Egyptian blogger Dalia Ziada Winner of Anna Lindh Journalism Award: Keep fighting for women rights!

Dalia Ziada with Prince Albert of Monaco and Hala Hashish, head of Egypt's Satellite Nile TV Sector @DZ

By Hanan Solayman

On October 14th, the winners of the 2010 edition of the ‘Anna Lindh Mediterranean Journalist Award’ were presented by Prince Albert II and the International Award Jury at a ceremony taking place in the Principality of Monaco. EMAJ Reporter Hanan Solayman spoke with the Egyptian journalists Dalia Ziada and Ali Gohine, who respectively received the prizes for the Online and Audiovisual categories. Today EMAJ Magazine introduces you the young blogger Dalia Ziada.

“I feel empowered”, said Dalia Ziada, a young Egyptian female blogger and human rights activist, proudly over the phone to EMAJ magazine a few days after returning from Monaco where she was awarded the 2010 Anna Lindh Journalism award for online media category. Ziada’s winning article “Unveiling the minds of young Muslim women” which was published last November in Bikya Masr (an Egyptian online news website) speaks about women’s plight in the Middle East and how internet became a revolutionary tool supporting equality and human rights for women.

How did it feel winning the Anna Lindh Journalism Award?

I feel honored for receiving this important award. Internet empowered me and made the international community recognize me. Now, I’m committed to empowering other women as well and fighting for our rights.

– You critically speak of covering female’s bodies when they become teenagers, yet. You wear Hijab and cover your body.. how do you explain this?

I’m not against wearing Hijab if it’s by one’s free will, but, I’m criticizing wearing Hijab as a symbol of suppressing women which is resulting from the rising tone of Islamists and extremists in the community. From my personal experience, there are many reasons behind wearing Hijab and most of them have nothing to do with practicing religion but because of social customs and protecting oneself from sexual harassment.

– Was it your own decision to wear Hijab?

It was both a personal and family decision. I wore Hijab 8 or 9 years ago (I’m now 28) but now I’m strong enough to take it off if I want to but I’m convinced that I should wear it.

– Some people may say that the restrictions on women you spoke about in your articles stem from the faith itself and that Islam does not empower women…

No, not at all. Moderate Islam empowers women and we have many examples of successful Muslim women including Prophet Muhammad’s wives like Khadija, A’isha of whom the society was proud of. On the other hand, the salafi or political Islam or what I call “Bedouin Islam” which comes from the wahhabi culture that we’re having now doesn’t empower women and it’s because they follow a different interpretation of the holy text and by the holy text I mean the Qur’an and the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad). For me, I follow the moderate interpretation which basically means that if you’re a religious person, you should be tolerant. We’re currently suffering in Egypt from political Islam that suppresses women in a severe way and they’re sending a negative message to people who don’t understand Islam that being a Muslim is about hating people.

– Is it good to have different interpretations for the Qur’an?

It’s good because it gives you flexibility so you can adapt Islam to many different places but also it’s bad as Islam is not a monolithic religion so there’s no control over producing wrong interpretations, there’s no reference which should be there to have the final saying on these interpretations and whether they’re right or wrong. The reference is also necessary to counter some people who are trying to monopolize Islam.

Can you tell us more about your background?

I grew up in Shubra neighborhood in Cairo, a beautiful mix of Muslims and Christians that helped to be more open and tolerant. I was born to a Middle class family; my father was an engineer officer in the military and my mother is an Arabic teacher. I have two brothers and a sister. My family is a bit conservative so I wasn’t allowed to travel alone abroad or even inside Egypt until five years ago. They also made me stop playing sports at the age of 13 when I used to play Kung Fu and Tennis.

Did their way of thinking ever change?

The change comes after huge pressure from me because it’s too hard to convince them to let me out. I started to involve them in my work so they’re aware of what I’m doing and they know that I need some more space and freedom. I was working on a program with the AIC on educating children on human rights and so my mother brought me some students at her school. I also invite my family to the events I organize and discuss my work with them, so they’re gradually changing and see that I’m a grown up.

Do you still live with your family?

Yes, I do and I like it. I live with my mother and siblings except my father who passed away a few years ago.

What was their reaction to the award?

They were so happy and celebrated with me. My mother keeps telling her friends about the award I received and my brothers are uploading videos of me in the ceremony in Monaco which was presented by Prince Albert II. My mother who is a very traditional Egyptian mother wants me to get married and have kids but she is now very supportive to me and the work I do unlike before.. she never said in words how she changed but she said it by her actions.

EMAJ Magazine: Your fight for women rights started at the age of 8 against female genital mutilation, how was that? And were you circumcised yourself?

Dalia Ziada: My parents circumcised me and it was a hard time for me so I decided to help other girls in my family and rescue them. When I was in school, I formed a group called Female Students Against FGM with other female students and we would stop women in the streets and talk them how dangerous circumcision is for girls. It was tough, I remember, and sometimes we got in real trouble when some of the women we spoke to got so angry at us and thought we’re so impolite to speak to them about these matters. One of the women even ran after us in the street wanting to hit us. We kept raising awareness on FGM for a year then we got so busy with our lives.

How did you start working in the field of human rights after university?

I worked in el-Ahram daily newspaper in Egypt at the foreign desk and there I learned a lot about the western world and how women live there and I thought to myself “Why can’t we be like them? We deserve better treatment and more freedom”. In the west, domestic violence cannot go unpunished; the woman victim should just call the police and they’re there to help her. Sexual harassment which happens everyday everywhere has very strict laws that fight it in the west. At the end, I liked working in the civil society more than the press so I joined AIC to improve Muslims views in the world after 9/11 but then we didn’t find many people interested in that goal so we shifter our approach to promoting good values that Muslims should adopt like civil rights, human rights and women rights.

Changing the mentality is a very tough job…

Absolutely! It’s easy to change laws and it’s what Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak has been pushing for for sometime now and she succeeded in changing the laws to be more supportive to women rights but what matters most is changing the social attitude towards women so we’re reaching to children teaching them about women rights through different activities. It’s a difficult job but not impossible and maybe the next generation will reap the seeds we sow.

How do you network with other women in the Middle East?

Through NGOs and individuals mainly from Saudi Arabia then Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria and Libya. If it wasn’t for internet, I could have never reached Saudi women. Now I can talk to them directly without a man standing in-between.

– Speaking about religious tolerance, tensions rise every now and then between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, who do you is to blame for this?

I blame the government who in order to defeat the socialist and liberal opposition, gave space to Islamists through the Azhar institution, political islamists and salafis who used to run a TV channel called “el-Nas” (People) where you can find ignorant Sheikhs who know nothing about religion speak to people. These Sheikhs are not educated in any religious institute.. all what they have is a long beard and some books they read.

Religious hatred in Egypt isn’t only against Christians but also Shiites and Bahaais who didn’t ask for anything but an ID. This hatred drove some of my Christian friends to say “We don’t feel Egypt is our country anymore” and it strikes me like a knife…

Do you think el-Azhar is an extremist institution?

I know great young independent professors in el-Azhar but the problem is with the administration. This institution is respected by Muslims all over the world and it should keep its positive image and not shrink to be a tool in the hands of the government to influence it in a positive or negative way. Why can’t el-Azhar return to be a reference to Muslims all over the world as it used to be? I really hope for that.

What’s your future plans?

I’m currently working on my Masters in international relations from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and I’m getting ready for the third human rights film festival organized by AIC in December. We’ll soon publish our guidebook on women rights which we’ve been working on for two years with certain recommendations which we will send to governments and officials in Egypt and the Middle East. Also, we’ll launch a debate series all over Egypt in January about reform, women rights, Egyptian American relations, politics and elections and everything that matters to the public.

– Wish you all the best!

Dalia Ziada’s Blog: http://daliaziada.blogspot.com/

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