When Sarah Fahmy, a master’s candidate in theatre and performance studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, returned to her native country of Egypt last summer, she had a lot more in mind than visiting family and friends.
“Over the course of two months, I worked with 55 young women, ages 11 to 17, using theatrical exercises identifying how we can use our bodies and our voices to adequately express ourselves,” said Fahmy about the Young Women’s Vocal Empowerment sessions she conducted in Aswan and Alexandria, Egypt.
Her efforts employ a novel strategy to encourage women to express themselves more fully; it combines methods developed by theater performers and by speech pathologists to strengthen a speaker’s voice and expand her expressive range. The hope is that women “rehearse using their empowered voice” in different social contexts.
“For the most part they addressed issues such as equal access to education or the health-care system and gender equity in the workplace” said Fahmy about the concerns of the young women. “But they also addressed issues of water pollution, in the oceans or the Nile.”
The exercises are of no casual interest to Fahmy, who is focusing on post-colonial female playwrights in the Middle East, and applied theater such as the empowerment program. The CU Boulder Office for Outreach and Engagement helped sponsor the trip, and Fahmy was using applied theatrical techniques developed by Augusto Boal.
Fahmy hails from the Alexandria area, though she spent about half her life in England before coming to Boulder. Alexandria is the more cosmopolitan city, and Aswan more rural, but both areas are very “touristy,” Fahmy said.
Several different applied theater techniques were employed during the 10 days she spent in both cities. One of the exercises, image theater, required the young women to address—first non-verbally and then verbally—the transition from a polluted environment to a healthful one, envisioning the current state, the transition state and how it would be if the problem were solved.
“What was interesting was a lot of the girls in Aswan were more willing to address their creativity,” Fahmy said. “That wasn’t what I expected when I chose the locations, but that was the experience."
Fahmy also used the trip to explore the political activism expressed by women playwrights in Egypt. Her emphasis on applied theater and Arab modernity is focused on non-traditional theatrical forms, especially those involving political activism.
While the country is about 90 percent Muslim, Fahmy said that in Egypt, and much of the Middle East, women’s issues are different, but not necessarily worse, than that in the United States. Religion doesn’t necessarily dictate women’s inequality, but the patriarchal structure of the government does, she said.
For example, in 1919 Egyptian feminists led by Huda Shaarawi held an all-women’s march protesting the British occupation, and that became one of the most significant marches in the country's history; this was at the same time that the 19th Amendment allowing women the vote was being ratified in the United States.
My applied theatre work, aligns with women’s longstanding history of activism and civic engagement in the country, as it encourages young women to practice using their voices for self and community advocacy."
“I know in fact a lot of performance in Egypt was focused on political activism, and there was a prominent women’s march in 1919, which was one of the first public acts against British rule,” she said. Performance history here dates back to the ancient Egyptians, including religious festivals, puppetry and storytelling, although a Western model of theater, with the concept of playwriting, wasn’t introduced until the 20th century.
At that time, theatrical performances and cultural salons were popular among the upper class. There was also an increase in women's enrollment at schools and universities and their contributions to writing for literary publications and newspapers.
“In 1922, May Ziada was the first woman to write something and call it a ‘play,’ but I can't locate any of her scripts,” Fahmy said. “I’m definitely having a hard time finding works, even though we know they exist,” she said.
Looking at women’s contributions through a performance-studies lens has helped compensate for the lack of scripts available during this period. However, the tradition of women using non-traditional theater in political activism during the Arab Spring in 2011 is a bit easier to document.
“A lot of it is verbatim or documentary theater—gathering stories from the protests in Tahrir Square and putting them into perspective,” Fahmy said. This type of experimental theater is very much in the same vein as Fahmy’s studies.
One example of an Egyptian female playwright Fahmy researched was Dalia Basiouny, an assistant professor of theater in the English Department at October 6 University in Egypt. Basiouny said the documentary theater during the revolution acted like a touchstone to the realities of the revolution. Basiouny was active in this effort during the revolution and is also a playwright in a more traditional theater sense.
This is compelling to a woman who is researching Arab modernity and post-colonial theatre and who just happens to be Egyptian.
“It’s very interesting to draw parallels between women’s active engagement with performance and political activism during the 1919 and 2011 protests,” she said. “My applied theatre work, aligns with women’s longstanding history of activism and civic engagement in the country, as it encourages young women to practice using their voices for self and community advocacy.
“While empowerment and liberation will not happen overnight, and will require a lot of sustained community effort, I plan to continue working with the university I partnered up with last summer—The Arab Academy of Science, Technology and Maritime Transport—and the Ministry of Emigration, to facilitate applied theater programs around the country.”
Fahmy has been invited to give a presentation on her applied theater work at the fourth Edition of the National Conference for Egyptian Expatriate Scientists and Experts (Egypt Can - Education Edition) hosted by the Ministry of Emigration and Egyptian Expatriates Affairs, Dec. 16-19, 2018.
“I am hoping that this collaboration will help emphasize the importance of, and revitalize the arts in Egyptian education,” Fahmy said.