Facing Trial, Award-Winning Egyptian Feminist Mozn Hassan Speaks Out

As founder of feminist organization Nazra, Hassan has attracted the ire of the Egyptian authorities—which have banned her from leaving the country and are pursuing trumped-up charges against her. As she receives a major humanitarian award, Broadly...

Dec 23 2016, 2:53pm

Photo by Mostafa Mohie

The life of an activist is often thankless, unrewarding, and hard, something Mozn Hassan knows only too well. As founder of Egyptian feminist organization Nazra, Hassan has found herself unwillingly at the center of the Egyptian government's widely condemned crackdown on civil rights.

The Egyptian authorities have systematically targeted activists and civil liberties defenders in recent years. Under the Egyptian penal code, anyone who receives funding from a foreign source with the intention of "compromis[ing] national unity" can be subject to life imprisonment. The so-called "NGO Foreign Funding" case, first opened in 2011, has been used to undermine a number of prominent groups (in 2013, 43 NGO employees were convicted, to international outrage.) Hassan, and the Nazra staff, are being investigated under this law.

Arguably, there's never been a worse time to be an activist in Egypt than the present day. In November 2016, Egypt's parliament passed a widely condemned law that effectively spelled the end for the few civil society groups that had managed to limp on under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's authoritarian rule. For those that remain (many have fled), a bull's eye is painted on their backs, something Hassan knows only too well.

Read more: What It's Like to be Gay in Egypt

In March 2016, Nazra was told it was under investigation. When the investigation was launched, Hassan was in New York. She immediately returned home to support her staff. Now the organization's assets are frozen, and Hassan is unable to leave the country due to a travel ban. It's a desperate scenario: Hassan knows the authorities are building a case against her and her colleagues, and lives with the threat of arrest or interrogation every day. Despite this, her commitment to her work remains absolute.

Hassan founded Nazra in 2007, but the group really became prominent during the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Nazra documented the harrowing wave of sexual assaults on women participating in the protests in Tahrir Square, and helped coordinate support for the survivors. They mentored female candidates for the 2015 parliamentary elections and ran annual feminist schools educating young Egyptian men and women about gender issues. As part of a coalition of feminist groups, Nazra lobbied for women's rights to be included in Egypt's 2014 Constitution.

Image via The Right Livelihood Foundation

As a result of this legacy, Hassan was awarded The Right Livelihood Award—often known as the alternative Nobel Prize—in September 2016. Announcing Hassan's win, Ole von Uexkull, the executive director of the Livelihood Award Foundation, paid tribute to Hassan's ongoing work to assert "the equality and rights of women in circumstances where they are subject to ongoing violence, abuse and discrimination."

Broadly caught up with Hassan down the line from Cairo, where she currently lives while awaiting trial. As you might expect from someone being victimized by a regressive state apparatchik, at times Hassan sounds worn down—but never defeated. Below is the transcript of our interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

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BROADLY: Hi Mozn, thank you for talking with us. How does it feel to be recognized with such an important award?
Mozn Hassan: It really feels like recognition, not only for me, but for the team at Nazra and feminists here in Egypt. Often people don't see the work that feminists do in different places as important. So the award shows people the struggles faced by feminists in Egypt, especially now in this hard time when we're facing all these obstacles, oppression, and punishment for our work.

How are you coping with the investigation currently ongoing against you?
The investigation officially against Nazra began last March and three of our team have been summoned as witnesses in this case on charges of undermining civil society in Egypt (what's known as the Foreign Funding case). In the same month the judge summoned me as a defendant and then he began the internal investigation into Nazra. After that, in June, the judge banned me from traveling. We're just waiting now for the case to be referred to court.

How do you cope in what must be enormously stressful times?
Of course, it's hard. It's hard on different levels. On the level that, after all the work we've done—trying to put important issues on the public agenda in Egypt—they don't support us, but they punish us. They're trying to sentence us to life imprisonment. [Laughs.] It's not easy. At all.

Where does the inspiration for your activism come from?
I think there are different inspirations. One of them is my mother. She has shaped me into the person I am now. She's a strong woman. She taught me to see myself as an independent person. But I also see feminist consciousness as something that if you've got it, you can't lose it. It's like a virus actually. [Laughs.]

How do you understand Egyptian feminism and how do you see the role of feminism in Egypt?
We Egyptian feminists come from a strong history. The movement first started in Egypt in 1919, and after that grew stronger in the 1950s. It's important that people don't see us as prisoners, just people who want their rights.

Do you feel like you have good support from across Egyptian society for your causes?
It's a challenge. It's not something easy. The feminist movement–especially after 2011–has increased in size. More people are joining, more people are understanding the issues and causes, like combating sexual harassment and sexual violence. These causes have become more mainstream. But Egypt still has a lot of people who don't believe this, too. It's a patriarchal society, so challenging it is something that's not easy.

What are your ambitions for your activism?
The core of our work is combating and eradicating sexual violence and rape in Egypt. We also hope for more recognition for survivors in our country.

Are you optimistic that the charges against you will be dropped? Or are you fearful the authorities will fabricate evidence against you to pursue an agenda that's anti-feminist?
I hope that the authorities will drop the case, but I know it's a hard struggle. I hope. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in prison.