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Saturday, November 14, 2015
Book Review - Inside the women's prison
Book Review - Inside the women's prison
Mahmoud El-Wardani, Saturday 14 Nov 2015
Fi Sign Al-Nissa(In The Women's Prison) by Jane Boctur, Beit Al-Yassamin Publishing, Cairo, 2015. pp.280.
More than half a century has passed after bloody incidents occurred in Qanater Women's Prison - the most famous women's prison in Egypt. In this book, Jane Boctur recalls the events of the almost four years that she and a large number of other leftist women spent in detention and behind this terrible prison's walls between 1959 and 1964.
The book's publication coincides with the 90th birthday of the author, who is still full of optimism about life and confidence in her country's future. She also possess an astonishing memory.
Boctur rushed to Tahrir Square at the age of 86 in a wheelchair after the protests in January 2011 broke out, in solidarity with the young people who ignited the revolution. But that is not surprising, given her history of political activism.
She is a daughter of the leftist movement; participating in nationalist activity against the British and against the tyranny of the monarchy after enrolling at the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University in the forties, and sentenced by a military court to two years' imprisonment. She spent a year in jail before her sentence was commuted in 1949.
She went on to get a master's degree in journalism and a diploma in Egyptology antiquities. Her life was very rich, and she worked in teaching, journalism, translation and tourist guidance, as well as being a documentary director; some of her films even won distinguished awards.
As for her book, it contains an exciting narrative about her time in jail between 1959 and 1964. This was the first time that the state took the step of collective political incarceration of this number of women, whose charges were limited to crimes of expression and opinion.
As evidence of the extent of tyranny and suppression which Egypt went through during that time, not a single woman among those discussed in the book had been subject to a trial; all had been arbitrarily detained.
The author paints the psychological features of her fellow detainees and of their jailers, both high-ranking officers and the female prison guards. She also describes in depth the prison itself, and the division between the criminal female inmates, i.e. those convicted of prostitution, murder and theft, and the inmates detained for political crimes.
In the background, there a picture of the society from which the political female detainees came, whether they were teachers, journalists, civil servants, doctors or even artists (including for example, the renowned artist Inji Efflatoun and actress Muhsena Tawfiq), and the way this society faced the authorities' decision to jail women because of their opinion or political activity.
The author presents an honest record and a personal testimony regarding very private moments in the life of this generation and the life of this country. Most of the detainees were snatched from their family homes, obliged to leave their children with neighbours. There were even pregnant detainees such as the author Asma Halim, who gave birth inside the prison. Her son spent the first three years of his life within this milieu, learning his first words behind bars.
From another perspective, the author has chosen a style that combines the fictive narrative and the documentary narrative, in order to be able to cover this vast world on several levels; for there is a world outside the enclosed walls which the detainees belong to not only because they left their children there and their familial relationships and their threatened families after being incarcerated but also because it is the world which they were detained for the cause of defending its political and social issues.
Throughout the book's pages, the outside world was always manifest and present in different forms; the visits were an opportunity for seeing children and relatives and exchanging news, and learning the whereabouts of incarcerated husbands or fiancées or detainees in general, who were gathered finally in the Oasis Prison in the desert about 1000km from Cairo.
Naturally, it wasn't possible to find out the news except through those irregular visits from relatives, because of the rigidity of the political security agencies.
As for the prison itself, the administration attempted to isolate them from other female prisoners. Their numbers ranged between 28 and 30 detainees, as well as the Israeli spy Marcelle Ninio, who was convicted in the Lavon legal case in which an Israeli network blew up a number of cinema theatres in Alexandria.
There were other foreigners too; two communist Greeks and an Italian who was married to Kamal Abdel-Halim, one of the leaders in the Communist Party, who was also incarcerated at the time.
Boctur devotes some space to delineate the relationships between female detainees, criminal prisoners and jailers. She also looks at the relationships between the female detainees who belonged to different leftist organisations and the details of their lives inside prison. The effort exerted in depicting this huge canvas is commendable.
The author asserts that the detainees didn't give in to their legitimate sorrows and the agony of losing their children. For instance, when Boctur was jailed she was the mother of three children, the oldest four and the younger two, twins, three years old.
Despite all this, they changed their life inside the prison into a continuing struggle not to lose their humanity and solidarity. For instance, when they heard that President Gamal Abdel-Nasser had said to a foreign journalist that there are no political prisons in Egypt, they went right away to the prison's governor and demanded to be released immediately because their detention was illegal according to the president's statement.
When the prison governor tried to send them back to their dormitory, they refused and decided to gather in front of the governor's office. Eventually, they were cruelly beaten by the anti-riot force inside the prison, with the participation of a group of criminal inmates, and were dragged back to their cells.
Finally, the exceptional significance of this book, or testimony, lies in the author's celebration of the human side of this experience and in showing how the female detainees were torn between the necessities of motherhood on one hand and their political standpoints on the other.
For instance, there was only one condition for their release, which was to sign a statement denouncing their political standpoints, which they refused absolutely because it meant, according to Boctur, that they would in so doing abandon their own humanity.
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