There is a defining moment in the life of any human being, a touching and profound turning point that changes destinies and rearranges papers and priorities, and a moment you remember all your life because it represents the birth of a part of your destiny.
I experienced that moment when I looked into the eyes of the kind little girl Sarah and those of her imprisoned mother Hind. I remained pinned to the spot, diving into the depths of her despair, glimpsing at what looked like a muffled cry. Hind, a young brunette from Upper Egypt, was carrying Sarah in her arms while her tears of pain and remorse were flowing over her cheeks. She told me that day, “Save the girl…search for a family to adopt her. I am not afraid of death. I know that the death penalty will be carried out within a short period, but my heart is torn up for the sake of this little girl, my daughter who unjustly is bearing the pains of my sins and mistakes.”
The story of Hind and Sarah was that defining moment that preoccupied me and led me into a spiral of pain. That instant was followed by a state of anger and a desire to scream. Why should Sarah, only two years old, experience that terrible moment of being snatched from the warmest bosom in the world, her mother’s? Why had God allowed that beautiful girl with deep eyes to swallow cries of pain alone and face the harsh realities at such a young age?
I discovered by pure chance that the prison, that terrible place I entered for the first time to conduct a press report more than 20 years ago, is a huge theater stage for human tales and paradoxes of fate. The stories of the imprisoned women in that place consumed me, and the faces of the children living in a place that crushed every sense of the innocence besieged me!
The Creation of Children of Female Prisoners Association (CFPA)
I wrote with the ink of my heart before the ink of my pen, hoping that the readers would feel the depth of the tragedy. Many were shocked when they first read the humanitarian stories published by the famed Egyptian newspaper “Al-Khbabr.” Stories of children living in jail! The impact of the publishing was strong, and the readers sympathized strongly with the case. I was asked to establish a non-government organization (NGO) that cares for these children. “Children of Female Prisoners Association (CFPA)” was thus founded in 1990 at the beginning of my career in journalism. That was the defining moment that I’m talking about, the moment when my journalism career was associated with a humanitarian message. I did not plan for that, but it became a part of my destiny.
During my regular monthly visits with members of the association, we listened to harrowing stories that were beyond imagination. These stories led me to a new path and another mission worth defending with passion, the issue of “Female Prisoners of Poverty.” It was born after years of adopting the issue of “Children of Female Prisoners” and came as a result of a reality I discovered inside Qanater prison for women. A painful and harsh reality that judges on the poor in our country to pay the price of their poverty, as if it is a sin they have committed!
Is it right to grant a man a second chance if he has made a mistake? Can this chance change the course of his life and create a different man? If justice requires a punishment for each offense, does it mean that we are closing the door of mercy?
These questions often haunt me as I listen to the stories of imprisoned women in Qanater prison (the largest prison of women in Egypt). Most of these women are not criminals, and many of them have fallen into the trap of crime for different reasons such as poverty, social oppression and exploitation (which is practiced by some against that milled category), ignorance and lack of awareness, human weakness, and the suppression of women by men, especially among the poorer classes.
Should I sympathize with them? The answer is yes. Society shows no mercy on the weak in our country, unfortunately. And social justice remains absent, adding to the chaos of our legal system. This condition also results in a conflict of laws and slow justice because of the accumulation of cases from the small number of judges available to process these cases.
Criminal laws need to be revised and updated. This requirement we have advocated for years with neither answer nor change. Alongside this, we need to start more effectively using existing laws. All of these issues require a legal revolution to win the most important right—that of liberty.
The case thus preoccupied my thinking and became an important focus in my circle of interests and the endless lines on the nib of my pen.
I founded CFPA to rescue the children of women prisoners and at the same time save the community from the ticking time bombs waiting for them by leaving these innocent children without care. These children are considered by drug dealers as easy and valuable prey to use in their businesses. This danger comes not only from drug dealers but also from people without a conscience, who live on the exploitation of the weak and the poor in our society.
Why did I adopt this cause? Because I believe they are human beings before they become prisoners, and I believe in a more just and humane outlook for these people. Why did I defend their cause? Because they suffer from a “social stigma” permanently attached to them after spending cruel years behind bars. They leave prison to return to a life with fewer prospects, hoping to turn that black page and start again.
Creating a Future for Female Prisoners
Unfortunately, these women go out to face a society with a ruthless attitude toward ex-prisoners. Rejection, ostracism, and aversion are among the problems former female prisoners commonly face without even a chance to explain the reason for their incarceration. This situation occurs regardless of whether her crime is murder or theft, or a failure to pay an installment for a small TV!
For these female prisoners, I am planning with CFPA to initiate a “New Life” project through which an ex-prisoner or one of her children will receive training in crafts such as sewing, embroidery, and manufacturing accessories. These children will then receive assistance to find suitable jobs that can ensure them and their families a decent life.
We will also be establishing a training workshop inside Qanater prison to train prisoners before their release to prepare them for integration into a new, clean life away from the specter of crime and poverty.
So far, we have succeeded with sustained and continued efforts to improve the situation of children in Egyptian prisons in cooperation with Egyptian prison authorities and expose the issue of poverty prisoners. We have also assisted in releasing scores of women prisoners after repaying their debts.
Now we are taking a bigger and much more important step in removing the stigma that surrounds female prisoners, providing them with training and work, and integrating them into society.
There is a heartbreaking phrase I hear a lot during discussions with prison officers: “The problem is that many of these women go out and then return back to prison.” Why? Because the reasons for their imprisonment have not changed, namely, poverty and stigma. To bring about change, I continue to work hard to make a difference in the community outlook for female prisoners.