'We're survivors': Lina Geoushy, the photographer confronting the stigma of sexual violence in Egypt
In 2011, waves of protestors flooded the streets of Egypt, calling for the overthrow of the long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was eventually ousted.
Tahrir Square in Cairo became known around the world as the beating heart of the revolution – but it also garnered a more sinister reputation as a place where many female protesters were sexually assaulted and harassed.
The Egyptian photographer, Lina Geoushy, who was born and raised in the capital, was one of those who took to the streets. “We were all done with having Mubarak for 30 years – and that's when a lot of us were getting exposed to groups [of men] circling women and harassing them,” says the 32-year-old, as Cairo traffic blares in the background of our Zoom call.
"99.3% of Egyptian girls and women surveyed in a 2013 UN survey reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime"
This heralded the beginning of Egypt’s #MeToo movement, but it soon dissipated, overshadowed by the tense political landscape at the time.
Flash forward to 2020 and the movement gathered momentum following several high-profile cases of sexual violence which prompted hundreds of women to share their stories online, leading to the arrest of a man who had sexually assaulted, harassed and blackmailed many women.
The events of 2011 and 2020 acted as a catalyst for Lina’s project Shame Less, a series of intimate portraits that highlight just how pervasive and entrenched sexual violence is in Egypt.
According to a 2013 UN survey, 99.3% of Egyptian girls and women surveyed reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime.
In 2017, Cairo was named the worst megacity in the world for women by a survey of experts looking at how well women are protected from sexual violence, among other things.
Last year, the parliament approved harsher penalties for sexual harassment, but campaigners argue that these are not being implemented properly and there is still deep-rooted bias within Egyptian society that places blame on the women themselves rather than the perpetrators of the crimes.
“I was so enraged by how this is just continuously happening, reading the stories of women being blackmailed, and victim blamed and shamed, and, every time I read a story it kind of brought out my own pain,” explains Lina, who has experienced verbal and sexual harassment in Cairo.
This project was a way for her to confront this endemic issue, but also a way of helping women feel less alone and more empowered to share their stories.
After doing a call-out for participants on Instagram in December 2020, Lina met the women several times to get to know them. These encounters helped to form a safe space where they could open up about their experiences of sexual violence, which “felt cathartic”.
Some of the women connected Lina with others who wanted to share their stories, and so this alliance of survivors was born.
Lina photographed 15 of the women in their homes in Cairo. In the photos, the women look relaxed and confident – one reclines on her sofa, another stands defiantly on her rooftop, and several sit facing the lens head-on.
It is a multigenerational group, some wear headscarves, some don’t. To protect their identities half of their faces are obscured by a gold brushstroke, but their mouths are still visible – which Lina says is important as “it’s a signifier of the voice”. The choice of colour was because “gold is very prominent in our Egyptian culture, especially from ancient Egypt.”
It also appears in a lot of homes, she shows me the chair she is sat on which is edged in gold - as is much of the furniture in the photos. She describes the brushstroke as “a bold embellishment to reflect the value of their testimony, the value of their experience and the value of them speaking.”
"'Shame Less’ captures the resilience and bravery of survivors who are speaking up in a society that tries to silence them, but it also pulls down the usual power dynamics between the photographer and the photographed"
Lina also added the participants’ hand-written testimonies to the portraits, which encircle and spill out of the frames, like memories bubbling up to the surface.
One woman describes being groped in the street by an old man who is walking with his young daughter, while another writes about being raped by her husband. “For me, it was important that the participants' voices are there because I can’t speak on behalf of other people,” she explains, adding that the scattered placement represents the fragmented nature of traumatic memories.
Initially, she wasn’t going to be part of the series, but after meeting the participants she changed her mind and decided to share her own story. “It was only after I met three or four women, and they shared their experiences that it felt like the normal thing to do. I felt a very strong instinct, like, I have to do it also, we have to do it together.”
Shame Less captures the resilience and bravery of survivors who are speaking up in a society that tries to silence them, but it also pulls down the usual power dynamics between the photographer and the photographed.
Lina is one of them. Like Nan Goldin – a photographer she is inspired by – Lina has gained the trust of this community and is fighting alongside them.
“I think [the project] is successful in instilling a sense of empowerment and a sense of solidarity,” says Lina. “We are not victims. We're survivors. We're speaking up, We're protesting. Since 2013, there are no public protests in Egypt, so for me, this is a way of protesting, this is using photography or visual arts as a medium to protest.”
She adds that she wants the project to make Egyptians – both men and women – question the role they play in perpetuating victim-blaming and shaming. “It’s the people committing those acts of violence who should be feeling the shame.”
This is just the first chapter of Shame Less, which is an ongoing project. The next chapter will focus on men – not only male survivors of sexual violence but also men who witnessed it or were perpetrators themselves.
“I've already connected with two men, but it's much more difficult to talk to men about this than with women because men are not brought up to talk about these topics, in all cultures, not just in Egypt," she says.
"But I think men are also victims of patriarchy because any patriarchal society teaches a man from a young age that he cannot express his feelings and that he cannot cry. This makes men develop unhealthy coping mechanisms and suppress their feelings. And what happens when this takes place is that it becomes manifested in aggression, it becomes manifested in unhealthy, toxic behaviour. It ends up being projected on women in very violent ways.”
Shame Less was recently the joint winner of the series award at the British Journal of Photography’s Female in Focus photo contest, which was on show at Photofusion in London until 24 November. Lina is also collaborating on an exhibition Strong Independent with the Beyn Collective in Cairo, which runs from 17 November until 30 November.
Jessie Williams is a freelance journalist, editor, and writer based in London. Her interest lies in global current affairs, humanitarian issues, women's rights, migration, culture, and politics - with the aim of exploring the human stories behind the headlines.
Follow her on Twitter: @JessieWill5