“Get undressed!” the taxi driver demanded and gestured with a knife. He pulled over the deserted side of the highway with piles of construction rubble. I realized we had veered off course and ended up far on the desert road leading out of Cairo. I tried to get out of the car, but he had locked the doors. He pulled back his driver’s seat and pinned me down with it, pressing hard on my chest. He then began head-butting me on the face. My vision blurred, but I did not lose consciousness. I fought back with the only thing I had in my hands, an iPhone. While hitting his temple as hard as I could with the corner of the phone I told him I had money in my purse and to let me go. “I don’t want your money,” he replied, and continued the beating.
Each time I halfway climbed out of the car, he grabbed me by the hair and dragged me back inside. After some struggle, I finally managed to crawl out of the cab completely. A passing car slowed down. Perhaps someone saw me. The offender then realized he might be getting caught and finally let me go. I did not catch the cab’s license plate as my main priority was to escape from the scene. I knew at the time that it would be impossible to punish the criminal. When I got home I looked at my face in the mirror, swollen and bloodied. Instinctively, I decided to photograph myself. I wanted to have a record of what had happened, a visual document.
I held on to the photograph and did not share it publicly. About a year after the incident in 2012, harrowing accounts of sexual abuse in Cairo’s streets began to gain wide coverage in the media. Female journalists and activists were harassed and raped on Tahrir Square during the uprising. Local activist groups organized an anti-abuse rally in downtown Cairo. In support of that rally I gathered strength and shared my photograph and the story along with it for the first time. I called on the women to keep their guard and encouraged people to join the movement in Cairo. Over 10,000 people reacted to the graphic image of my face. A kind of anti-selfie, it was shared several thousand times. Later on I decided to remove the image from Facebook. I felt that it had served its purpose by challenging the stigma around the issue and encouraging more people to speak up.
Five years since the incident, while reading the coverage of the Harvey Weinstein’s case, I catch myself thinking again: what constitutes a sex crime? On one end of the spectrum there is a violent offender who attempts rape by using sheer physical force. On the other is a sexual predator who abuses his power. Both to me are gradations of criminal behavior, whether it is an abuse perpetrated with physical force or by exerting mental pressure with influence and authority. Encouraged by the testimonies of so many women who came forward in #metoo campaign, I decided to re-post the image of my face.
Sexual abuse and harassment is a global, pervasive human epidemic and I did not mention Cairo in this latest post, because I did not want to make it about a specific place. It is endemic to all societies. I cannot think of a single female friend who has not experienced it to some degree. It begins early, at times even before we reach adolescence. Taking public transportation to school at age 9 in the Soviet Union, I distinctly remember being groped by men on the bus. I was force kissed by an older teenager in my school and saw girls being forcefully disrobed by boys during break time. I am a mother today and I shudder at the thought that something so reducing and humiliating could ever happen to my daughter.
There is still a great amount of stigma and shame that stands in our way. I have documented survivors of rape from the wars of Congo DRC and Bosnia, many refused to publicize their testimonies of abuse in fear of being stigmatized and I respect that. In the United States, I photographed survivors of repeated sexual abuse inside small and peaceful communities. In some cases it was perpetrated by family members at home, the safest place imaginable. Most women I spoke to were not able to prosecute the offenders, some even had to face them regularly at work or family gatherings, due to the culture of shame around the issue. They were discouraged from reporting the incidents, often by people close to them: parents, friends, relatives. As a result, the perpetrators remained unpunished and repeated their crimes. I became convinced that the social stigma is the most damaging phenomenon preventing these criminals from being caught and penalized.
Perhaps the ideal hashtag for my post should have been #notashamed. Since I published the picture of my battered face, once again, in defiance of social taboos, the reactions to the image have been varied. Many people, however, expressed compassion and sympathy. What I would have really liked to see more is an expression of outrage, anger, a call for action, a show of support, but not sadness and pity for the people, including myself, who I call survivors and not victims. I respect everyone’s privacy and personal choices, but I can also feel that one of the reasons why many people do not speak out is because they do not want to be portrayed as victims. I posted a gruesome photograph of myself that goes against the notion we all support on social media — projecting an image of success, happiness and fulfillment. Nobody wants to be seen suffering on Facebook, we want everyone to envy us, not pity us. Yet I recognize the power of social media as a platform for public discourse and hope that the picture will inspire a change in attitude. As a photographer I have met many brave survivors of sex crimes. They shared their stories with me and allowed me to photograph their faces, why should I treat myself differently? By putting ‘the face’ on the deed I do not just want people to be repulsed by the crime it documents, I want them to feel less ashamed.
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