A French photographer of Egyptian origins, Myriam Abdelaziz was born in Cairo, a city that would later be home to the Revolution of 25 of January in 2011. The Revolution was a diverse movement of demonstrations, marches, plaza occupations, riots, non-violent civil resistance, acts of civil disobedience, and labor strikes, with millions of protesters from all walks of life demanding the overthrow of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Since that time, control of Egypt has gone back and forth between different groups; most recently on 3 July 2012, a coup d’Etat lead by Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah El-Sissi reinstated power to a government of military rule. Under the military, many things have changed, not the least of which is life a palpable paranoia of photographers and journalists.
For Abdelaziz, who resides in Cairo, life is no longer the same. She speaks to The Click about what it is like to be a woman—and a photographer—on the streets of Cairo today.
The experience of the street in Egypt is a different experience for women than anywhere else. Sometimes I feel like the street is a jungle with wild animals, some of which are nice—and some are not. As a woman, you can be a target for sexual harassment and male aggression, especially if you do not blend in.
I really like to walk on the street for pleasure, but I cannot do it here. It is out of the question. I even think twice about something as simple as running an errand.
It is a painful experience as a woman to be on the street. I make physical and mental preparations. I have to think of how to dress. I ask myself what to wear so that I become transparent, invisible. I never have the right answer. It takes a lot of energy. I won’t wear the veil. That is my right. But veil or no veil, a woman on the street will be harassed.
Egyptian people feel they have the right to address you, based on how you dress and how you walk. They feel they have the right to interfere, with words, with touch, or with looks. It has always been like that, but it has become more so ever since the Revolution. Without police, people have less shame to sexually harass a woman. This behavior gets taught from generation to generation, as I see young boys learn it from teenagers and adult men.
Men have a totally different experience of the street. No one looks at them. No one talks to them. No one cares. But for a woman, having to go out is a task. It is not joyful. I cannot simply “go for a walk” as I do in New York. When you are on the street, you want to get into a car as fast as you can. Cairo is not a city to walk in. Its sidewalks are in bad shape and are becoming the territory of various vendors taking the supposedly pedestrian space. It is so hectic that you take a car, and then there is tons of traffic…
When I am on the street, I look serious. I do not smile. I avoid eye contact. I try to make myself transparent. I walk fast like if I am on a mission, avoid interacting unless I have to. My body language is closed so people don’t notice me. I just try to blend in as much as I can.
As a woman documenting the street, you are subject to another kind of harassment. People will question you, ask you who you are, why you are taking photographs, what you are going to do with them. It’s a constant stream of questions, and soon you are surrounded by ten people questioning you, almost always men. They won’t give up until they get the answer they are looking for.
People were very happy about the coverage of the Revolution in the beginning of 2011. But events have changed, and now journalists are getting arrested. After the Al Jazeera scandal, the state TV started saying that the foreign media lies.
My experience in Egypt as a woman photographer shooting the streets, shooting anything and everything, has had an effect on me personally: it has turned me off the streets. Emotionally and practically, it’s just too complicated and too hectic. I can no longer photograph what I want. I can’t produce what I want to produce.
After the Revolution, I started photographing graffiti instead of people. Graffiti was new, and also photographing it, I had less interaction with other people and less questions were raised. But recently I was in Alexandria working on a project, and I wanted to take a photograph of a poster including Marilyn Monroe on the street. Immediately, I was spotted by two police officers who demanded I prove to them that I am not a journalist. How can I prove that? They were really scaring me. I thought they were going to arrest me but they let me go.
In terms of creativity, working in a stressful environment is not the kind of spirit for me. It has slowly turned me off the street. I have a lot of respect for the women who still do it. Photographing what is happening on the streets should be a pleasure, but it isn’t for me anymore.