For girls in Egypt’s rural Banha area, there wasn’t much going on. That’s why Isra al-Sayyid, a local veterinarian, and a few other volunteers decided to create a place in Banha, located 18 miles north of Cairo, where girls watch films, engage in intellectual discussions, play games, seek emotional and psychological support, and participate in a number of other social, educational, and philanthropic activities. The volunteers called the project the Girl Zone.
Girl Zone is what some might call a “safe space” for girls and women, where they can gather and express themselves without judgement or threat from society at large.
“One has to remember that worldwide as soon as a girl reaches puberty her world shrinks, while the opposite is true for boys whose world expand,” Jennifer Miquel, a Regional Gender Based Violence Specialist based out of Jordan with the UNFPA and the author of an UNFPA report on safe spaces, told ThinkProgress by email. “In most societies, including in the west, as soon as a girl reaches puberty, she is told to be careful and watch out where she goes. Her movements often become restricted and [in the] worst case scenario she is married off and never gets to complete her education. Ensuring women (and girls) have a place to go to be with other women and girls, to rebuild a network of friends (if they have been displaced for example) allows them to focus a bit on themselves rather than all their responsibilities.”
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released a report in March 2015 about safe spaces for female refugees. Egypt is certainly not Syria, and women in Banha haven’t experienced the same trauma of Syrian women, but lessons taken from the report could apply across cultures, according to UNFPA Spokesman Omar Gharzeddine.
“These spaces provide women and girls with a safe entry point for servicesand a place to access information,” the report reads. “Safe gathering points also offer them an opportunity to engage with each other, exchange information, and rebuild community networks and support. In this way, safe spaces can be a key way of building women and girls’ social assets.”
Girl Zone particularly focuses on building the social assets of women who don’t have the same opportunities found in more progressive cities. But the group has faced criticism from some prominent women who feel Egyptian society is too segregated.
“Despite the importance of the project in encouraging girls to engage in community work, cultural and sport activities, it also promotes the idea of segregation, isolation and discrimination,” Intisar al-Saeed told Al-Monitor. “I do not believe that implementing the project in the city of Banha is a good idea. It would have worked better in Upper Egypt and [more] rural areas, where women are marginalized and alienated.”
Women in Egypt are increasingly seeking safe spaces. Certain public transportation cars and beaches are now for women only. This may partly stem from rampant sexual harassment in the country, with 99 percent of Egyptian women claiming they’ve been sexually harassed and 97 percent saying they’ve been touch inappropriately by men without their permission, according to the Washington Post.
Some see this as women giving into the will of Egypt’s patriarchal society. They fear that creating women only spaces gives into the will of religious and cultural conservatives and also gives validation to men who feel entitled to harass women who are in public spaces — for example, in a train car that isn’t women only.
“Our life is a dull routine,” al-Sayyid told Al-Monitor. “Girls in rural areas do not have the same opportunities for education, work, or recreational activities as the girls in the capital. Young women here finish their studies in college and wait until they get married.”