[SPECIAL EDITION] Taking the girl's revolution online: Interview with Ghadeer Ahmed

17 September 2017

Photograph from Girl's Revolution Facebook Page against the ban on wearing skirts in Saudi Arabia

Ghadeer Ahmed created Girl's Revolution on Twitter and Facebook a year after the revolution on Jan 25 2011 in Egypt. In this interview with Yara Sallam she traces the difficult and rewarding journey of talking about women's rights, body, sexuality, violence and harassment and sharing this with many other women and girls online.

This interview is part of a longer one that was conducted in October 2016 for EuroMedRights report "In Their Own Words". Ghadeer likes to introduce herself as a feminist writer.

Yara Sallam: How did the idea for the “Girls Revolution” Facebook page come about?

Ghadeer Ahmed: In September 2011, Ahmed Assily wrote an article he named "Girls Revolution", where he talked about the social conditions of women, and I was fixated on that article for some time. On the first anniversary of the revolution, in 2012, I created the hashtag “#ثورة_البنات” (Girls Revolution) and started writing and asking women to share our experiences in Egyptian society regardless of our social classes and which provinces we come from and such. I found an overwhelming reception, it was as if someone finally opened a door for women to speak. Lots of girls started sharing their experiences, and we discovered that we had many things in common regardless of what we do. It was obvious there were things in common that we as girls wanted the revolution to change for us, or for us to work on through the revolution, or for the revolution to open doors for these things to change and become better for us girls.

I created the hashtag “#ثورة_البنات” (Girls Revolution) and started writing and asking women to share our experiences in Egyptian society regardless of our social classes and which provinces we come from and such. I found an overwhelming reception, it was as if someone finally opened a door for women to speak.

After I while I found that the 140-character limit of tweets was limiting, and that the subject matter needed deeper discussion, so I suggested we create a larger discussion space, and open a Facebook page called “Girls Revolution”. Lots of girls shared their experiences and we started to talk. Our feminist vision and understanding was not very mature, but there was this innate awareness that things are happening to us, and while we didn’t know what they were, we weren’t happy about it and we wanted things to change. Those were the things that brought me together with the girls that participated in the Facebook page at the beginning. Then we started talking about different causes, and about current issues, such as virginity tests, sexual harrasment, and the attacks on marches. After that the page became a platform for girls to talk about things that are happening to them, and as a free space, for her to say what she wants, how she feels about it, and what she faces, and how those different experiences affect her life, and the things we girls have in common, a space we share with our differences, what we face due to our gender with our differences, and how this affects our lives and our life view. I didn’t want the girls when they’re speaking or sharing experiences for someone to say, “No, that doesn’t happen.” I was interested that there would be a diversity in experiences, and for people to understand that even if they didn’t see it happen, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Maybe because I also believe that if I didn’t share my own experience, it wouldn’t have encouraged others to speak out, so I want every story told to encourage others, and I was interested in creating such a space.

The page became a platform for girls to talk about things that are happening to them, and as a free space, for her to say what she wants, how she feels about it, and what she faces, and how those different experiences affect her life, and the things we girls have in common, a space we share with our differences, what we face due to our gender with our differences, and how this affects our lives and our life view.

YS: Why do you use the internet?

GA: I use the internet because it makes it easier for me, and it’s accessible to lots of girls when we talk about sensitive issues: such as bodily rights and sexuality. Not everyone can talk about these issues, and of course if I hold a board in the street that says “My virginity is my right” or “My hymen is mine”, I know what can happen to me. But I can open a discussion online, and people can follow, and fall asleep and wake up while they’re still discussing it normally. And there are ideas that can find a space to exist, regardless of whether it’s timely or not, or if it’s on the political agenda or not, or whether people think it’s important or not. I see that talking about bodily rights right now is very important because it’s possible in a conservative and traditional society such as the Egyptian society, and it helps us to talk about our sexuality more freely and express ourselves and accept ideas from others as well.

Not everyone can talk about these issues, and of course if I hold a board in the street that says “My virginity is my right” or “My hymen is mine”, I know what can happen to me.

YS: How do you still maintain a private space between your privacy and your public presence?

GA: I’m a person who doesn’t like people to know anything about my private life, and I don’t like interference, and I don’t like people making decisions for me, or judging me, I really enjoy being in my comfort zone, to add to that I’m not a very social person, and the people in my circle are very limited. When I entered the public domain, on the internet and through technology, my private life was suddenly in the public eye, and people suddenly started believing they have the right to discuss my personal life.

So this started to become an argument online, and people started telling me that as long as you want to be present in the public domain, then you need to accept that you will be treated as a public figure, and that your private life will be open to the public eye, which translates to relax and just accept that. I didn’t relax and I didn’t accept that because it doesn’t make sense for my private life to be public even if I was a public figure, and I tried as hard as I could to preserve my privacy online when it came to the posts I write, I never write about my personal life. The struggles that I fought for online were struggles for spaces. It didn’t have to do with my personal struggles. Although, every once in awhile, I would feel like exploding and would write something personal, once every six months or so. That’s how I was able to create a space that has a personal part, that is by sharing things on I don’t know what, and I would joke and laugh, and at the same time there was a part about feminist rights, and a written part, and an advocacy part, and so on.

The struggles that I fought for online were struggles for spaces. It didn’t have to do with my personal struggles.

So I was able to create that space through the honesty argument, and I fought very hard for it when I started to talk and people started feeling that my private life is public to them. I try to keep my house as my comfort zone and safe space, and to not have any hassles of any kind in it, and that the hassles of cyber-bullying would stop when I turn off data on my mobile phone. That it – my house is my space. I was able to preserve it that way until two or three months ago. Some teenagers and young people who live in the same neighbourhood as me, in their early 20s or so, discovered my profile and that I speak about things such as sexuality. For them, of course, it’s not called sexuality, it’s “sex” and it’s “bad manners”. They started to target me personally, and bully me by constantly sitting in front of the entrance to my building, and listening to the videos where I talk about sexuality under the window, and they started to harass the women who were staying with me in the same house. They would always be in front of the building, which was for me the most dangerous thing in the world. The cyber-bullying which I have been fighting to stop for years was now on the front step of my house. What I remember is that those kids used to be nice to me, until they discovered my Facebook profile. Then they started to feel like I was vulnerable to them, just because my parents don’t visit me, because I was a girl on my own.

The cyber-bullying which I have been fighting to stop for years was now on the front step of my house. What I remember is that those kids used to be nice to me, until they discovered my Facebook profile.

I’ve tried for years to stop cyber-bullying, and I was personally targeted, and there were electronic campaigns against me to close my profile. Campaigns on Twitter for people to insult me. To bring my tweets and make fun of them and discredit them, and there were many insults that were written as if they were criticism, but they were actually insults, and I would say they weren’t criticism, and that they were insults, and therefore unwelcome in any form.

Criticism has a particular format, and when it’s a respectful discussion, I would accept it, but when someone condemns my opinion and says I’m not supposed to think or say that, I don’t accept that happening online, particularly on my own profile, because I don’t condemn anyone’s opinion. I’m very interested in the idea of spaces, and I’m interested in having my own space, just as others have theirs.

Criticism has a particular format, and when it’s a respectful discussion, I would accept it, but when someone condemns my opinion and says I’m not supposed to think or say that, I don’t accept that happening online, particularly on my own profile, because I don’t condemn anyone’s opinion. I’m very interested in the idea of spaces, and I’m interested in having my own space, just as others have theirs. I express my own opinions in my own personal space as long as I don’t transgress others, but people start having a “party” at my expense, in the sense of a “party” being a thousand shares, and each person in those thousand shares would be arguing, and I have to go one by one and argue with them in those different shares. It’s a huge hassle that requires a lot of energy. And the cyber-bullying fights keep going on, and they have constant access to me, whether it’s to my inbox, or by sharing my posts with insults as well. They can reach me 24/7 and the hardest thing is they can do it from several points.

The cyber-bullying fights keep going on, and they have constant access to me, whether it’s to my inbox, or by sharing my posts with insults as well. They can reach me 24/7 and the hardest thing is they can do it from several points.

So what I have tried to avoid for the past several years, and what I wasn’t able to avoid the past two months, is that the online and the offline started to link with each other, and that made me feel threatened. If I felt a personal security threat, I would have been more at ease, but I was feeling a threat and there were other girls living with me in the apartment, and I felt responsible for them, and people would run behind them on the staircase at night. It was very frightening and disgusting to be honest. The idea that there was a circle of mass sexual harassment in front of my building was very scary to me, and it made me very tired mentally. I had four panic attacks in the span of 24 hours. Panic attacks where I would lose consciousness. It was very disgusting, and I knew I had to leave, and I did. It was the one time the online and the offline got mixed, and I had to separate them again. That’s why I left the place where I was living because it was no longer safe. At least I want to be able to continue my cyber activism.

The idea that there was a circle of mass sexual harassment in front of my building was very scary to me, and it made me very tired mentally. I had four panic attacks in the span of 24 hours.


Photograph by Gigi Ibrahim. Title: Women in the revolution. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution License. Featuring Samira Ibrahim, who is fighting SCAF in a law suit against Army conducting virginty checks on female protesters in the Egyptian musem in March (Right). Alyiaa El Mahdy, who posted a nude picture of herself on her blog as a form of freedom of expression challenging cultural norms (Left).

YS: Other than the apartment issue, what other threats did you receive?

GA: I used to date someone, and he had a video of me dancing, and I left him after the revolution, and he went crazy and started to threaten that if I didn’t go back to dating him, he would post the video and some topless photos, and in reality he went through with the threat, and posted the video and the topless photos as a montage on YouTube. I reported the topless photos video as nudity, but I couldn’t get the other video removed, so I ignored it and I continued my activism and I filed a defamation case against that person, and won it, and he got sentenced to a year in jail, and this is the story of how the video got online.

This was the one incident where I felt a real threat online. The video stayed online, and one day I was having a regular fight in cyberspace, and someone said, “This slut Ghadeer that you are following is a dancer, and a third-class dancer at best.” Even though I was dancing with my friends at home. Then the link to the video appeared on October 2014, even though he uploaded it on January 2013. I ignored the video as much as I could. In 2014, people discovered the video, a group of people who were upset by talking about women’s rights, so they started to search and found the video. They started to use this video as if it was a threat, and as if they’re going to blackmail me to stay at home and embarrass me.

It would have been really awful for the video and the photos to resurface, as I come from a conservative family, and society is very closed, and if those things would surface while I was out of the house, and my dad would kick me out, and I would have to stay alone, it would have been very bad. One day I said to myself, I won’t stay threatened by my own personal photos and videos, and I had already spent two years trying not to stop the video from getting online, and it’s finally out and people started to twist my arm. It’s okay, I’m not embarrassed by my body at all. If I’m upset, it’s because it’s meant to be private, and if I decide it’s not going to be private anymore, it will stop being a privacy violation, and it will become a case of cyber-bullying, and that will be the end of that.

I decided to write a post, and I explained that people found the link to this video of me dancing, and I honestly find the dancing to be nice, and that I have no problems with my body at all, and that I don’t care about the video. I was just dancing normally in front of people at my sister’s wedding, and I was wearing shorter clothes than what I was wearing in that video, and I don’t understand what’s upsetting the people sharing the video. Are they upset and they’re saying that I’m a slut on the internet, or that I’m a “slut” and despite that I didn’t sleep with them. I don’t understand what the issue is exactly. I also told them that the person who uploaded the video got sentenced to a year in jail, but to stop the whole privacy thing, I decided to share the video to the public because I want to share it, and I don’t have a problem with it being re-shared, and here is the link to the video. Then I shared the link, and that was that.

Are they upset and they’re saying that I’m a slut on the internet, or that I’m a “slut” and despite that I didn’t sleep with them. I don’t understand what the issue is exactly. I also told them that the person who uploaded the video got sentenced to a year in jail, but to stop the whole privacy thing, I decided to share the video to the public because I want to share it, and I don’t have a problem with it being re-shared, and here is the link to the video. Then I shared the link, and that was that.

Of course, after that no one heard from those people anymore. In reality I didn’t want to be threatened by this video for the rest of my life, and I was sick of being threatened by my body. Even the physical danger that I faced was related to my body. I refuse to be the tool that I will be threatened with. Honestly, I have no problems with my body, and no problems with dancing, and no problems with being me. By the way, after a while I started sharing videos of me dancing, and I was doing oriental dancing, not ballet or something that’s classy because I don’t do that, I was belly dancing Mahalla-style. People started to talk about them, and people who had differences with me started to say that’s her right to privacy, and it’s nobody’s right to invade her online privacy, even if they have differences with her.

Even the physical danger that I faced was related to my body. I refuse to be the tool that I will be threatened with.

After the video incident in 2014, I closed my personal account for a while, and I was very upset. When I feel there is too much pressure, more than anyone can handle, I close the account. In 2014, the person I had sued for defamation wanted revenge, so he filed malicious lawsuits on me, and I was arrested in the Qasr-il-Nile station, and I got out by a miracle.

Of course there were all the sexual harassment photos people used to make about me, making photos of someone grabbing my breasts, or a photo of someone doing who knows what to my back, things like that. There were also comics where I was a cartoon of a radical fundamentalist crazy feminist. I also got death threats, and rape threats, and very weird letters, with very weird content, saying who do you think you are and other things like that.

YS: How do you deal with these threats?

GA: I get by them, I don’t seriously deal with them. Because those who can act never threaten beforehand. Those who treat me as a person who gets threatened online, they get dealt with online, either with a block, or an insult. For example, if someone tells me that if they see me on the street, they will “rape and fuck me”, I tell them you have nothing to fuck me with in the first place, what will you rape me with? I block them immediately before they can respond. If they use patriarchy to threaten me, it’s fine if I use patriarchy to respond to mess with their thinking. So that you’re not stupid enough to think you can use patriarchy to blackmail or threaten someone who is a feminist in the first place. I use patriarchy against them in a very conscious way. I even sometimes consciously body shame them just to be able to respond to the insults that I receive.

YS: Do you ever want to stop your online activity?

GA: When I feel that the offline starts to enter the online, I start wanting to stop my online activity for a while, and that was what was irking me during the fight the past two months about the apartment. I was very careful about what I write online so it won’t be linked with the offline. I was very careful about the videos that I share, and careful about this and careful about that. Even if I was just upset between me and myself, I would change the privacy of the post to “friends only” because I’m upset. I make sure that these things can’t be used against me, under my house. What stops me is feeling a threat to my safety, security, or privacy.

What stops me is feeling a threat to my safety, security, or privacy.

YS: What do you think women who are active online need to do to remain safe from the trauma of online bullying?

GA: It differs from one person to another, some people don’t want to have their photos taken and digitally manipulated, some like me don’t mind because either way I get insulted online. There should be cyber crimes, in our case this cyber law isn’t strongly applied, like when I filed a case on the person who uploaded the video, it was a regular defamation case, not a cyber crime case, so even that we don’t have at the moment.

Girls can make their profiles not accessible to anyone, not allowing everyone to add them as friends, not accepting all friend requests, and not clicking any link that comes to their inboxes. Girls need to be aware of things that link the online with the offline, because some people try with a link to reach the activist herself.

Girls need to be aware of things that link the online with the offline, because some people try with a link to reach the activist herself.

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