Things I want to talk about

This article contains testimonies which some of our readers may find  disturbing or upsetting.

In 2018, Salma wrote two emails to friends. They have become relevant to conversations about sexual violence happening these days in Egypt. The text below is a merging of the two letters with a very light edit.


This is not a thank you note — it would be extremely rude from my side to do something so formal. I just wanted to share with you some of the things I’ve been thinking about since the incident. Because I know this incident is something that happened to all of us, that it has affected you just like it affected me, maybe in a different way, and I say way rather than degree, because I don’t believe it’s useful to make quantitative comparisons of who suffers the most. I know that I am the one who was present during the incident, but I also know that we have all reacted to it in our different ways, and that maybe some of you have been affected in ways that are even more violent than how I have been affected. So no need to beat ourselves up.

I insist now (thanks to a painful discussion with a friend who knows themselves and who helped me confirm what I already knew) that this incident happened to us, even if I was your official representative at the crime scene 🙂 And this conviction comes from what we started years ago, collectively, even subconsciously. To see power in the collective, to draw our strength to resist from it, and understand what is happening around us, and what it is we are fighting. I know it might seem too theoretical, but the truth is that this incident has given me the chance to test my beliefs and put everything that I knew in theory into practice. 

We’ve always talked about the personal being political, but when it’s your life on the line, and the choices are really limited, only then do you get to test everything you believe in. This was my biggest crisis, my biggest dilemma: that my fear, my life or death, my anger, my pain would make me change, would “disfigure” me.

I talked with many of you about the choices I made, and I know that some might see this as me taking the highway, being too self righteous. Some might think I was too harsh on myself and some might think I am hiding from my emotions behind these ideas, that I’m hiding from facing the anger and the pain, that my decisions and actions are driven by some sort of class guilt, or even worse, selfless compassion (or pity)! But I promise you that all my decisions were pragmatic to a very big extent. Because my biggest fear was that an individual incident that happens to me would lead me into the trap of isolating myself and believing I am an individual victim, that an incident would make me lose myself and become someone else. This is why I think it is important that I tell you that this incident is not the most important thing that happened to me, or that will happen to me.

I will not allow it to become the core of my existence, or my identity. I will not allow it to rob me of who I am. I am a million things, the least important of which is being a victim of this incident. This incident is something that happened to me, not something that identifies me.

On April 16 of 2018, I was at home in Cairo getting ready to sleep when two armed burglars broke into my house and raped me. It wasn’t the first time I was sexually assaulted. In 2013 I was one of around 200 women who got mob sexually assaulted during political demonstrations in Tahrir Square. And yet, that wasn’t my first time either; between 1999 and 2000, I was getting raped on an almost daily basis. Only then, I didn’t know that having sex with your drunk husband to avoid getting punched in the face is called rape.

With such an impressive resumé, I would like to make use of my expertise to reflect on sexual violence and the system. And by system, I mean patriarchy, I mean capitalism, I mean state practices, I mean society, I mean authority, I mean anything and everything that has control over us. 

I know that many of you are worried that I’m intellectualizing what happened and not dealing with my emotions, that I’m in denial and just saying that I’m fine. The truth is, I’m not fine, of course I’m not. But that’s ok, it’s ok to not be ok, and you are not ok either, but that’s also ok 🙂 and we will be fine together.

My brain hasn’t stopped working since the incident. I suddenly have this clarity, as if I’ve gained superpowers that allow me to see invisible links between things. I admit this is causing me a euphoria that will end eventually. But I’ve never felt more alive, more at peace with myself and others. I’ve never known what I want to do five projects ahead.

I would like to discuss the complexities involved when things like class, race, size, or sexual orientation are brought to the table, complexities that are so uncomfortable they often get ignored out of convenience instead of being addressed and discussed. They are complexities campaigns like #me_too, hijacked by white neoliberal feminism, chose to ignore. I would like to discuss how privileged discourses collapse the differences between women as if their experiences and difficulties are the same, but when it comes to men, some are more rapist than others according to their class, race or religion. 

I would like to discuss how the system feeds on isolation, isolating the victim and isolating the perpetrator. I would like to discuss how official discourses deal with rapists as aliens coming from outer space, or some  bad apples in a perfectly good basket, while every other misogynistic practice or sexual violence short of rape is not only ignored but accepted and normalized. 

I would like to discuss state policies, state punishment, state violence — all practices that are inherently patriarchal. Be it in Cairo or in Europe, the state’s solution is always more control, harsher sentences, even capital punishment, that not only fails to decrease the rate of sexual assault crimes, but also puts the victim in danger of getting killed by their rapist to avoid being identified.

I would like to discuss capital punishment — which is the maximum sentence for armed rape in Egypt — and how I have been against it all my life. I would like to discuss the confusion and agony of having to choose between your temporary safety and your integrity. I would like to discuss the sense of defeat while watching the footage of the CCTV with a police officer, when I’ve always been against surveillance. I would like to discuss my confusion around my sincere gratefulness to this police officer. I would like to discuss the compromise I made by reporting the armed robbery and not the rape to prevent any chance, however small, of a death sentence. I would like to discuss how I also wasn’t ready to expose myself to the degradation and abuse of doing a rape kit at the forensic medical unit as I am so familiar with how they handle rape victims.

I would also like to discuss how state justice is selective based on power dynamics of class and race, how a middle class rape victim in Cairo would get more support than a victim who is a street vendor, how a white woman getting harassed in Berlin, preferably by immigrants, will get more support than a woman of color harassed by the same group. 

I would like to talk about how this latest incident was the ideal rape situation to guarantee support and “approval” — I was alone, in my own home, upper middle class, and the perpetrators working class. It wouldn’t be the case if I was raped in a club or at a friend’s house, if I was working class, if my rapist was my husband, or worse if my rapist was a woman. I am not only talking about the state, but also society, community, and even friends.

The system pushes you in the corner to become an isolated, individual victim. The system puts your back against the wall, so that the only way you can protect yourself and guarantee a minimum amount of safety is by using the tools created by the system, and you can only use these tools individually, because the whole system is built on preventing us from acting collectively. So an incident happens to you, because of the system, and you’re left with no other choice than to use the tools of this system, not because they are the only ones that work but because the system does not allow for other ones to exist. But to use their tools, you must also use your privileges in the most obscene way. The system creates a full circle, and when it’s your turn to become the victim, and you’re isolated and helpless, the system gives you a smug smile that says: “Do you see now that I was right?” 

My biggest fear was that I might believe them, believe that they are right.

I would like to discuss how states all over the world resort to sexual violence as a means of punishment and oppression. And how rape is just the most obvious and obscene manifestation of systematic patriarchal practices by both state and society. 

I would like to talk about how the policing and conformity of language sometimes stifles and substitutes for real work, about how the insistence on the term survivor over victim can hurt those it is supposed to defend. I want to add my voice to the voice of a very dear friend and problematize the use of the term survivor over victim, for how it makes it the victim’s responsibility to overcome their trauma and get on with their life, how it makes surviving an action in the present term, an action that I am supposed to perform everyday for the rest of my life, how it makes my rape a part of my identity, a label that I have to carry. As someone who got raped, more than once, I reclaim the term victim: I am the victim of the system, of capitalism, of patriarchy. 

I want to talk again about how my rape, my rapes, are just incidents in my life, things that happened to me, and not my identity, and how overcoming them is not my biggest achievement. I am so much more, and I refuse to be reduced to a rape survivor.

I would also like to talk about the corner we find ourselves put in once we get exposed to sexual violence, and the moral dilemmas a victim has to go through that are overlooked in favor of what everyone “expects” a rape victim to feel or act and accordingly how the people around them should react. I would like to discuss how mainstream feminism offers a model of “support” that only isolates the victim even more and empowers the system even further. I would like to discuss how this model of support strips one of their agency, and how a rape victim is instantly infantilized by almost everyone from the closest feminist friend to the prosecutor. And probably I would have even done the same to other victims if i hadn’t been a rape victim myself.

I know I’m jumping from one subject to the other but they are all connected in my head.

I would like to discuss age, rage, fear, privilege, and sadness, deep deep sadness.

In this last event, I cannot overlook the fact that I’m 40 and my rapist is 19. I cannot overlook the fact that the other one is the son of my doorman, who I’ve known since he was a toddler. I cannot overlook the fact that I can afford to buy gourmet coffee that costs more than what he makes in a day. I cannot overlook the fact that he grew up in a society that gives him power over me just for being a man, I cannot overlook that he feels entitled and superior to me because to him I’m a whore who’s asking for it. I cannot overlook that his father, the doorman, doubles as a police informant like most doormen in the neighborhood, and how this gave him a false feeling of power. I cannot overlook the irony present in the fact that one of the policemen told me that the sons of doormen and their friends are forming gangs in the neighborhood and that mine was the twenty-second robbery that month.

I would like to talk about the fact that my rapist cried because he realized what a mess he’d created, and how he couldn’t get the courage to kill me, how I agreed with him that we were both in a very unfortunate situation. There are no victories here, nothing will undo what was done, and especially not state punishment. I would like to talk about how I had to plan his escape for him, how I had to comfort him, how I had to calm his panic, how I had to praise him, how I didn’t say no, and how I told him that I enjoyed it to avoid getting killed.

I would like to talk about how we’ve been fooled by being told that rape was the worst thing that could happen to us, how they’ve convinced us that we’d rather die than get raped, and how I realized that I wanted to live, that the worst thing that could happen to me was to get killed, that my life is by far more valuable than what they like to call honor. 

I would like to talk about how individual crisis is only a manifestation of the bigger political crisis, and how by preventing us from acting collectively, from addressing uncomfortable questions, from dealing with sexual violence in an intersectional way that is attentive to the effects of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, the system prevents us from finding collective solutions based on accountability instead of punishment and revenge and how we can never heal as victims and as societies, with our backs against the wall.

In the past month, I’ve seen so much love and support and solidarity that gave me strength, and space to think and understand. I know I’ve been throwing tantrums at some of you, and was stubborn or even obnoxious, and I’m truly sorry. But apart from that, I saw everyone I love from completely different circles coming together, building new networks, collaborating, organizing, brainstorming. New friendships were forming, jokes were shared, and also tears that you’ve hidden from me. How fucking awesome is that? How overwhelmingly beautiful! This is my dream come true! I always hated throwing birthday parties because it always gave me anxiety about having to put people I love but who are from different circles together. Will they like each other? Hate each other? Next year I’m throwing a birthday party and you’re all invited!

I know how lucky I am, how lucky we are, and how amazing we are, not because we are inherently unique, but because we can act collectively, even if we have differences, even if we fight or throw tantrums.

So consider this email whatever, a group hug maybe?  🙂

We are not ok but we are awesome, and we will be fine.

Salma El Tarzi 

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