International Women’s Day on March the 8th is yet another opportunity to bring back into perspective some stories of women who will not have the luxury to access related celebratory festivities across the globe. Of those particularly, young women imprisoned for their views or opinions or simply because of their involvement in peaceful action within what we characterized as the “public sphere” in previous centuries- a space that seems to have become an open prison in countries like Egypt.
Yara Sallam is 28 year old Egyptian lawyer who just happened to be in the right place and time on June 21, 2014, when she was arrested by reportedly police in plain clothes, during a demonstration against the infamous Protest Law, known largely as the No Protest Law. Since her arrest, she appeared along with another 22 defendants before a criminal court on October 26, 2014 when all of them received a three-year prison sentence each, in addition to a monetary fine. Yara and her colleagues were charged with destroying property, terrorizing public in vicinity of protest area and disrupting public order. Yara remained in jail since her arrest.
When I first got in touch with Yara, it was exactly the same day as today: February 5, 2012. At the time she was coordinating the Women Human Rights Defenders Program at the Cairo based Nazra for Feminist Studies. Giving the place where Yara is right now, its only ironic that her program at Nazra was about empowerment of Egyptian women engagement in the public and political sphere and fighting against discrimination. We met a month later when I led a seminar for lawyers and other activists and human rights defenders hosted by Yara’s program at Nazra. It took me about three years until recently to articulate my impression of Yara, and I found it crystal-clearly spelled in an article by a columnist who wrote on her detention: the Beautiful Rose of Chaos- that’s what Hamdi Rizq called her in an article published by Almasry Alyoum on June 26, 2104. And in fact, he was referring to the title of a poetry book by her father Rif’at Sallam.
In march 2103, I learned that Yara left Nazra and later on in the year knew she was hired by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) to handle Transitional Justice portfolio. What I really missed knowing at that time is that she was awarded the North Africa HRD Shield 2013 for her work in Egypt with the tow organizations. The video which was disseminated by the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network gave Yara an opportunity not to present her profile, but most importantly to speak to the aspirations, the hopes and the promises she saw in working to defend human rights and particularly women rights and equality in here country.
Today, I listened to words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein ahead of March 8th and to me it was no coincident that his tribute to women human rights defenders marks a clear recognition of what we are discussing here. He says States should go “beyond lip-service” towards gender equality- and what is evidently the problem here is that those States have really moved even beyond lip-service to sealing lips of those women who dared navigating the remaining of public sphere in countries like Egypt. At age 28 the autocratic system gave Yara Sallam no option but jail and deprivation of liberty. And by putting Yara’s story on the table we remind ourselves of the doubled-burden over our shoulders- as a rights defender herself she was not given the defense she needs to safeguard her own right to be on the streets and consequently rights of other women (and men) who want to do the same to simply say no to a corrupted law.
Yara may win another award soon, and I wholeheartedly support Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies initiative to nominate her for Frontline Human Rights Defenders Award which will be awarded soon. Well, does she need this award while in jail? I don’t know- but I can think of too many reasons why she and her colleagues would appreciate this. I hope she gets the award and feel freedom breeze soon. Young women like Yara are not criminals, but the system which jails them for basic liberty entitlements is beyond any doubt corrupted.