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Women of Egypt: bras, beatings and new beginnings

After 14 months of revolution and on the eve of the country’s first free Presidential elections, Catherine Feltham investigates whether Egypt’s women have carved a role for themselves in the country’s future.

Image: Lokha (Flickr)

Millions of people everyday listen to headphones as they walk around cities, transporting themselves to another world. Many do this to block out the traffic and bustle of city life or simply to relax. However, Habiba in Cairo uses it as a coping mechanism to “avoid hearing stupid or ugly things” shouted by men.

“A brave friend of mine insults back whoever insults her,” Habiba explains as she describes daily life in Egypt 14 months from the beginning of the revolution. “My female friends and I agreed that our levels of demands in terms of security when we walk in the streets are so low, we only don’t want any stranger to touch us. This includes even conservative, veiled girls.”

Habiba Mohsen is a political researcher and project coordinator for the Arab Forum for Alternatives, an organisation working towards developing a society in which democracy, civil society and human rights prevail through an academic and practical approach.

She is also an everyday woman who is experiencing the revolution and like millions, looks forward to a brighter future for women. Now Egypt is on the eve of its first free Presidential elections and all eyes are watching to see the outcome, especially for Egyptian women who have fought so hard to create a space for their voice.

Women were heavily active in the Arab Spring countries through social media, trade unions, post opposition parties, NGOs, informal networks and even on the streets. Egypt was no exception and the fight is ongoing. Women were on the front lines of the demonstrations being “beaten, sexually harassed and arbitrarily arrested by security forces,” remembers Habiba.

The 18 days of revolt from 25 January 2011 marked the start of the Egyptian story. Yes President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, but the old regime is still in power in the form of the military – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch, explains the change in mood: “There’s a euphoria when you throw a dictator from office but that fairly quickly moves into a hard nosed assessment of what is next and what is your agenda for protecting rights.”

Desire for change and advancement in rights has been displayed by women, who have become victims of the transitional rule. A couple of incidents brought this to international attention. The ‘virginity tests’ following International Women’s Day, 8 March 2011, shocked audiences worldwide. One brave woman spoke out and filed a law case for sexual assault which she lost in March 2012. By doing so 25-year-old Samira Ibrahim accelerated women’s rights to the centre of the political scene and grabbed global interest.

The second major incident, known as ‘blue bra girl’ took place on 17 December 2011. Video footage swept across the web showing a girl being violently beaten along with her veil lifted to reveal her bra. Tweets and news articles from around the world condemned the shocking act and sparked international outrage and concern for respect and dignity for Egyptian women.

Nadje Al-Ali, Professor of gender studies at The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS) describes the huge impact of these events: “If you compare International Women’s Day this year to last year, there were thousands of women there and lots of men in solidarity. In the run up to it there were lots of talk shows on television. I think there is much more recognition right now because of these two incidents, that women and gender issues are very important to what’s going on in Egypt.”

Despite this increased attention to women’s rights they have no representation within the SCAF and the recent parliamentary elections resulted in less than 3% of the 508 seats going to females. This indicates a gender power imbalance and highlights the challenge facing women to advocate for positive change.

The outlook for the forthcoming presidential campaign is similarly unpromising, with just one female candidate, Bothaina Kamel failing to gain backing from any major political party. With the rise of conservative groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi’s, many are questioning whether the revolution will advance women’s rights.

Nadje Al-Ali notes that the Brotherhood have no female parliamentary candidates and doesn’t personally feel that they are committed to women’s rights. The Brotherhood did not respond to our request for their views. Women activists have been a feature of Egyptian society for decades and Habiba adds: “Women cannot realistically share equal rights as men in a patriarchal society in the current situation in Egypt.” Minky Worden recognises the pivotal point the country has reached: “We are at a time of change when you could certainly see greater freedoms for girls and women but you could also see a roll back of established rights and freedoms…women don’t expect anyone will hand them their rights so I think they are fully prepared to fight, but they do need and deserve international support.”

International recognition of the Arab Spring movement has been evident by heavy media coverage. The United Nations (UN) has acknowledged the need for international support in the latest revision of the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (2012), which the UK and US have endorsed. A spokesperson at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: “We remain concerned that the progress made in recent years in improving women’s rights in Egypt is under threat. We shall be working with Egyptian human rights defenders to restore the momentum of improvements.” The Human Rights Watch is concerned that this rhetoric needs to be turned to action and that the UN itself needs to showcase women as negotiators by having more women in top leadership positions.

Another lady on the ground in Egypt who continues to play her own role in the revolution is lawyer Hafsa Halawa. She is less pessimistic: “Unlikewhat most report, the political influence and role of women in new Egypt hasn’t gotten worse than it was under Mubarak. Nonetheless, it hasn’t changed. Women are still in the same position they were before.” Hafsa believes that real change for women will continue to come from a grassroots level. She also highlights the need for a transparent impartial media as a key contributor to building a strong democracy so that those in power can be held to account. Women such as TV presenter Mona el-Shazly are already at the forefront of this movement.

Hafsa said: “Whilst there is much to lament over what hasn’t happened in Egypt since the uprising, it is important to focus on what has happened, and what is yet to happen. There is a great opportunity for the whole country, including its women, to move forward and succeed with this revolution, and I for one am very optimistic about the future, even if it may take longer than we envisaged.”

It is evident that many activists and onlookers do have hope for what lies ahead. Habiba similarly accepts that change is a very gradual process and that “women now have more space to be, act, express themselves, and even lead.” She does however see a need for a feminist movement with a clear agenda linked to the demands of the revolution.

Professional Practice Assessments

Assessment time has crept up very quickly this term!  The Professional Practice module has comprised a number of subjects:

The assessments have been set to reflect this range of subjects and aside from our final documentary pitch, final piece and written contextual analysis they form the last set of assessments on the MA!  Eeeek!

So here is the brief:

Practical portfolio (80%)

  • A radio news bulletin (produced, edited, scripted and presented live) – 20%
  • A television news bulletin (produced, edited, scripted and presented live) – 20%
  • An online news story (written and uploaded to UCFJourno) – 10%
  • Print Assessment – 25% – this consists of two exams on news writing and sub-editing and one 1,200 word international news feature
  • A 4 1/2 minute political radio package based on one of the following topics – 25%

1. Political Restraints versus Press Freedom
2. The Role of Worldwide Governmental Bodies
3. The Role of Non Governmental Organisations
4. Religious Tolerance and Intolerance

Personal blog (20%)

A series of blog posts that reflect on and critically evaluate the radio package production process – 100%

Feature writing part two: structure

So now we know what a feature is and what it must include.  This post will explore the structure of how to write a feature.

Unlike a news story a feature has a clear beginning, middle and end.  This is broken up as follows:


The first paragraph is very important.  Imagine you have ten seconds to grab your reader’s attention.  Here are some handy devices to consider using:

  • A strong provocative statement
  • An anecdote (story) to illuminate the theme of the feature
  • Scene setting (description) – ‘Imagine you’re…’
  • Historical background (not boring though!)
  • Striking contrasts – can inject urgency and special interest, although be careful about overusing the maybe/but formula
  • A question – that focuses the reader (although this can be considered lazy so don’t overuse) Also if you start with a question do not end your feature also on a question
  • A striking quote
  • Never start with the ‘when’

Aside from these it is important to remember that in feature writing you can BREAK THE RULES!  Sometimes it really works to do this.

If the above don’t help you and you are more of a broadcast journalist who thinks in images then try thinking cinematically:

  • Start with a close-up and then pan out to widescreen
  • Or do reverse…start with a wide-shot and then close in
  • Start at the end or the middle
If you get a strong introduction then the rest of your feature will flow nicely.

Main body of copy

After hooking your reader in with the introduction you need a ‘nub par’ – nub = crux of and par = paragraph. So this is a paragraph that tells the reader what the piece is actually about.  The relevance of writing the feature.  This must be in the first five to six paragraphs of the feature.

Generally a paragraph should be about 50 words.

Key points to remember:

  • Stick to your brief and what is relevant to that (not nice to know but need to know)
  • Keep checking you are following a line of argument for your angle
  • Maintain balance although you can also be subjective by having more of a focus on one side
  • Don’t use too many quotes and only use those critical to your angle
  • Don’t write in the first person
  • Turn yourself into the reader and keep going back to the beginning and reading through
  • Think about the tone you want to adopt
  • Vary your sentence type (long, short)
  • Think interesting, lively and accessible
  • Try to introduce a new nugget of information in each paragraph
  • Make sure the paragraphs flow together with linking words and phrases


This could be your last few paragraphs.  Use them to conclude.

Produce a strong ending.  Also unlike when writing news stories in the pyramid style, where the ending will be the first thing to get cut, the ending is crucial in a feature and will therefore not be the first element to be cut if it needs to be shortened.

You may choose to:

  • Tie in with the beginning
  • Use a strong quote – that perhaps throws it forward to the future
  • Raise a pointed question
  • Never use cliche’s like ‘only time will tell’…

To read part one feature writing: types and tips click here.

Feature writing part one: types and tips

Feature writing is quite exciting as it’s the first time on our MA International Journalism course where we are allowed to really explore a topic in detail and write in a different style to the succinct news style we’ve been practicing so far.

There are some key things to remember when writing a feature:

  • Find a unique angle – something to grab your reader
  • A good feature makes you laugh, cry, think
  • Find a human angle
  • It is good to pick something that you are an expert at
  • Bring to light a distinctive part of an issue/event or person
  • Your angle should reveal a side to a story that previously has not been explored
  • Include facts (fact boxes and graphics can help to bring these alive)
  • Plenty of original sources and quotes give a feature credibility

Types of feature

  • News – this provides background and analysis to a news story or ongoing story
  • Follow-up
  • Profile – of a person, organisation, event
  • Specialist – on certain topic/theme
  • Review – not necessarily a ‘proper’ feature but can count
  • Column – an opinion piece, usually by an expert
  • Advertorial – not journalism, but PR. A paid for article about a product/service to make it seem less like an advert
  • Lifestyle
  • Obituary

What does a feature do?

  • Inform – tell the reader something they didn’t know
  • Persuade – tell the reader how they should feel about something, what they should do
  • Entertain – amuse
  • Educate – provide background and understanding

What do you need to consider when writing a feature?

  1. Know your audience – which publication? How many people buy and read it? Average age of reader? Male or female? Lifestyle of person? Job of person? Where do they live? Political/social/religious affiliations? Disposable income? Interests?
  2. Define your angle – the main slant/approach/interpretation. This will frame your questions and research. Think original.
  3. What is your peg? – it must be topical. Why am I writing this now? Why is this interesting to my readers?
  4. Research – quotes and facts – quotes are the lifeblood of a story. Do not forget the importance of setting the context with facts and information. You can get opinion and analysis across through quotes – this is stronger than just giving your opinion.
  5. Internet research – look beyond wikipedia. Ensure you are using credible sites. Don’t plagiarise by lifting quotes from other articles. Always cite your source.
  6. Think cover lines/visual – plan the shape of your feature before starting to research/interviewing. Have a vision of the end layout of your feature. Think of appropriate photos/graphics/video footage to accompany. Think about the ‘cover line’ – what would sell/attract readers?

Read part two: feature writing: structure 

Children of the Tsunami

I just watched the BBC 2 documentary ‘Children of the Tsunami‘ which was inspiring, sad yet positive also, insightful and gripping.

I enjoyed watching it for a number of reasons.

1. Interest/learning – it is good to see material coming out of Japan a year on from the Tsunami about life there and the effects of children in particular.  Children have such a great way of expressing situations – its so raw and innocent and honest.  Also I was supposed to be in Japan use after the Tsunami hit last year for a month travelling which I didn’t end up doing so I have a particular interest in the country.

2. Technical/artistic – the documentary is beautifully shot and has really inspired me in terms of shot types, the way its edited, use and type of titles and style. It also makes me REALLY REALLY want to make documentaries like this that are so important in telling stories from around the world.

3. Subtitles – we’ve been advised not to make our MA final project documentary with all subtitles due to it being difficult to retain people’s interests and to sell into the UK market.  This documentary however, did keep my attention because the content was so good and it wouldn’t have been possible to have the subjects speaking english.  It did make me realise though that the subject needs to be compelling enough to have a film fully subtitled as you cannot do anything else whilst watching TV like that (whereas many people are often on laptops, texting, talking at the same time).

4. Stories – the individual stories were all so powerful and as a collection they really gave a good variety of situations and made me feel like I can see what life is like for some of the survivors.  It makes you realise the huge impact of the tsunami and how long lasting the effects are.

5. Culture – it was an interesting insight into the culture and lifestyles in that area of Japan (I liked hearing how one of the children was wishing to go and play sumo upstairs with his sister!)

6. Use of sound and music – very powerful music was used to provoke certain emotions which I thought were used extremely well.  They conveyed an eery, spooky, mysterious, dangerous, unsettled/unfinished atmosphere which matches the silent threat of radiation.

7. Sense of maturity in the children – the way the children were talking about radiation and its effects seemed fairly mature for their age.  It was spooky to see the families using the radiation detecters and the school children with their radiation experiment measurement cards.  The fact that radiation cannot be seen yet is so terrifying and having such an effect on life was very powerful.

8. Tragic – to see the one surviving school teacher being questioned by the parents of the 75 dead children from one school was really tough and you could see why both sides were struggling to deal with it.

9. Heart warming – I really liked that the children were asked what they want to do when they grown up as all the answers showed that the tsunami has affected their outlook on life and what they want to do.  For example one little girl says she pity’s the people who have suffered and wants to help them in her future by volunteering at weekends.  She then asks is pity the right word.

Another boy said: ‘I was saved in the tsunami so I want to save others.”

A young girl spoke of her wishes: “I want to be a radiation researcher,” and the smiley little boy talked of dreams of making a giant fan to blow all the radiation away from land.

So if you didn’t see the documentary tonight I definitely recommend catching it on I-player!


Pakistan faces a ‘disaster of unprecedented scale’

News writing timed test.

The brief: You are a journalist for the English service of International news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP).  Write a 450-word international news story on the Pakistan floods using a media pack supplied.  The story must adhere to the pyramid structure.  You should choose an angle that you think will have the broadest appeal for a global readership.  You are free to carry out additional internet research but remember you must source your facts and quotes directly. Do not exceed the word count.

Reflection: I didn’t reach the word limit in the time given but wanted to submit something rather than nothing.  (incidentally for someone who has always struggled to keep under word counts I think I might be starting to master writing concisely…!!)

I gained a 2:1 level mark for this piece so for my first timed ‘pressure news writing’ test I was pleased!  I focused on structure and filtering out the key points from the information filled media pack that would have the widest appeal.

By carrying out additional research I tried to relate the size of the affected area to countries that many international audiences would be familiar with – USA and UK.  I used the UN quotes for the authority, local voices to show direct impact of the floods and an aid agency quote to show another perspective and to highlight some of the challenges.

I have incorporated my feedback comments below – the main changes were changing use of present to past tense (something which is different for radio and TV journalism!)


Pakistan faces a ‘disaster of unprecedented scale’

By Catherine Feltham

About a fifth of Pakistan is underwater according to the United Nations (UN) after floods hit the north-western province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa on Thursday.

With nearly two thirds of the region’s 3.5 million residents being affected UN spokesperson Stacey Winston said: “This is a disaster of unprecedented scale in terms of the number of people and the scale of area affected.”

The affected area is equivalent in size to New England in America or larger than the entire size of England.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “Pakistan is facing a slow-motion tsunami. Its destructive power will accumulate and grow with time…Make no mistake: this is a global disaster, a global challenge. It is one of the greatest tests of global solidarity in our times.”

More than 115,000 tents and 77,000 tarpaulins have been distributed to those in need and the district government has established 30 relief camps and 13 tent villages to shelter desperate families.

Aid has been offered to the UN for the disaster and about 70 per cent of the $460 million initially sought has been contributed or pledged so far. The USA has promised $150 million in aid to the relief efforts.

Mohammed Shafridi, a villager from Sindh province told AFP: “We’re doing so much to help the United States in the war on terrorism. Now we’re in crisis and we expect help. Now is the time for them to prove their commitment to us.”

Footage from RT coming out of Pakistan showed people, animals and trees being swept away by the raging torrent of water that continues to cause devastation.

“Water came suddenly and with a lot of force. It was chest high…I think I will have white hair by the time I will manage to rebuild my house. Or maybe I will never be able to,” said Maqsood Amir, a 32-year-old farmer from the Charsadda district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

The NGO UNICEF has told Agence France-Presse they are concerned about health and sanitation. “Unfortunately, people are defecating wherever they can…and then they use this very water to drink.”

The charity is currently reaching about two million people with clean water each day.


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