The women who live in these old, cramped cells once had the spirits of revolutionaries. But most of them were snatched from their dreams and their freedom after July 2013, after the removal of former President Mohammed Morsi on June 30. Among them are hundreds of girls and women who have been recently arrested for political reasons, according to human rights lawyers.
Most young women have different backgrounds and stories to tell but days inside these prisons have taken years off their lives. They know what they looked like before entering but have no idea who they are when they leave – because they have spent years not looking at themselves in a mirror.
Many were stripped off their clothes more than once and beaten in their bare skin by female wardens. Even though time has past, their wounds have not healed; they find it hard to forget.
From selling fruits to execution: Samia Shannon
More than three years of her imprisonment Samia Shannon was known as the fruit vendor inside Qanater Prison. Shannon, among tens of defendants of the widely known, ‘Kerdasa trial’, was accused of breaking into the police station in Kerdasa, killing more than 10 policemen, mutilating their bodies, stealing firearms and the attempted murder of many others in August 2013.
Shannon was arrested at home, with her son, on September 19, 2013. On February 2, 2015 the criminal court ruled in favor of her execution along with 187 defendants in the case. The court of cassation agreed to review Shannon’s appeal with many others involved in the case. On February 3, 2016 the court ordered a retrial for the 149 sentenced to death.
“There are no witnesses against Samia Shannon. In most evidential trial sessions except for one policeman who said he just ‘heard’ that she was involved in killing policemen and mutilating their bodies in Kerdasa,” said Egyptian lawyer Mahinour El-Masry.
From helping street children to being behind bars: Aya Hegazy
Egyptian-American Hegazy and her husband Mohammed Hassanein only had seconds for a quick kiss after a court session.
Hegazy and her husband founded the Belady Foundation for the support of street children in September 2013. They used the slogans “bread, freedom, human dignity.” Security forces raided the foundation’s headquarters in downtown Cairo and arrested Hegazy and Hassanein along with staff workers on May 1, 2014. They were both taken in and held in pre-trial detention. The defendants faced charges on running an unlicensed foundation and brainwashing children to join pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests.
Hegazy today is still in Qanater Prison and her husband is in Tora Prison. They rarely communicate with letters to one another because of difficulties within prisons. Hassanein made her flowers out of paper. He made her a boat out of material he found in prison and tried many times to send it to her but the Qanater Prison administration refused to send it. The boat is a symbol of him reaching her one day.
When a pin terrifies a nation: Sara Khaled
Without knowing this would be the reason for her imprisonment, an Azhar university student who studied dentistry, Khaled used a pin for her veil with the yellow print of the Rabaa sign.
Khaled was arrested on January 5, 2014 for and served 10 months in Qanater prison. She hated the slogans she heard daily, “The real world is prison and prison is freedom.” She disagreed as she thought to herself, “How is this true while I am here? Nothing is in my hands in here. Where is the freedom?”
Supportive letters came to her inside prison from people who heard about her story, it was the only thing that kept her going.
Even though Khaled was released from prison more that two years ago, she still remembers the harassment and the insults she faced inside the ward vividly. Signs of shock and bewilderment appear on her face when she recalls her experiences in prison, especially the physical abuse she was dealt by female wardens.
“Al-Tashrifa,” is a word well-known among female detainees, which means ‘inspection time.’ Khaled would have never imagined the true meaning of inspection until she experienced it first hand.
Inspection entails begin stripped of her clothes and harassed countless of times by the female wardens.
After being released Khaled began seeing a therapist, but it did not help.
“The therapist I went to could not fathom the amount of violence I was talking about. I found myself not able to reach her at all and I tried to heal my wounds by healing those who have the same as mine.”
Holding a small mirror from time to time, she looks at herself and remembers how she spent 10 months without seeing her own reflection.
Today, Khaled strives to help female prisoners and provide them with the care they need inside prison.
The doll that goes by the name freedom: Safaa Hussein
Hussein has been incarcerated since January 2014 and named the doll she made behind bars “Hurreya,” which means freedom in Arabic.
She was an 18-year-old high school student when she was arrested during a protest. The prison refused to allow her to finish her exams even though she was first in her class. She was soon expelled from Azhar institute where she studied.
“Safaa lives in a cell that is not more than 3 meters x 4 meters, with another 20 women,” says her friend. Hussein and the other prisoners do everything inside this old cell: they eat, drink, watch their clothes, and some read, they stay in there night and day. They are so close to each other they can hardly move. They call out “Oh Lord.”
On May 29, 2014 the court sentenced her to a five-year sentence and a 50, 000 L.E. (US $2,832) fine. The court on November 9, 2014 accepted an appeal and gave her a three-year sentence instead.
“This doll has a story. On a national holiday we went to visit Safaa and gave her the doll that looked like a bride. Her mother had bought it for her, when we went back to visit her again we saw a transformation. Safaa changed the doll and put her in the white prison uniform and gave it back to us. She told us she named her “Hurriya” and she wants her to leave prison so she can be free and not captive like her,” recalled her friend.
From the presidency to Qanater Prison: On June 21, 2014, those who participated in a protest against the protest law near the presidential palace were detained.
On September 23, 2015 Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi has called to release them immediately.
The light of the revolution will not be darkened by detention: Rania El-Sheikh
“I love my memories and I love to talk about them,” says El-Sheikh. She still wears her white veil she wore in Qanater Prison. She still believes in the revolution and her time in prison did not break her spirit. “I was not broken and it did not take over my life. On the contrary I feel I need to do so much now to help my friends out, ” she says.
El-Sheikh did not let depression take over her life in prison. She started making bracelets in her cell with Arabic writing on them that say, “Made in prison,” “Depression is be trail,” “We are free and will continue.”
El-Sheikh got close to criminal inmates and saw their human side and learned not only judge them by what they have done. She knew a woman who says her parents forced her to do drugs and suffered through withdrawal. El-Sheikh stood by her and tried to help her as much as she could. After Rania was pardoned by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, this did not stop her from doing more work for prisoners. Rania is now out of prison but is waiting for her friend who she now considers family.
Arrest and memories that will never be forgotten: SalwaMehres
“There is no more Jan. 25, that’s it!” Mehres recalls how the policeman who was detaining her told her. Time has stopped here,” he said.
Salwa Mehres was preparing herself for her master’s thesis for the faculty of engineering at Azhar university but she adapted herself to her stay in prison.
An investigation officer inspected all letters that were sent out by prisoners. In one of the letters she wrote to a friend, “These sons of bitches like to harm you but that can save you!” The officer was furious after reading this and said “I will not sit here and be sworn at!”
He refused to send out the letter for her.
Salwa today keeps the glass mug she drank in inside prison. “They did not give us cups or knives, we were only allowed plastic material inside the ward. Some times foods were packaged inside glass and some criminal inmates took some of the left packaging and drank from them. I started to copy them and when I left I took my cup with me and till today I drink everything out of this glass cup.”
El-Sheikh fears that injustice will continue to worsen, “2011 and 2012 we were shocked to hear someone was detained but now it is normal,” she says.
Mahienour El-Massry is a lawyer who had been imprisoned twice. The first time was on the 20th of May 2014 and she was sentenced to six months after the appeal because of her participation in a protest in front of the court in Alexandria, while the trial of Khaled Said’s killer was being held.
The second time she spent a year and three months in El Abadya prison from 11 May 2015 to 13 August 2016 during a lawyer’s sit-in that was held in a police station demanding the apology of a police officer to the bar association after he slapped a lawyer on his face and prevented him from entering the police station. It happened during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood – the case was reopened after 30th of June.
When Mahienourwas sentenced for the first time she was introduced to a world she didn’t know anything about: the world of the poor, indebted women who were the victims of this brutal system.
Her cell was near the cells of those who were about to be executed and El-Massry developed a strong relationship to them. On her 30th birthday El-Massry got a present from one of these women. The present was a red teddy bear and the woman had chosen this color to make her remember her as red was the color of the uniform of those who have been sentenced to death. She wanted Mahienour to remember her if she was executed.
El-Massry served in Qanater Prison and she was introduced to a group of Islamists even though they both came from a totally different background. She was also given a rosary made from olive seeds from Samia Shannon (Kerdasa Trial).
by Ravy Shaker