The woman in a red dress being blasted by pepper spray in Gezi Park, Istanbul, is not an anomaly. Women are on the front lines of Turkey’s protest movement and were also well represented in the series of upheavals that was dubbed the Arab Spring. But to gain a full appreciation women’s contributions, it’s probably best to look beyond the mainstream news media.
Photographer and multimedia documentarian Tatiana Philiptchenko has given western audiences a rare insight into the revolutionary role of women through her new book, Fearless: Egyptian Women of the Revolution. The book consists of interviews with women protestors and close to 50 photos of street activism, street art and daily life.
“A lot of the stories in the western world portray women in the Middle East as victims,” says Philiptchenko. “I don’t think that is right. When you go to Egypt, you realize how strong women are. The fact that a woman wears a headscarf or a veil – that doesn’t mean anything.”
Early in her career, Philiptchenko documented war and its effects in the Middle East. She then worked as a freelance photographer supplying photographs for magazines such as Time, L’Express, L’Actualité, Elle, Newsweek, and National Geographic.
Her self-assigned project in Egypt was a fruitful confluence of practical experience and passion. At the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica she had decided to focus her master’s thesis on the role of women in Egyptian society, and in particular, their use of social media.
As far back as 2001, she had noticed that whenever she used an Internet cafe in Cairo, a huge number of the surrounding clients were also women. To her, it seemed that even if the state security forces were maintaining a close watch on citizens, the Internet could be a liberating force.
“Once you open up the Internet, it’s like Niagara Falls – it’s impossible to stop,” says Philiptchenko.
She returned to document the lives of women through interviews and photography. In January 2011, Egyptian citizens joined the revolutionary movement that had engulfed Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. Philiptchenko’s master’s thesis had new urgency.
Fluent in Arabic, she talked to the women who had participated in the uprising. Despite the ever-present dangers of harassment, sexual assault and beatings meted out by police and the military, Philiptchenko found a “fearless” attitude among the women – a determination to make their voices heard and to change the society in which they lived.
One of her interviews was with Samira Ibrahim, who took on the fight against “virginity tests,” which Ibrahim was herself subjected to after being arrested by military police. The infamous practice had been perpetrated against several detainees in full view of other soldiers.
The authorities subsequently claimed that their intention was to refute potential allegations of rape by women. Ibrahim fought this case and a court ruled the practice unlawful, although a different court ultimately exonerated the military doctor responsible for the test on Ibrahim.
In her interview with Philiptchenko, the young activist (still in her mid-twenties) said, “I want the Egyptian woman to have her rights. I want my country to accept that the woman is equal to the man. I want the woman to be as politically as engaged as the man.”
With the launch of her book mere days away, Philiptchenko has the printed copies in her hands for the first time. She credits local designer Miriam Blier for turning the text and imagery into an arresting and engaging finished volume.
While this is Philiptchenko’s first book, she has worked on numerous other projects, many of them online. She is committed to continuing to use her skills and the potential of the Internet to give a voice to those that the mainstream media overlooks or stereotypes.
“I am trying to use multimedia platforms for change,” she says. “People can describe their own reality in their own words, so it is accessible to a wide audience.”