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New England Law | Boston was honored to have activist Hend Nafea come to campus for a special screening of The Trials of Spring, a Fork Films documentary about violence perpetrated against women in Egypt in the fallout of Hosni Mubarak's ousting. 

On Thursday, September 12, 2019, New England Law | Boston hosted a screening of the documentary The Trials of Spring and a Q&A discussion with Hend Nafea, the central focus of the film. Nafea, a campaigner for social justice and conflict resolution in Egypt, offered a first-hand account of her experiences to an audience of law students, legal professionals, and local members of the Egyptian community.  

The film covers the revolutionary protests of the Egyptian Crisis and the injustices demonstrated by the military and political leadership, beginning with the Revolution of 2011. The documentary follows a group of women as they deal with the repercussions of their involvement with the protests to this day, both legally and emotionally.

Nafea was a student activist at the time of the protests. As a woman from a conservative village and a pro-regime, military family, she experienced the denial of basic freedoms and gender-based violence from a young age.        

“My anger against this started to build up,”  Nafea recalls. She was heavily involved with activism in college through social justice groups and student government, and said when the revolution began she “felt this was really my moment to raise my voice against all injustices surrounding my life.”

What started as pro-democracy and anti-police brutality demonstrations in Cairo quickly spiraled into displays of military violence that went beyond simply controlling the protesters.

Over the course of a four-day protest in Tahir Square, ninety-one women reported facing sexual assualt or rape. One such instance was the “virginity tests” in which women were physically violated and humiliates by multiple men under the guise of “religious sanctity.”

Sexual assault was already a tremendous problem in Egpyt, with a 2008 study from the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights estimating at least twenty-seven rapes took place per day and 10,000 per year. A 2013 study conducted by the United Nations also reported that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have faced some sort of sexual harassment.

After years of social backlash and legal battles concerning her involvement with the Egyptian protests, Nafea was sentenced to life in prison. She was abel to excape the country, fleeing to the United States and seeking asylum. She is currently pursuing a degree in conflict resolution and campaigning for freedom for those she left behind in Egypt.

“I’m contributing to a cause I believe in,” Nafea says. “This is our responsibility as Egyptians to spread the word.”

Lisa Laplante, a New England Law professor and director of the school’s Center for International Law and Policy, organized the screening and discussion. She says there is value in bringing these voices to law students who have an interest in social justice, human rights, and international policy.

“We can’t really stay in a silo, especially now with the internet and globalization,” says Laplante. She says the film will help students “get a more realistic portrayal of what it looks like to struggle for rights and at the end of the day, appreciate the rights we have and our ability to protest peacefully for the most part.”

Margaret Litvin, a Boston University Arabic professor, believes that it is important for “for audiences all over the place to have access to a variety of [Arab] women’s voices” through a variety of different channels. She explains that the language barrier and cultural differences often cause messages from Egyptian women to be misconstrued by Westerners.

Sumer Elganbaihy, an Egpytian law student who attended the screening, felt that the topic is extremely relevant for anyone interested in fighting for international law and human rights. “It was undermined how much work women did on the ground in Egypt, and that there is still so much work to be done,” says Elganbaihy. She felt that the documentary was an effective tool to motivate and bring awareness to students in the United States about women’s rights in Egypt.

Nafea spoke in her panel about the importance of the media portrayal of women. Instead of constantly being depicted as victims, she hopes that they will one day be shown as survivors and fighters.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Nafea says that she felt empowered to tell her story and connected to the “community of advocates driven by survivors” of sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

Awareness is the primary goal of the documentary, especially due to the fact that Egypt currently faces heavy media censorship. The Trials of Spring serves as a graphic exhibit of the oppression and violence towards women in a repressive country, but the film is not allowed to be shown in Egypt due to the government restrictions.

Nafea prompted the students in attendance to get involved by reaching out to representatives in Congress about the United States’ stance on Egyptian politics. She hopes that more international human rights organizations will also aid the crisis in Egypt.

“Research, gather information, and try to contribute to bigger academic works about specific issues,” Nafea says. “Change doesn’t happen overnight.”

Alexis Jucht is an undergraduate student at Boston University. Originally from Seattle, Washington, she is currently studying Film and Television in BU’s College of Communication. Learn more about the Center for International Law and Policy at New England Law | Boston.