On a Saturday morning, seven women and three men sit on bean bags in Ikhtyar’s Abbasseya office engaged in a thematic discussion of classical Arabic literature. The texts, written in the era of the Islamic Caliphate, revolve around sexuality.
The group reads about two inseparable boys who attend a weekly religious sermon together dressed alike, until one day they are no longer seen together and both are visibly pale. On seeing one of the boys tear up as he walks past the sermon where his previous companion is, the preacher prays for the couple to be reunited, and everyone present echoes his prayers.
The story ends happily with the prayers answered and the two boys going to perform the Islamic pilgrimage together.
The session is part of a three-month free seminar program on gender and sexuality organized by the small feminist collective.
One of the participants finds it hard to believe that a gay couple could have been accepted in that period, not only by society but religious figures as well. The conversation flows freely, jumping from one question to the other: could they have been just close friends? Maybe there’s a different version of Islam that existed back then that we’re not aware of? What does this tell us of their understanding of manhood compared to now?
The moderator doesn’t offer answers or direct the conversation toward particular conclusions.
This is typical of the functions organized by the Ikhtyar collective, whose name means “choice.” Founded in 2013 by a group of feminist men and women, Ikhtyar has since been sustained by six volunteer members who also work full time jobs in order to finance the collective’s activities.
Describing itself as a knowledge hub on sexuality and gender, working in Arabic is essential to their mission.
Ikhtyar’s coordinator, Mai Panaga, explains they are trying to fight the exclusivity that currently defines the field and allows only those with privileges — such as knowledge of other languages or access to and understanding of complex academic resources — to engage with it.
Through academic workshops, film screenings, reading groups and online periodicals, the group diversifies the material about sexuality and gender available in Arabic and engages more people in the conversation.
But the question is one that is far deeper than one of translation or involving people in an already existing conversation.
By developing resources and discussions in Arabic, the group hopes to help the Egyptian feminist movement narrate its experience in its own language and develop its own theories factoring in the local context.
“Our experience is not documented in our language, and what is written about us is written in other languages. It is not directed at us, it’s directed at a different audience, in other countries,” Panaga explains.
The participation of Egyptian women in the 2011 uprising, for example, has been extensively researched and discussed in other languages but not in the same depth in Arabic.
As such, a single understanding of feminism is anathema to the group’s philosophy and they seek to introduce people to different schools of feminism. The group is invested in translating important feminist literature into Arabic. And this is an intensive process, because it also means developing a lexicon in a language that has been largely left out of the conversation.
Their understanding of knowledge itself is also broad and extends to participatory theater. Last year, they worked with young girls in a small village in Minya called Barsha to put on a performance.
Collaborating with a local NGO, the collective aimed to offer the young girls of the village an opportunity for self-expression. They wanted the activity to be mostly guided by the participants and only improved and supported by the collective.
Shady Abdallah, a theatre director who led the effort on this project, described working with the group of pre-teens for five months. The idea was not to lead or guide the girls, but support them. They were already experienced at reciting poems and the project built on this ultimately putting together a fictional show based on the true stories of the performers.
Abdalla lived in the village for stretches of time throughout the process to create the necessary rapport for creative collaboration, consisting of a lot of back and forth. The group first collected the stories of the girls and wrote a fictional script, before giving it to them to make adjustments. They added moments of comedy that they knew would go down well with the crowd, Abdallah recalls, as well as adjusting some of the wording that seemed foreign to their ears.
The show was a sweeping success. For Abdallah, one of the most important elements of this success is that in a village that is deeply segregated along sectarian lines, the Christian stars of the show made it to the Muslim side of town where the makeshift theatre was created in the youth club.
That he is not fixated on gender is typical of Ikhtyar’s mode of feminism. They are careful not to fall into the trap of isolating gender issues from their context. This is reflected in the films they choose to screen, which often do not address gender issues, but take place in a context that is comparable to Egypt’s.
“If we watch a film with the theme of totalitarianism,” Panaga, says by way of example, “then we discuss what your place is in society, what are your rights in public space, and then by default you discuss feminism and women rights.”
One of their most popular programs, the film screenings, take place on Saturdays in their space in Abbasseya and are free of charge, attracting an audience that goes beyond the usual faces in feminist circles, including university students and residents of the area.
The group has discovered that the general public is ready for more than it’s usually given credit for. With one of their main goals being to stimulate conversation of little talked about topics, the films move from topics such as identity to non-heterosexual love stories.
“We don’t try to analyze, we ask questions,” says Menna Ekram, a scriptwriter who runs the collective’s film program. “The idea is not to tell you this is right or wrong, it’s simply to stir your interest.”
You can contribute here to Ikhtyar’s crowdfunding campaign to help sustain their activities for the next year, up until Wednesday, December 9.