After I used to be assaulted, I posted a photograph of my accidents. The response I craved was not pity, however anger

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After I used to be assaulted, I posted a photograph of my accidents. The response I craved was not pity, however anger

Rena Effendi holding an image of herself taken simply after she was attacked in Cairo in 2012. {Photograph}: Eman Helal

A couple of weeks in the past, I had a troublesome dialog with my teenage daughter. It got here out of one thing that occurred to me greater than a decade in the past, and which modified the course of my life and work.

As a documentary photographer, I’ve travelled the world, taking portraits of survivors of trauma who shared their testimonies with me. It’s a finely balanced alternate, wherein they offer me their belief, and my photos attest to their resilience. However for a few years, there was all the time a distance between us, created by the violence they’d endured – a gulf I couldn’t cross.

On the street, I’ve skilled many nights in random locations, unhealthy inns, nocturnal drives alongside abandoned highways. I’ve stayed awake all evening, unable to sleep behind a door closed with a feeble latch, watching the shadows of males lurking in hallways. Usually, I had no alternative however to entrust my security to strangers, a few of whom gave me nice help, whereas others made me really feel threatened. Whereas travelling on project, I’ve realized to be hypervigilant, all the time predicting a harmful situation and making an attempt to keep away from it.

In March 2012, I used to be topic to an assault. And it occurred not in a shabby motel in some faraway place, however at residence, in Cairo.

It was within the aftermath of the Arab Spring, that tortured interval between a well-liked rebellion and a navy coup. Crime was on the rise. Gangs of bandits launched from state prisons roamed the streets of the town, whereas the defunct police pressure sat again and watched. On the time, I typically photographed individuals across the metropolis. Though the environment was unsettled, I nonetheless felt like a free agent. I let my guard down.

On the evening of the assault, I used to be on my strategy to meet a pal on the Cairo Opera Home. I ended a cab proper outdoors my residence in Maadi, an prosperous suburban neighbourhood. We drove via the abandoned streets of Previous Maadi, with its decaying villas and infinite roundabouts, relics of a colonial period. The empty streets made me consider the insulated lives of the rich. How untouchable they’re, fenced off and tucked away of their ornate, gilded Louis-Farouk-style interiors.

Dwelling in Cairo as an expat from Azerbaijan, I used to be among the many sheltered class. Whereas components of the town crumbled, we had the whole lot delivered to our houses, together with groceries and alcohol. Our gates have been protected by the bawabs, the devoted doormen who chased away strangers and avenue distributors on donkey carts. That evening, I used to be going from Maadi to a different rich neighbourhood, Zamalek, in an air-conditioned automotive with a seat belt and a taxi meter. I felt protected.

A taxi seen via an residence window in Zamalek, Cairo, in 2021. {Photograph}: Mithras/Alamy

The site visitors alongside the Nile riverbank drew to a halt. I beckoned to the driving force to take the following exit and hit the ring street. Silently he nodded and made a swift activate to a four-lane freeway. Underneath the bridge, felucca boats blinking with lights glided over the black river floor like large fireflies, blasting sha’abi tunes that echoed the automotive horns. I sat again and closed my eyes.

We started to maneuver quicker on the ring street, manoeuvring between automobiles. There have been no avenue lamps alongside the street any extra. After I peered via the darkness, I noticed the outlines of an identical red-brick housing blocks on either side of the street. This was undoubtedly not the way in which to Zamalek, I assumed. We have been, in reality, dashing alongside the desert street, which led to Faiyum, south-west of Cairo.

For a second, I assumed he was taking me on a large loop simply to jack up the fare on the meter. “The place are we going?” I requested in my primary Egyptian Arabic, which now had a tinge of annoyance – that unmistakable sense of entitled irritability many expats specific after they realise they’re being swindled. With a slight delay, the driving force replied: “Zamalek.” I caught a glimmer of contempt in the way in which he half-turned in direction of me, however with out trying me within the eye.

“This isn’t the way in which to Zamalek!” I stated. “Cease the automotive, I get out!”

This time he didn’t even flip, however continued driving, going quicker. I regarded behind his neck, surprisingly skinny and frail. Illuminated by a passing automotive, his empty eyes have been mirrored within the rearview mirror. “Cease now!” I shouted in English. I heard the press of the central door lock. He made a U-turn and slowed down, lastly parking subsequent to a pile of development rubble on the facet of the street.


It was utterly darkish, aside from the headlights of automobiles flashing on the freeway as they flew by. I used to be extra offended than scared. Unsuitable intuition. I ought to have gotten out and run the second he stopped the automotive, however I hesitated. Earlier than I managed to get the door open, a pointy, shiny object was pressed in opposition to my internal thigh. A knife. I lastly took a very good take a look at his face – slim eyes, clouded with medication or alcohol. It was the angular face of a person who could possibly be each too younger and too previous for his age.

He informed me to get undressed, gesticulating with the knife. I took my leather-based jacket off and handed it to him. He then gestured for me to take my shirt off too, however as an alternative, I made a transfer for the door. He leapt ahead and headbutted me. One, two, three blows, and my imaginative and prescient started to blur. I wasn’t certain if I used to be dropping consciousness or if it was the blood getting in my eyes. Frightened of fading out, I summoned all my psychological powers to remain awake and maintain my eyes open. At this level I realised that he had pushed his driver’s seat again in opposition to my chest, which pinned me down, however on the identical time, sheltered my physique from his.

My ideas have been transferring quicker than my physique, and my consciousness cut up in two: a part of me was watching from outdoors myself and prompting me, telling me what my subsequent transfer must be, like a soccer coach. I knew I wanted to get out of the automotive. I saved reaching for the door, however he saved hitting the central locking swap. I unlocked it, he locked it. Backwards and forwards. Every time I managed to open the door and get half of myself out of the automotive, he grabbed me by the hair and pulled me again inside. He continued punching me. My cellphone was in my hand. I used its sharp corners to hit him in his temple and tried for that house between his eyes.

I attempted to motive with him, informed him I had cash in my purse and he may simply take it, about $800. “I can’t report you to the police. I’m a mom and a foreigner, simply let me go,” I pleaded with the person. “Mesh a’aiz fulus,” he stated, and hit me once more. I don’t need your cash.

Automobiles zipped previous us with out stopping. After I managed to open the door and crawl midway out, I hoped somebody would see me dangling and bleeding from the facet of his automotive. A passing automotive started to decelerate and pull over. The taxi driver caught a glimpse of it. “Meshi, fulus,” he stated. I’ll take the cash. “No police, OK?” He pounded me another time within the face to strengthen his level. He took my cellphone, purse and jacket. I scrambled out of the automotive and ran.


Ought to I’ve turned again to examine that he was not following me? Ought to I’ve memorised his quantity plates? I didn’t. I simply wished to get residence. I had no alternative however to hail one other taxi, belief one other driver. A cab approached. This time a youthful driver, whose face appeared variety. He noticed that I used to be badly overwhelmed, my face pulsating and swollen, with the blood gushing from the wound above my eyebrow, my garments spattered with blood.

I informed the taxi driver my residence tackle. He saved apologising, conserving eye contact with me within the mirror. He saved pointing on the street indicators, reassuring me that he was taking me residence. “Maadi, OK?” He stated, as we drove in direction of the freeway exit. His kindness broke via my stupor and made me really feel human once more. I burst into tears of reduction.

After I acquired residence, my two-year-old daughter wakened and referred to as me from the bed room. I didn’t need her to see me, so I rushed into the toilet, the place, within the mirror, I caught sight of my face lined with blood for the primary time.

I made a decision to snap an image of myself for proof, and put my bloodied garments in a plastic bag. Naively, I assumed I might take them to the police later for DNA sampling. Then I crept out of the home.

The taxi driver waited outdoors to take me to the hospital, the place I used to be examined by the emergency medical doctors. They informed me they have been obliged to name the police because it was a case of assault. The MRI didn’t reveal any critical head accidents. I had a concussion and wanted stitches for my face wound. The medical doctors suggested me to attend for a plastic surgeon to ensure my eyebrow was accurately realigned, and to minimise the scarring.

As I used to be ready for the plastic surgeon to reach, a feminine nurse got here in to ask me if I wanted a gynaecological examination. I stated there was no want, as a result of I hadn’t been raped. Bruises have been seen from the blows he delivered on my higher physique, chest and shoulders. She requested if I used to be certain about it, giving me a questioning look, as if doubting my recollection of occasions. For a second, I puzzled: what if he had certainly raped me and I blocked it out of my reminiscence? However no, I remembered his automotive seat protecting my physique. The nurse left, however got here again a short while later, bringing in a gynaecologist – a extra authoritative determine. He took his flip and insisted he ought to look at me simply to ensure. I repeated there was no want.

The younger taxi driver refused to take my cash. He caught round for the police interrogation, since he had picked me up from the crime scene. I caught a glimpse of his face, timid and trustworthy, surrounded by law enforcement officials who have been impolite to him, making an attempt to intimidate him. He persevered all through a three-hour interrogation and was compelled to jot down a report. I used to be informed to jot down an account of the occasions as I remembered them. Then write it once more, and once more.


The subsequent day, after a sleepless evening, I went to the police station in sixth of October, a sparsely populated satellite tv for pc metropolis alongside the desert street. I walked alongside the dusty corridors, previous rooms with partitions not thick sufficient to comprise the screaming of the individuals inside. I discovered a police officer sitting at his desk, and he requested me to fill out extra paperwork. I needed to hand write a number of copies of my report as a result of they didn’t have a copying machine, not to mention a pc.

The policeman questioned my assertion once I informed him that I acquired away and was not raped. “Are you certain he didn’t do it? As a result of we may put him away for a very long time,” he assured me. I informed him that I might nonetheless wish to see the person caught and punished, as a result of he would probably do it once more to another person. “Is it not a critical crime nonetheless, an assault on somebody?” I requested. “It occurs … ” he shrugged. I confirmed him my garments within the plastic bag, however he sneered at me. “We’re not just like the CSI Miami,” he stated. I took the garments away with me, and saved them in a bag unwashed for months.

A number of weeks later, the police station referred to as me in once more. I used to be informed they’d discovered a person who fitted the outline of the assailant, and that my cellphone had been traced to him. I couldn’t face going alone, and introduced alongside a feminine pal. I imagined I might be led right into a room with a one-way mirror, the place I wouldn’t be seen by anybody on the opposite facet. As a substitute, they took us to a room and sat us down on a small dilapidated couch. In walked a tall younger man, who stood proper in entrance of us, then turned sideways, left and proper, earlier than being led away. No, it wasn’t him, I stated, shocked by their resolution to make me face a potential perpetrator in the identical room.

The police by no means referred to as again. My anger mounted as the times glided by with none progress on my case. My embassy wrote a grievance on my behalf to the Egyptian Ministry of Inside, demanding a correct investigation. A couple of weeks later, the Ministry of Inside despatched a response to the Azerbaijani embassy informing them that they’d deported a girl, an Azerbaijani nationwide, whom they accused of prostitution. A diplomat I met informed me this was the ministry’s coded but unambiguous approach of telling the embassy to drop the case.

Girls protesting in Tahrir Sq. in Cairo in 2011. {Photograph}: Rena Effendi

Within the aftermath of the Egyptian rebellion that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, harrowing accounts of abuse on Cairo’s streets had begun to achieve wider protection within the media. Gangs of males attacked feminine journalists and activists on Tahrir Sq.. Some feminine protesters have been raped in broad daylight, whereas others have been rounded up by the navy, and overwhelmed and tortured in custody. Some have been compelled to endure degrading virginity exams. Studying these experiences angered me in a approach that was new and private. I used to be haunted by the concept of my assailant strolling free and repeating the identical crimes with impunity.

For practically a yr after the assault, I had held on to the {photograph} of my bloody and battered face, however was too ashamed to share it. “Will probably be good in your social media engagement. This sort of stuff goes viral,” one in every of my mates, a blogger and activist, informed me. However this was exactly the rationale why I didn’t need to do it. The considered my face invoking an outburst of pity on-line made me cringe with nervousness. I feared that, similar to the gynaecologist and the policeman, everybody else would assume that I had been raped and label me a sufferer. I hesitated to share a picture of myself in a state of defeat.

However when activist teams organised an illustration in help of survivors in downtown Cairo, I lastly gathered energy and posted my {photograph}, and the story of what occurred to me, on Fb. I referred to as on girls to remain on their guard and inspired individuals to affix the rally.

After years of photographing victims of sexual violence, I used to be exposing myself as a survivor. I used to be now “the story” and I felt misplaced, unsettled – not in my normal consolation zone behind the digicam. I spent the remainder of the day checking the variety of likes and shares as they ticked up and up. Similar to my blogger pal had predicted, my crude anti-selfie went viral. Hundreds of individuals responded, and a gradual stream of sympathetic feedback and messages adopted. Males apologised on behalf of the taxi driver, whereas girls expressed condolences {that a} horrible factor like this had occurred to me.

A number of months later, I deleted my Fb publish. I didn’t need to be outlined or remembered by the trauma I had skilled. This was not my actual face, I assumed. However, years later, in help of the #MeToo motion, I shared the picture once more to open a dialogue as regards to social stigma round sexual assault. This time, the face stayed on-line.

It’s been 12 years for the reason that Cairo assault, and my daughter and I now stay in Istanbul. She is 14 years previous and follows me on social media. She hasn’t seen my aftermath selfie, and for years I anxious she may discover it on-line. Final month, I lastly informed her in regards to the incident. I felt it was essential that she realized it from me and never the web. I informed her that for all these years, I had not wished to scare her with the image and its story, and that I made it public to encourage others to come back ahead. “I’m not ashamed,” I informed her.

“You shouldn’t be,” she stated.

On social media, we attempt to mission a picture of success, a masks of happiness to encourage envy, not pity. My selfie did the other. After my first resolution to publish the image, and my subsequent withdrawal of it, it took me years to beat the emotions of disgrace. I dreaded being labelled a sufferer, and for my daughter to see me in that mild. The response I craved was not sympathy or compassion. It was anger, pure rage.


A couple of years after the assault, I used to be travelling within the Central African Republic, on a fee from the Worldwide Prison Court docket to {photograph} victims of crimes in opposition to humanity.

After the Cairo incident, I used to be drawn to documenting tales of sexual assault survivors all over the world. From conflicts within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Côte D’Ivoire, Bosnia and Serbia, the place rape was used as a weapon of struggle, to the Native American communities residing in relative peace on reservations throughout the US, the place the victims of historic generational trauma perpetrated the identical crimes in opposition to their very own members of the family.

In Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, on the workplace of an NGO that assisted survivors of gender-based violence, I met Aisha. She was a single mom from a Muslim militia-controlled district in Bangui that had been besieged by Christian militias in the course of the nation’s protracted sectarian battle.

Ramatou (left) and Aisha, each survivors of gender-based violence, in Bangui within the Central African Republic. {Photograph}: Rena Effendi

I informed Aisha about what occurred to me in Cairo, and confirmed her the {photograph} of my bruised and bloodied face. I informed her it didn’t equate to her personal expertise, however the feeling of disgrace and a way of violated pleasure have been acquainted to me. Aisha took a fast look on the image, which I saved on my cellphone, and nodded. A mirrored image of kindred anger flashed in her eyes, as she sat up straight and stated in a chilly and resolute tone: “It occurred twice. First time it was a gang rape.”

Tall and powerful, wearing an identical gown and headband together with her hair tucked away, Aisha wore chunky, gold-coloured earrings and was wrapped in a black scarf embroidered with crystal beads. Her pal Ramatou, a fellow survivor, younger and slender in a pink costume and a white headdress, listened to Aisha with a half-extinguished gaze. She had in all probability heard the story a dozen occasions, but she listened rigorously, her silence punctuated with empathetic nods.

In 2002, amid a five-month-long terror marketing campaign of rape, mass homicide and pillage led by the Congolese warlord Jean Pierre Bemba’s militias within the Central African Republic, armed males entered Aisha’s household residence and shot her brother within the legs to cease him from combating off the assault. 5 of those males then took turns to gang-rape Aisha and her brother’s spouse.

Aisha’s household determined to hush up the incident so as to not damage her prospects of marriage. They moved to a distinct space of the town to begin a brand new chapter for her and maintain her status untainted. A decade later, a sectarian battle unfolded between two militant teams, engulfing your complete nation in a brutal civil struggle. By then, Aisha had a husband and three youngsters, and was pregnant with a fourth. She remembered the precise day on 24 February 2014 when armed militants broke into her residence whereas her husband was away. Threatening to kill one in every of her youngsters if she didn’t obey, they kidnapped Aisha and introduced her to an deserted constructing. One of many group’s leaders walked in and ordered her to undress. He then proceeded to penetrate her with a pointy finish of a rocket shell.

As soon as he was completed, he ordered his males to lock her in a shed and kill her the following morning. For hours, Aisha sat within the room, bleeding and filled with dread, till she heard one of many guards whisper via the crack within the door: “I don’t approve of this. I’m leaving the door open at evening, if you’re robust sufficient to run, simply go.”

Wearing nothing however underwear and bleeding from her wounds, Aisha ran via the evening till she reached a cluster of homes, the place she met girls who gave her some garments. When she reached residence and informed her husband in regards to the rape, he acquired offended and took off, abandoning her and their three youngsters. Following the assault, Aisha miscarried her fourth youngster. She has not seen her husband since, whereas her prospects of marrying once more light to zero with the stigma of rape.

I went for a stroll with Aisha and Ramatou alongside the Oubangui river, near a resort the place expat girls and help staff have been sunning themselves and splashing about within the pool. Aisha hardly ever ventured out of her besieged, militia-governed district, and being amongst strangers made her uncomfortable. She solely left her residence as soon as per week to attend group conferences with different survivors of rape. That is the place she met Ramatou.

In a neat and breezy room with orange curtains blocking the afternoon solar, girls from the other sides of the sectarian divide sat on plastic chairs, chatting and laughing. Shunned by their very own communities, they discovered sisterhood right here.

A standard thread between survivors was that almost all saved quiet about their abuse. Even girls in international locations with a functioning justice system typically didn’t report their offenders. Some needed to face them frequently at work or household gatherings, since their dad and mom, mates and relations discouraged them from taking the incidents to the police due to stigma and disgrace.

For a lot of victims, reporting rape could possibly be harmful. These courageous sufficient to come back ahead could possibly be ostracised, left with out help and care, or in excessive circumstances murdered in so-called honour killings. In consequence, many have been compelled to tuck away their trauma right into a hidden nook of the previous, by no means to be revisited. Whereas their society turned a blind eye to those injustices, they remained silent, with the anger brewing inside them.

I as soon as heard the Congolese surgeon and Nobel peace prize laureate Denis Mukwege, who handled tens of hundreds of rape victims in his hospital in Bukavu, say: “It’s the perpetrators who must be ashamed of their crimes, not the victims.”

There may be dignity and bravado in Aisha’s story of survival. One thing to take pleasure in, to not disguise. I don’t choose the silence of sexual assault survivors, however I condemn the stigma round them. Aisha and Ramatou had the braveness to inform their tales. And for that, they deserve respect and admiration, not pity.




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