There is one particular moment I carry around with me like a stone in my pocket. It involves Nur, an imposing 17-year-old who grew up on the streets of Cairo, and who has a bow-shaped knife scar above her left cheek as a souvenir of her ex-husband. She fixed her gaze on me and said: “It doesn’t matter what you write, it won’t change anything.”
Situations like this are part of the job. Nur was quite naturally questioning what she would get out of this, telling her life story for no payment.
“Your country doesn’t have this kind of problem,” Nur continued to test me.
“That’s not true,” I said. “In my country too, women are killed by a husband or ex-husband, usually because they want to leave him.”
Nur took a moment to think about this.
I wanted to show the world what a young woman can survive without losing her spark of life.
And I knew that at that moment I was treading a fine line where I could neither persuade nor push. I waited in silence and felt the doubt creeping up as it so often does. Doubt, and a kind of familiar shame.
I felt rather like a cannibal. Because yes, I wanted Nur’s story. I wanted the picture of her lacerated face. I wanted to show the world what a young woman can survive without losing her spark of life.
But did I have to feel ashamed?
I have been pondering this since my meeting with Nur. And I believe the shame is something I too have learned. In my profession, writing detailed accounts of women’s experiences, of abortions, violence and rape has traditionally been rewarded with low status. These things are considered ‘private’. ‘Family matters’.
Consequently, the murders of women have not been regarded as a serious social problem, but as private ‘family tragedies’; not as something of interest to the general public, but just another sad story of crazy love.
The question is, of course, whether Nur’s life will be better because some well-meaning white women from a tiny distant country come storming in with a notebook and camera.
I can’t answer with an unqualified yes.
As a journalist I want nothing less than to change the world.
As a journalist I want nothing less than to change the world, but if I am perfectly honest, in 28 years in the trade my personal contribution has seldom had a decisive impact.
The major social problems are always complex. They are part of us, of our own history. That is why they are difficult to catch sight of and to attack. Which does not mean that I should not try. It is for this very reason that I must try.
And true stories do make a difference. If we are to understand the whole picture we must come very close to the individual.
That is what this project is all about.
The publicity around Maria Da Penha in Brazil, who is in a wheelchair after her husband’s two attempts to kill her, led to a new law on violence against women that carries her name.
In Spain, 60-year-old Ana Orantes spoke on TV about her attempts to secure a protection order against her violent husband. A few weeks later her husband beat her to death and burned her body. People took to the streets in protest and the law was tightened.
I have never been as convinced as I am today of the power that comes from many stories being told.
A journalist in the Egyptian city of Minia heard that a girl had died during a genital mutilation procedure. He sought out the family, and the news of Badour spread around the world. The procedure is now illegal.
I have never been as convinced as I am today of the power that comes from many stories being told. Journalism can change the world.
Thank you, Nur, for making the decision to help.