Women’s issues focus of Egypt’s storytelling group
Cairo - In male-dominated societies of the Middle East, written or narrated stories usually revolve around a male protagonist but Egypt’s Ana al-Hekaya (I’m the Story) attempts to change that perspective.
The self-funded feminist storytelling group was formed in 2009 by four female academics and writers who decided to a set up a forum distinct from an Egyptian storytelling project affiliated with the Women and Memory Forum. The group involves activists dealing with the negative representation and perception of Arab women in the cultural sphere.
“At first, we were interested in rewriting and narrating folk stories and the tales of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ from a feminist point of view. Then we developed our own vision to narrate contemporary stories written in the monthly workshops that we hold,” Ana al-Hekaya co-founder Amani Abouzeid said.
“In our workshops, we deal with particular themes. They could be general topics or ones deriving from the works of renowned writers such as [Nobel Prize Laureate] Naguib Mahfouz and Ihsan Abdel Quddous. We tackle the texts from a feminist perception and write new ones inspired by them,” Abouzeid explained.
The stories are told by the group’s 15 storytellers, who come from different backgrounds and professions. They are produced at the workshops and cover a variety of social issues related to women, including female genital mutilation, early marriages, school dropouts of girls and discrimination against women in the workplace.
Subjects are highlighted in the stories in a creative and sometimes funny manner. Storytelling events are accompanied by light music and songs that relate to the tale’s subject.
“Once we announce our storytelling events many people express interest. They may not be interested in feminist issues but they just want to hear tales,” said Aya Sami, a storyteller and regular participant in the workshops who enrolled in the group four years ago. “However, once they find out that the stories are told from a feminist viewpoint, they get the message and react to it, especially when it is about women’s education or empowerment.”
Sami said her experience with Ana al-Hekaya was a kind of therapy because she had felt trapped in her own thoughts.
“With the group, I got to know that there is a way to release those thoughts in an artistic manner and that people could listen to what I have to say and react to it,” she said.
Ana al-Hekaya has attracted men as well as women, an unusual occurrence in a mainly Muslim Arab country where males are dominant.
Reda Zaki, an advocate of gender equality who has worked with the group for several years, recalled his beginnings as a feminist storyteller.
“My experience with Ana al- Hekaya entailed some contradiction being a man among all those women,” he said. “At first, I felt estranged and anxious, telling stories from a feminist perspective. Then the audiences’ positive feedback made these feelings fade away.
“After all, the problems over which the stories are shedding the light are real. I wouldn’t have joined the group had I not believed in what they advocate.”
Ahmed Hamdy, another male member, first participated in Ana al-Hekaya’s storytelling events as a listener before joining the writing workshops almost two years ago.
“I mainly like writing,” he said. “Also my strong belief in the group’s cause and principles made me join their workshops. The discussions and the brainstorming at every workshop benefited me a lot and opened new horizons for writing.”
“I am a strong defender of women’s rights, which are inherent in human rights in general… Women represent an integral part of the society.”
Ana al-Hekaya’s storytelling events at cultural centres and theatres across Egypt are usually fully booked, attracting large crowds of both sexes.
“Our purpose is to raise awareness about women’s rights and issues,” Abouzeid said. “Feminism is not at all about tough women merely fighting against male dominance but about gaining lawful rights.”
The group recently produced a book titled “Ana al-Hekaya,” which is a compilation of stories produced by participants in the writing workshops.