Collective Trauma and the Absence of Care
By Yara Sallam
I took a step back, then another step further away. It was foolish not to read where we stand right now. More than 11 years after the start of our revolutionary dream, I hope to remain in Egypt but out of prison.
When I came out of prison, after what is now considered a short period, everyone was running on reserve. Back to the human rights organization I worked for, only 15 months apart, my friends and colleagues were suffering from severe burnout, but no one wanted to speak about it. Little did we know that the worst is yet to come. I didn’t know what we do about the collective trauma that we’ve been through, and I don’t think anyone does. Individual withdrawal from activism and focusing on personal projects were mostly the reaction of people who acknowledged that feeling unwell was not the way to go.
Feminist activism was even more fractured. Surviving – or shall I say not – the unprecedented sexual violence during protests in 2012-2013, with little tools and a sole focus on responding to the crisis without reflecting on the effects, it was having on activists providing support, conflict and polarization were very present between feminist groups and organizations. Suffering from defeat, helplessness, and trauma, care was not a present notion in dealing with what we suffered. All that we’ve been through was fueling up interpersonal conflict that spilled into overwork and activism.
Without any idea about how to emotionally handle this crisis, a ‘competition’ arose between volunteers who intervened on the ground to provide support for women who were trapped in rape circles, and those working on different types of support from the ‘safety’ of their offices. Even within those working at different feminist groups and organizations, when some expressed fatigue and burnout from being exposed to vicarious trauma (we didn’t know how to name things back then like we do right now), they were told that they don’t have the right to ‘complain’ because other women were being raped.
This emotional blackmail and the hierarchy placed between victims and survivors from one side, and another, feminists who were providing essential support to document and expose what was happening, made it more difficult to work on our collective trauma. Without a space to name what we all go through, how can healing take place?
In 2015 human rights and feminist organizations and activists associated with them were hit by asset freezes and travel bans under Case No. 173 dubbed “the foreign funding case”. A few defenders got their travel ban lifted, including Azza Soliman and Mozn Hassan, two well-known feminists who were affected by the case, amongst many other human rights defenders.
I wonder, though, how other feminists went through these long difficult years and still found ways to resist. Is internal conflict and toxicity within movements natural results of living under dictatorships?
Contemplating defeat, I believe many of us turned inwards to reflect on the past years- the trauma we’ve been through both during the Revolution’s years and within our movements. Many women approached activism, within or outside of organized groups, with untested romantic views, idolizing ideologies, and people in the feminist and human rights fields.
We saw the results in a circulated e-mail on rape and sexual harassment incidents by workers at a human rights organization, where the survivor tried to warn other women from the perpetrators. We also saw the impact of the absence of care in joint grievances letter by many former staff members of a feminist organization, asking if there is a space for a restorative justice process.
Very few attempts to step away from polarization happened.
Dina Makram-Ebeid, an Egyptian feminist and an anthropology professor, engaged with civil society organizations’ dilemma on grappling with forms of justice, after a crisis emerged when a woman who used to work for a civil society organization (CSO) accused two members of a leftist political party of rape and sexual harassment respectively. Dina presented the experiences of some CSOs in pursuing alternative methods of justice in her article, which entails looking into the process of responding to the accusation. She argues that both the state criminal justice system and the community-based one face challenges and each has issues they grapple with to reach satisfactory outcomes. What remains missing from the conversation, though, is our internal dynamics and how our collective trauma impacts our life right now, and how we interact with one another. In the hierarchy of sufferings, our collective trauma has no space to breathe when we continue to live under a political regime that keeps us busy with the human rights violations it inflicts daily.
I cannot see things as separate from one another. The collective trauma we’ve been through throughout the first few years of the revolution had an impact on how we all dealt with internal conflicts. Centralizing care could have saved us, or at least would have moved us away from the polarization into a kinder space for understanding and working on our collective trauma and inner conflict away from punitive measures.
If care was at the center of our movements, we would have been able to acknowledge the importance of healing in our journey to recover from the trauma we’ve experienced. Carrying burnout and illness as trophies would have not been the norm. We would have spared time for our pain, rather than place it in a hierarchy of traumas, and we would have found a way to motivate and drive our activism other than guilt. But this shift in the approach needs a space where everyone can sit and have a painful conversation about the past years and work on our feelings of grief and loss, a conversation that will steer many difficult emotions.
I learned for the first time about building “a container” from a Holistic Security training of trainers for feminists from Northern Africa and thought that this can be a good idea for us at home. For the first time, I attended a training where trainers prioritized building healthy, accepting group dynamics, where life was allowed to happen and ‘mistakes’ were considered part of the collective process. Diving into the content of the training was not rushed and our feedback as participants always informed how we move forward.
I wish we can replicate this approach in our groups and/or movement(s). Instead of looking at care and healing as a crisis to be managed, like the approach that is used with sexual violence within institutions, why can’t we focus on healing as a necessary process on its own? Building ‘our container’ is necessary to do the work we want to do – although I hate to use this argument because caring for oneself should not be linked to productivity, it seems to work well with defenders, who otherwise would not take care and healing seriously. The process of building our feminist container should allow for naming things in a brave space, free from judgment, shame, and competition. Once we name what we feel in a facilitated process, we can think collectively about healing paths within our groups, but first and foremost we need to believe that the container needs to be built.
 For more information about the attacks in 2012: “Egypt: Investigate attacks on women protestors” Amnesty International, 11 June 2012 https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2012/06/egypt-investigate-attacks-women-protesters/ and on the 2013 attacks: “Egypt: Epidemic of Sexual Violence”, Human Rights Watch, 3 July 2013 https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/07/03/egypt-epidemic-sexual-violence
 For background on Case No. 173 https://eipr.org/en/press/2016/03/background-case-no-173-%E2%80%9Cforeign-funding-case%E2%80%9D
 Dina Makram Ebeid, Grappling with forms of justice: combatting sexual violence in civil society, Mada Masr, 8 March 2018 https://www.madamasr.com/en/2018/03/08/opinion/u/grappling-with-forms-of-justice-combating-sexual-violence-in-civil-society/
 Dina Makram Ebeid, Battling sexual violence within institutions: Things we have learned, Mada Masr, 22 January 2021 https://www.madamasr.com/en/2021/01/22/opinion/u/battling-sexual-violence-within-institutions-things-we-have-learned/