Away From the Uniform and the Beard: She Rides Her Bicycle!

Tomorrow seven Women Human Rights Defenders will go on trail in Egypt, charged under the so-called 'Protest Law' for exercising their right to peaceful assembly.  Among these women is Yara Sallam, a WLUML networker and a friend and ally to many at WLUML.  Here, Doaa Abdelaal, Chair of WLUML's Board, pays tribute to Yara's work and friendship.

“Yara Sallam has been arrested” - a simple line on Twitter the night of 21 of June, 2014. It took me a whole 10 minutes to understand it. No, it can’t be, she is the one who taught us all the tips and tricks to stay safe in demonstrations and sit-ins, we who call ourselves Women Human Rights Defenders. I recall her putting many of us in a room giving guidelines on this with her famous smile. I can’t recall her once without that smile.

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But let me tell you more about Yara. I can say many things not about her activism and dedication; about how she has been there as a lawyer and a friend for many. I will tell you about Yara who loves cycling. She has a bicycle and she used to ride it in Cairo’s streets. She chose this when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power and she kept doing it while the men in uniforms were struggling with them over the ruling system in Egypt. She cycled between her home and her work at Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), came on it to join us when we went out for dinner. We would have to go to a specific place that has a wide window so she can park it outside and have the necessary angle to watch it.

Over the last four months since she was arbitrarily detained, Yara and her bicycle haunted me in Cairo. I was looking for her in every person driving one, and ironically they were almost all men.

Riding her bicycle was Yara’s special way of defending many women’s rights in a context that demands that we stay home, that prevents us from playing leadership roles, from transforming our society during this transition period that Egypt is witnessing.

I recall a determined look on her face one day back in 2011 while she was revising the first report of the Women Human Rights Defenders Programme.  The air then was still full with traces of teargas and many of us, of different genders, either lost or almost lost a friend or a colleague. She raised her head and said, pointing at the screen of her computer: “Many women are violated, not just their bodies but also their rights. They need an apology; we should pursue this”. Then she continued working and her short sentence started a new turn in her life working on Transitional Justice in Egypt and giving it a gender dimension.

Since she was detained in June 2014, she was quoted many times: “My life, if it can have any meaning at all or if it will be ever remembered, I want it to be about hope, laughter, joy, passion and love for life. My revolution is the same.” I can add here that her daily life and every simple act challenged the waves seeking to sideline women and to deprive them from challenging a long established value system that violates human rights. I mean here the unwritten codes that violate women’s bodies in the name of culture and religion, and which evaluate a person in terms of how privileged she or he is. Those are the codes that we together laughed at saying: “You are recognized in Egypt against six traits: Male, White, Muslim Sunni, Rich, Straight and Married”. Then Yara would stop laughing and say “But this happens in many places not just Egypt”, and the debate would start in the group with answers flying from one colleague to another with endless comments on feminism, pan-Africanism, linking transnationally... and then she would stand up and ask “Anyone want tea?”.  I forgot to say that she is one of the best hostesses I ever met.

Yara knew that we are part of a double revolution: one for the whole society to claim power to the people and one to affirm our feminist values and demands for gender equality. She, like many other young women and men, knew that we live in a society that celebrates conservatism and mixes it with verses from the Qur’an and Hadith.  It is hard to ride a bicycle while the members of this society are watching; some of them celebrating a governing system baked by the military and others cheering an Islamist forces that, although not the political power now, have their conservative values accommodated in the current political and social system.

In such rigid situation where we are squeezed between two options of autocracy, Yara took her bicycle and rode it down a road giving us another alternative.  This road can be bumpy, hard to ride on, but those who follow will pave it gradually, while those who might seek other alternatives can pave connected paths, because there will always be more than one way to be human and free.

To support Yara and her fellow prisoners, please share this article, along with the statement for their release.

Please tweet using the hastags #FreeEgyptWHRDs #NoProtestLaw