This is the full-length conversation we had with Reem Abdellatif, writer, activist, co-founder of AWRA (African Women Rights Advocates). This conversation was the eighth in a series of interviews with artists, academics, activists, and other migrants of Egypt around the world.

Leila Zonouzi Hi, Reem, it’s an honor to be with you today. Reem Abdellatif, writer, activist, co-founder of the incredible movement such as African Women Rights Advocates, such an honor to be with you.
Reem Abdellatif Thank you so much, Leila. I’m really excited to be here today and to finally to have connected.
LZ Can you share a little bit about your relationship with Egypt, your migration story, where you grew up, where you ended up, and where are you now?
RA So I actually was born in Cairo, in Egypt, nineteen eighty seven, I lived there for about four and a half years, actually went to kindergarten there, and then my family decided to migrate to the US. So they’re the first generation of Egyptian American. And so my my father actually left us first and he wanted to get settled and he decided to settle in South Carolina, in the US because it was quiet. The South is also it’s a nice place to raise a family. For the most part. It’s not as hectic as the bigger cities. But it was also quite lonely because we were the only Egyptians, the only actually Middle Eastern people in our town. If we traveled to the capital in Columbia, South Carolina, there was a little bit more diversity, but it was kind of difficult. It was difficult and also rewarding. At the same time, growing up in a community where I was the only Egyptian, the only Middle Eastern Arab Muslim young person there. And, you know, it was nice because everyone was very kind and we didn’t face a lot of issues as maybe we could, because obviously when I when we moved there, I was there during September 11th. I was about 13, 14. So things kind of changed then. And we used to hear a lot of horror stories from our friends in different states simply because they’re brown. You know, there was a lot of anti Muslim sentiment, anti Arabs. And to my entire Middle Eastern sentiment, if anyone remotely looked brown or Middle Eastern, you know, that was a problem. But I feel like I was lucky to grow up in a community where people were, you know, inquisitive. They had a lot of questions about who you were. My connection to Egypt is very deep because I always joked with my mom about this all the time. You guys were living in South Carolina in a small country town. But their heart and mind and soul was somewhere in Cairo, you know, sitting in a cafe, listening to Umm Kulthum or something, you know, and that was nice because it allowed me to have a connection with our roots. But at the same time, it kind of kept us tied to a country that you sometimes felt you didn’t really quite belong to fully. And not only that, but because of the political situation, a country that at times felt like it wasn’t ready to welcome you. But I love Egypt. I love the culture. I always use this quote, because it’s so true, Pope Shinoda one time said, “Egypt is not a country that you live in. It’s a country that lives in you.” You know, and today, I think a lot of the activism that I do that is in relation to Egyptian the rights of Egyptian women and girls stems from my family’s background. So I’m a survivor of gender based violence. My mother and my grandmother are all survivors of female genital mutilation, which is something that it’s widely practiced in Egypt. You know, and getting to learn about their experiences has helped shape my activism and a lot of my writing, because a lot of these issues are still happening today. My grandmothers were also child brides. Each one of them. One was married at age 12, the other at age 14. So I got to hear these stories and I you know, I was young when I when they were telling me these stories. But I remember thinking these stories can’t die with these women, you know? And I eventually became a journalist and I still write, obviously, but my work has kind of shaped into development because I co-founded African Women Rights Advocates movement with a group of African women from all over the continent. We’re all survivors of one form of GBV or sexual harassment, including FGM. Know we understand each other. We we understand that our work comes out of love. It stems out of love. And a lot of times when I get attacked for my work online from people who might think that I’m overly critical of Egypt. How could you talk like that about your mother country? You know this saying that we always hear from across the Middle East, not just Egypt. It really stems from love. If one thing that I always say, if you love someone, you don’t enable them. If you love your country or your roots or whatever, you don’t enable abuse. You want to see it achieve gender equality, achieve rights for equal rights for everyone, including LGBTQ+, including young girls who shouldn’t be sold into marriage or in this thing this happens. And it actually what sparked our movement because we founded AWRA in 2020. It was because of COVID, because things were getting really bad for girls not just in Egypt but all over Africa. And we’re still facing that backlash today.
LZ Thank you so much for sharing, sharing all of this. I wasn’t in the US during 9/11, but I’ve read stories and reports and novels, everything about what it must have been for brown folks from the Middle East, especially in sharing your family’s background. I so appreciate that. Which honestly makes AWRA even more powerful. So knowing that your family’s background and your own background motivated you to to start this organization, movement of activism, organizing space. Can you tell us a little bit about your campaigns and your initiatives?
RA Yes, absolutely. So at the core of AWRA, we are a safe space, we created a safe space where survivors can get together not only to help other survivors, but to also heal. And that’s one of the biggest issues that I’ve witnessed and I’ve experienced when I’m working in this field or even as a journalist. I worked as a journalist for about seven years in Egypt alone. So I covered everything post uprising. I was also there studying abroad at the American University in Cairo for two years. I did a lot of projects because I was studying journalism. So I was very hands on in the community all over Egypt from Rafah all the way to southern Egypt. There was no there wasn’t really. I dove deep because I took that experience seriously. I wanted to really discover where my parents come from, and to be fully honest with you, when I started doing my own healing, before I co-founded the organization, I realized that I wanted actually to make sense of the traumas that my parents had experienced and then the traumas that were inflicted upon me, as well as a survivor of sexual abuse, sexual harassment in my own home at the hands of my father. You know, it took a while to be able to forgive, to heal and to understand that there was essentially it was abuse being recycled. My mother told me a story about why she decided to never raise us in Egypt and maybe also why she was so protective of us. Also in the US. You know, we lived in the US, but we were very strict. My mother was very strict. So we had to follow the very strict rules, not necessarily religious. It was more of like she was worried about us from outside influence. But she told me that one of the reasons why she never wanted to raise us in Egypt is that she had witnessed a police officer beating up a young man in the street once she was in Cairo and she was a young woman. This was before I was born, before she got married. She witnessed a police officer on her way from work, beating up, brutally punching, kicking, calling names. This young civilian man, she didn’t know what was happening, but it was a trauma. It was traumatizing to her. You know, she also faced FGM and she this is actually something that took her a while to be able to heal from because for a very long time she wanted me to undergo FGM when we would visit Egypt in the summertime. I was always this loud, obnoxious, rebellious kid. And I tried to tone that down a little bit as I got older. But I was always like, “no, I’m not doing this. Why would I? What the hell is this?” I was just totally against it. You’re telling a 16 year old teenager who grew up in the US that you’re going to, you know, cut off her clitoris. This was something very traumatizing. So it really encouraged me to learn and to go deep into not only our culture, but also the politics and how the politics in the country shaped women’s rights and how they shape gender equality. And so I spent seven years there not just covering women’s rights, but also politics, socio economic issues. And it was very enlightening. I learned a lot. And again, it sparked my healing because when I also faced sexual harassment in Egypt and that was something that really triggered me, it was like, where have I experienced this before? You know, I was so adamant about covering women’s rights at that time, but I hadn’t really looked at my own healing. And when I started looking at my own healing and why it was so triggering for me and why I was so passionate about this topic, it wasn’t just about them anymore. It was more about me learning to let go of the past and the trauma associated with the past. Now, the problem is when a lot of immigrant families, they think they’re leaving behind the trauma, that you don’t leave the trauma behind you, take it with you, and that’s when you really have to stop and think about do you really want to take this with you? Your body is your home, for your soul, your mind or whatever you want to call it. And that’s what really sparked me, working with these amazing ladies from all over Africa to co-found AWRA, because we finally as African women, as Egyptian women, as Middle Eastern women, Muslim, Coptic Christian women, we really have to come together. We talk about the issues that are taboo, the issues that are off limits, the things that our parents told us “don’t say, why are you airing our dirty laundry?” And this is a this is a big thing in Egypt. This is a huge problem, especially for Egyptians and I’m sure other Middle Eastern, Asian, even like everyone can relate. But it was so deeply entrenched, like I’m actually speaking out of loyalty to my culture. I’m actually speaking out of loyalty to my family, to my country, to my ancestors, to my bloodline. So this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. And that’s that’s why we created something like AWRA essentially.
LZ That is so inspiring. Thank you for sharing that. I’m going to go back to AWRA in a little bit, but with this really complicated relationship that you’ve had with Egypt. What does Egypt mean to you? Can you describe it either with an image metaphor or anything you want? But yeah, what does it mean to you as an Egyptian American, having gone through such trauma, not just by yourself, but your family as well?
RA Honestly, Egypt, I still see and I still talk about Egypt this way with my friends and my partner, who’s German. Egypt is still the cradle of civilization. Egypt is still a beacon of hope. And this is actually something that we mentioned in a campaign that we’re doing through AWRA. I talked to you about it briefly. We’re urging the government to really take a look at gender discriminatory laws in the text of the constitution, sometimes the constitution, the Egyptian constitution, contradictions at times when it comes to gender equality. So that’s why we’re really urging them to take a vote, because Egypt is crucial not just because of its geography, but there’s something special about Egypt. There is a powerful energy there. If you travel to these places, not just the pyramids or whatever, but when you go deep into communities and you look at how people are kind and smart and resilient and scrappy, you know, people have this passion for life and survival that I’ve never seen anywhere else. And I’ve traveled the world. I really have, whether it was through my work or even for tourism. I’ve seen an amazing resilience there. Everyone, I think all people all over the world have it. But when you see that in Egypt specifically, you understand why people called it the cradle of civilization. It’s a very special, magical place that has so much potential and the people have so much potential. And it would be a waste not to utilize that as a country where 50 percent, more than 50 percent, I think, are women to not take advantage of that human power that you have into, you know, brighten their minds and to allow for women and men to speak freely and to seek cultural intellectual pursuits. Sadly, now, the government is a little bit different. There’s a lot of repression. You’re not allowed to criticize the government. You’re not allowed to criticize the military. And how can you improve? How can you build? How can you change the upcoming generations if you’re not looking at it from a critical analytic point of view? And that’s how I see Egypt. I see it as a country with huge potential, but it still needs to be realized in a lot of areas.
LZ I loved how you put it, that it comes out of love, it’s you’re trying to help Egypt realize its full potential. That’s very powerful. And with that, I want to get into a little bit about the campaigns that you have run, especially the one that you initiated, reclaiming the narrative. Can you tell us a little bit about that, too?
RA Yeah, absolutely, so reclaiming the narrative started off after we founded AWRA, and basically it’s for women to reclaim their power. You know, no one can take away your power unless you allow it. This is something I strongly believe there are people who are imprisoned, including women rights activists and journalists like myself who were imprisoned in Egypt. And even when they get out, they’re still speaking. They’re still telling the truth. They’re telling it like it is. And this is the perfect example of no one can take your power unless you allow it. And that is what reclaim the narrative is about also, not just for women, but for survivors of gender based violence or survivors of sexual violence in general. We saw a metoo movement happen in Egypt. Some people don’t like to call it that, and I respect that. Some people like to say it’s unique to the region or to the country, and that’s fine as well. But a lot of people compared it to the Metoo movement in the US and it was unprecedented. We saw so many women come online, women, men and young boys and girls come online to talk about their experiences with sexual harassment, which sexual harassers often are treated with impunity, in some cases in Egypt specifically. And you know what happens in the Middle East. But in Egypt, it’s it’s a problem. It’s it’s really an epidemic. I remember the UN a few years ago did a poll where they found 98% of women respondents said that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. So this is a huge issue. So reclaim the narrative is about women taking up space, having these conversations that you and I are having women, girls, men, boys, everyone who wants to join, taking up space, having these conversations in safe spaces like we’re having so that they can show younger people that it can be done. You know, we’re not trying to help because as survivors and as people indigenous to the region or the country, we we’re not coming from this savior. You know, I am also a life coach. So sometimes when I talk to my clients, I have to remind myself that you do the work and you tell people if you speak with people, but essentially the work is up to you to do it. No one can save you. No one can. People can help you. People can be there to shine a light. But essentially you have to do the work. You have to be you have to put in the effort to to change, to heal. And that’s what reclaim the narrative is about. That’s what the campaign that we launched is about. It’s it’s shedding light on these issues, proposing solutions and being there, being available for people who are ready to ask for help for women and girls. And that’s what we saw during the Metoo movement. It wasn’t just a bunch of kids online screaming and yelling. People were reaching out for help. We saw women and girls and young boys reaching out to life coaches, to therapists, to psychiatrist, because they realized they have faced trauma because of the sexual harassment. It’s pervasive. It’s everywhere and it’s at work, sometimes home, as in my experience. I also faced it in the workplace. So many other young girls, young boys face it at the hands of their uncles, cousins, and it’s not talked up again because first of all, there’s victim blaming. Sometimes, even when you do report it in Egypt to the police or to any authority figure in a university, sometimes you’re blamed. Sometimes they tell you “so what were you wearing, maybe you misunderstood,” you know, and this trauma lives on. You shut down a victim like that, it’s hard for them to move from victim to survivor. And after survivor, there’s also another stage where you’re actually thriving in society because you’ve healed. Most people never even get to that phase because they’re stuck in trauma. And that’s why I say it comes from love, because we’re essentially showing people that you can go through these phases and you don’t have to do it alone. That’s the idea.
LZ So inspiring and such important work. With all of this, I do wonder how has AWRA been received globally, the African diaspora, Egyptian Americans, Egyptians all over the world, and Egyptians inside the homeland as well.
RA It’s unbelievable, you know, we’re still a startup, but we saw so many volunteers come forward, we’ve connected with so many different people from all over the world. So we we’ve connected with the Five Foundation, Safe Speak in the Gambia. So many different organizations working to end FGM, working to end sexual harassment. And there’s this cross-cultural activism happening. And we’re at the heart of it. Sometimes it’s it’s surreal because it’s happening so fast, because you really do see this appetite of young people coming together. Wanting a safe space, craving something different, something unique to where they don’t they don’t want to threaten, they don’t feel uncomfortable. We also launched a blog on AWRA where we have participants from all over the continent coming together, including Egypt, to talk about mental health, sexual and reproductive health and gender based violence, sexual harassment, young people proposing ideas and having these conversations. Really, there’s so much it’s it’s unbelievable. And I’ll share some of these links with you. But but, yeah, there’s been a huge demand from from young people who are asking us how can they get involved? What can they do? How can they volunteer in their communities? How do they maintain a balance between their activism as well as their mental health and wellbeing? Because this this can also be very taxing on you as a person. If you’re working in activism, even if you’re not as a survivor of GBV or harassment. But, yeah, it really gives me hope because people, young people want to change and they want to build up their communities. And they’re already taking part in so many different forms of grassroots activism. It’s really amazing. I mean, I also I’m speechless. I learned so much from these young people and from everyone that I’ve met. It’s I’m really grateful for that.
LZ It’s so heartwarming to hear and to continue on this heartwarming note. What were some of the surprises that you experienced along the way and what did you find most rewarding through your activism?
RA Unfortunately, some of the surprises weren’t always great. So sometimes you’ve obviously, as a young organization, you have trouble accessing funding. Sometimes you’re also dealing with a lot of people in the continent and even in the diaspora who are seeking professional help. And because funding is so limited, you can only offer so much help. That’s I guess it’s not really a surprise, but because we are a startup, this is what we faced in the beginning. So it seemed a bit surprising at first. I mean, we’re going through the normal process, but I’m very optimistic because I know that we’re on the right path, and when I see how people are engaging and how it’s been, our work is benefiting, especially the blog, for example, it’s benefiting these young people not just by giving them an outlet to speak, but by also sharing their experiences, they’re helping other people. And we see a lot of that. It’s the people that I’ve met, especially the women. The young women that I’ve met, I think I’ve made connections with people that are going to last a lifetime and before as a journalist, I wasn’t really allowed to be so close to to the people I interview or the people I work with, obviously it’s not professional, but this is this is different not just with our co-founders within AWRA, but with the people that we’ve connected with and the young people who volunteer. We’ve really made some priceless connections that are there are going to last for a very long time in the diaspora and in both the African diaspora as well as people in the continent.
LZ So nice to hear, but on a different note, what were some of the challenges and obstacles you faced? I know funding is a huge issue for all emerging and continuing organizations, but what else have have been kind of impeding?
RA Well, one of the issues that we faced as a young organization, and also an organization where many of our founders are based in Africa, in Europe, it can be a bit difficult, for example, to open up a bank account or, you know, because sometimes there are policies where you can’t do that, because if your founder is based in Sudan or a country that’s, you know, these issues that you see political issues that often impact our work, that that was very challenging. But we finally did it. We opened up a bank account. A lot of organizations face these issues, not not just us. And this is one one reason why we encouraged countries in the continent to embrace international law, to change their their practices so that they can be taken more seriously and around the world and be an active member of the international community. Obviously, we faced attacks online because of the work that we do from people who are not happy to see women and young girls and, you know, LGBTQ+ people taking part in writing blogs or, you know, that that kind of harassment was also very prominent especially during COVID, because at one point the digital space became all that we had. We couldn’t meet, we couldn’t go for protests. We couldn’t, you know, even go to an office at some point. So a lot of that was online violence. And that’s something that was was very challenging. I was targeted, a lot of our activists are often targeted. The traveling, obviously, everyone faced the same same issues because of COVID, we weren’t able to travel, our co-founders weren’t able to meet last year. Hopefully next year we can do that. Those were some of the the challenges that we face.
LZ And what advice do you have for others who want to embark on a similar journey or similar path of activism, of uplifting, especially uplifting women?
RA I would say, you know, ask yourself, why are you doing it? And then you’ll have your answer. Why are you in it? What are the reasons? I’ve asked myself this question even when I was a journalist, a lot of times we find that we also need to do some healing. But when you’re when your passion and your career somehow converge, line up, that’s the most rewarding thing ever. So if someone finds that calling, then I would advise them to ask themselves, why are they called to it? And they’ll have their answers, because a lot of times when you’re so passionate about something and you follow your calling, any past pain or trauma that you’ve experienced starts to make sense. Of course, this is not to excuse any trauma or abuse that anyone faces. It’s not it’s not to downplay it. But we and a lot of even therapists will tell you this, a lot of life coaches will tell you this trauma never goes away. You just learn how to manage it. You learn how to heal it, and you learn how to how to cope with it. And in order to cope with it, you have to find out what really lights up your soul, and if this is something that really lights up your soul, then I would say, look into it.
LZ That was incredibly wise. And to end on a another uplifting note, what’s in store for AWRA next, what campaigns do you want to run next?
RA So we are actually in the process of discussing campaigns to launch in Kenya. We have already launched a comic about FGM. We will be launching a comic about FGM, but we’ve already launched one about young black girls in space. And one of our comic superheroes is called Kawkab, which means universe in Arabic. It’s to encourage young girls from Africa, from all over Africa to take part in STEM to pursue that their passions. Our next step is hopefully to launch a comic in Kenya about FGM. We hope to gain enough funding to be able to distribute it in schools, to work directly with young girls, young women on the ground in Kenya. That will be like our pilot launch and maybe, who knows, maybe we can take it to different countries in the continent. We’re also working with our co-founder, Domtila Chesang in Kenya, who is a brilliant grassroots activists and also a founder of an organization in Kenya called I_RAP Foundation. She works directly with young girls in school who are escaping FGM or child marriage. I hope that we can help somehow fund their efforts through donations because sometimes these girls need safe houses after they escape their parents because they don’t want to undergo FGM or because they might be facing child marriage or even worst human trafficking. They need a safe house and we’re in the middle of discussions right now on how we can support that, even if it’s just by creating awareness for her work so that we are able to gather enough donations to help them.
LZ Yes, please do count on us to spread the word on our socials and try to get the word out and get more awareness and hopefully you’ll meet all your funding goals in all your initiatives come to fruition. It has been such an honor to talk to you. Thank you so much. Wishing AWRA all the best.
RA Thank you so much. And thank you for holding a safe space for this conversation and keep up the great work, because like I told you before we started recording, you guys are telling stories from Egyptian communities that are rich, culturally rich, brilliant stories that are often ignored, and I think that’s why we connected and everything you guys are doing really resonates. So please keep up the great work.