects I worked on at the same time. They were two very important projects to me. The first one was about TV drama. Studying women social roles represented in such drama and different forms of discrimination women may face like violence or limiting some jobs to be only done by men. The second project was about the definition of “Women private space”. We were trying to find out if “private space” for women means house and family only, or work and her life outside house. There was also another part in this project, where I had to meet some important figures of women movement in Egypt, also workers in civil society who work on improving women status in the society.
RV: Since you are a blogger, I wanted to know whether you think blogging can help improve the social problems? Even on individual level?.. of course by blogging I mean all forms of new technology tools, audio, video.. etc
RA: I won’t deny that only a small percentage of the entire Egyptian population has access to the internet. However, at least you can reach a certain category in the society that has access to the internet and also interested in the topics you are discussing. Or even at least, you can reach a decision maker. A while ago we had a campaign in NWF in favor of women becoming judges, and it was somehow a campaign for the elite, however, it attracted normal people who have no feminist orientations. They were keen to know what it means to have a woman working as a judge, and whether or not this is against religion as it is widely spread.
RV: This will take me back to another point. You previously said that you worked for a while in the civil society in Italy. So what are the differences you observed between the civil society in Egypt and Italy?
RA: Look, I had a chance for an internship through the European Union to work in an organization called “Voluntarious” that deals with 5 major projects, mainly, illegal refugees, political refugees, and underage refugees. The difference I observed was mainly about how people believe in the causes they are defending. Do they really want to work on such issues because they honestly believe in it, or it’s just a way or making a living?.. Let me not say making a living, but let’s call it because that’s the trend nowadays. Somehow, people in Italy were honest about the causes they were advocating, and that’s why they were working on it.
Also in Egypt, and I’ve seen that in my life, we have a confused understanding about volunteerism in general. It is always assumed you volunteer only when you have nothing else to do in your life, therefore anyone can abuse you the way they like.
A volunteer is a person who is giving away part of his time, which means he has other things to do in his life. Also, since he is a volunteer, then I should do whatever possible to make the job comfortable to him. I can for instance buy a bus ticket for him to come to my institute, or even buy him a meal, if he’s going to work at lunch time. But that’s not in Egypt, regretfully. There is this condescending look towards volunteers. Plus, sometimes some institutes act as if they don’t really know what they can do with a volunteer. They advertise that they need volunteers, but they don’t have a plan how to make good use of them. I’ve observed that throughout my life. No one tries to understand my capabilities and what I am ready to give.
RV: In Egypt, utilizing human resources in general does have a problem; whether that is volunteering or non-volunteering work. I feel that we have unchangeable idea about work. We don’t try to be creative about it, or make right use of people’s capabilities in the right place.
RA: There is also another difference but that lies on the volunteer himself. Sometimes it is taken lightly. So a volunteer would go to do a certain job, but he puts it as a last priority in his life.
RV: For “Women of Minya day by day” project. What are the stories you heard and felt this project is meant for these ones specifically?
RA: Mainly stories about these women’s daily life. You will find them on our blog. One of them about a woman who had to walk 2 kilometers to a hospital to cure her injured child. When she went to the hospital, they cured him yes, however, they didn’t allow her to take him back unless she brings money! I know much about private and public hospitals, but never imagined it would reach this level to hold a 5 year-old boy for such trivial amount of money. Another story is about Mariam, who was a widow for the second time, then married an old man. A third story about the girl who wanted to get married to someone from her village, however her father decided not to allow except a marriage from certain tribes in Upper Egypt.
RV: But I feel that such project is not meant to help such cases in particular, however may be to stop them to happen again.
RA: Till now, my idea about the project, that it is offering a tool that people don’t know, and yet if they can make good use of it, it may change many things in their lives.
RV: So what type of responses you receive from participants, especially that most of them are not well educated.
RA: Till now there is impressive response, which I didn’t even imagine. When I was first told that I will teach 10 to 15 females, I thought maybe 2 or 3 would respond positively. However, out of 15 I found 10 or 12 active ones. Also the response is seen during training, I don’t have to wait till the training ends. Like, you may find girls asking you to repeat because they don’t understand how to make a hyperlink. Or they would ask you to clarify the meaning of some technical words. Of course I try to use simple language, that’s why I am thinking to make a manual that has pictures more than words.
I remember last time they were asking me, “so what should we do till next time?”. I advised them to photograph each other. They themselves were searching for things to do in preparation for next time. This is some of the positive responses I received.
RV: You only carried out single workshop?
RA: Well we did it once, but on 3 days. And every day there were two of us there to give 2 different sessions. My colleague Dina Maghraby, worked on photography. My colleague Nevine worked on teaching them emailing and blogging. And currently, as I told you, we are putting a plan with a main concern about simplifying information even more. So we are working on the picture manual.
RV: What are the most significant obstacles you faced during implementing the project?
RA: Reaching the place is one obstacle. But we were trying to work on it. Either we’d go to the village itself, or participants would meet us in another middle place, outside the village. Other thing is that some participants bring their children with them to the training sessions. Of course we were terrified of that, but we tried some set up in sessions so that participants can bring in their children, without also being distracted with them crying or so.
RV: The question that always confuses me, because of my knowledge of the countryside way of living in Egypt. But I do not imagine how a family or a husband can allow their females to attend such training, which they may think teaches useless stuff.
RA: That was expected to happen of course. However, the idea was introduced to them as “you will come to know more about computers and how to use new technology”. But I think, apart from that, the much stronger obstacle was the fear of using technology itself.
There is something I’ve also noticed, and I think it made it easier for women to participate. Most of the women who joined us share in bread winning for the family, therefore they have a say. One of them works with builders, another one sells vegetables in the market. There are also two women who has higher education, one of them is a house wife but she took 2 years diploma in computers, therefore for her, it was easy to convince her husband to come – though still her background about computers was very limited. Some of them also used other people who have say in the village to convince their families.
RV: The last question would certainly be about your hopes and wishes for the project for the coming near future.
RA: Well, you can say this is a general dream of mine, which is to technologically empower all Egyptian women. Even educated ones who can use the internet to check Facebook and Twitter, etc but still their participation in programming for instance is very narrow, not even equal to men. So my dream is that all Egyptian women deal with technology effectively. It is not difficult at all, but it just needs some training or continuous friction with the tools to get used to it.
For “Women of Minya Day by Day” project, I really wish we’d honestly care for women in the countryside. With all my due respect to all the researches, reports.. etc, but women in the countryside are the category of Egyptians who live in the most disastrous conditions. It’s no longer enough to just keep talking about their problem. There should be some radical solutions to solve a lot of the misery they face.