The female Che Guevara of Egypt
“Tell us Shahenda, the mother of the saddened voices, what’s the color of Qanater prison? What’s the color of your prisoner? What’s the color of the friends with you who light up the gardens with light? Our country is a big prison and its clothes are made of prison cells”, these are the words Ahmed Fouad Negm wrote to Shahenda Maqlad and Sheikh Imam sang for her when she was imprisoned in 1981 on the charges of belonging to the Egyptian Communist Party under President Anwar El Sadat.
The female Che Guevara of Egypt, the Egyptian Rosa Luxemburg to Kamshish farmers, the Hoda Sharawy of the 1950s, the Rosa Parks to the Egyptian civil rights and students movement, Shahenda Maqlad is our very own symbol of strength, resistance, human rights, and women rights in the history of Egypt, and she, thankfully, is still fighting among us for freedom today, and played an influential role in the jan 25 revolution.
The 75 year old icon spent her life fighting against feudalism in the 1950s, faced the war on Egypt in 1967, lead farmers struggle in 1975, was imprisoned at least 3 times in 1970s and 1981, shared the fight back in the 1990s against more neoliberal policies, mobilized with Kefaya movement and protested for the fall of Mubarak throughout 2000s to finally witness and play a leading role in the Jan 25 revolution. Her first political achievement came as young as the age of seventeen in 1955, when women were granted the right to vote for the first time. She mobilized the women of her village of Kamshish in Munofia governorate going door to door urging women to register to vote.“When I was young I was eager to know about socialism because my dad always told me that this country won’t be fixed unless socialism is established, so I wanted to know what socialism is. He told me when you get older you will know”, she tells us with a cheerful smile as she recalls the past.
Maqlad comes from a middle class family born to a socialist police officer father, and the eldest sister to four brothers and a young sister. Her father raised his children on the principle of equality between sons and daughters, “My father was really progressive for his times, he truly believed in the equality between men and women, and treated us this way unlike others who believed it the slogan but never applied it”, she says. When Kamshish farmers were in the midst of the fight against feudalism, Maqlad’s father sent to President Gamal Abdel Nasser during the revolution saying, “Either you free the farmers of Kamshish or you detain me with them”. Her father had the most influence on her activism and belief system to always fight for what’s right no matter how anyone may judge her choices. With teary eyes she recalls a telegram her father once sent her saying, “To Shahenda; defend your principles until death”.
With a strong socialist spirit at home and growing up during revolutionary times, Shahenda Maqlad was destined to have an unconventional marriage with her revolutionary counterpart martyr Salah Hussein. Not only was he her cousin who left his family when young to go fight in Palestine and returned to lead the armed struggle of farmers against feudalism in early 1950s, he was also the love of her life and the second most influential person in her life. “My dad passed away and I was engaged to a police officer, but I loved my cousin Salah Hussein, who was always being prosecuted for fighting feudalism, so I escaped and broke the engagement to go marry Salah”, she reveals to us. “After I married Salah, my work began in fighting with the farmers against feudalism in Kamshish, our small village. I ran for elections in National Union (Itehad Qawmi) for our local union when the farmers elected me”, Maqlad says. The fierce couple lived and had three children fighting for a better Egypt and for the peasants of their Egypt, who were promised under Nasser to own land after land reform, but in Kamshish the Feki family was untouchable and the land was not redistributed until five years after the armed struggle in which Salah Hussein was imprisoned, and many were killed. The fight for more radical change in land reform continued into the 1960s, but this time with Maqlad in the lead until the Feki family assassinated Salah Hussein.
This devastating moment for Maqlad made her even more determined to continue what Hussein has started, which is to fight until the farmers reach victory. While she continued to enter elections for the National Union and won; the state was keen to not allow her to get too powerful by never exceeding the local level.“Every election I entered I won, then after we were able to form political parties under Sadat I was one of the founders of Tagmoa Party, and I got imprisoned 3 times on charges of being a communist or belonging to the communist party and inside prison I was imprisoned again, after we got our release order and all of the detained got freed, they kept me and Farida El Nakash”, she gives us a brief history of her political struggles and achievements. In the 1970s, Maqlad was banned from ever running in her governorate of Munofia, and when she went to protest this verdict to Mahmoud Salem, who was the prime minister back then, she asked him, “What are the charges against me exactly? And he just said ‘because people love you’”, she says.
Shahenda Maqlad entered elections three times, once in Alexandria and twice in Kamshish, “until 1984 when I told myself I will never enter elections again until these oppressive laws are changed; they haven’t changed election laws until now”, she explains her disbelief in the electoral process.
“I always had no doubt that the revolution was coming, and that the people will rise and this is even under Sadat. People always told me take off the black wardrobe and I told them never unless the revolution happened or Sadat died”, Maqlad expresses her strong belief in the power of the people. While she sits and sips her coffee with tears that come and go as she remembers moments that changed her life, she tells us about her life story. Maqlad recalls one of the best expressions describing Egyptian people and how she felt when the revolution erupted after long life struggle, “Salah used to always tell me ‘Egyptian people are like underground water, you don’t see it moving, but all of sudden it bursts’, and this proved itself true with the January 25th Revolution, but my heart was filled with fear because any traditional revolution has an organized leadership to guide it, but Jan 25 was very spontaneous, so I was uncertain of its future, but even with this I still have no doubt that people will prevail in the end.”
Upon the recent political upheaval in Egypt, Maqlad was subjected to violent discrimination at the December Itahadiya clashes when the Muslim Brotherhood forcefully attacked the peaceful sit-in in front of the Presidential Palace. Maqald was present when Brotherhood members raided the tents and attacked people, “I saw them coming and attacking everyone including Nawara Negm, so I stood up and started chanting ‘La ilaha ila Allah, El Ikhwan are the enemies of God’ and all of a sudden I was astonished to have this guy silence me with his hands over my mouth”, she describes. Thousands of people took to the streets protesting the massacre including Maqlad, who saw a woman carrying Maqlad’s picture, so she shook hands with her and the women told Maqlad, “I went down to the streets because when I saw that man put his hand on you, I got furious and I wanted to cut his hand”, Maqald tells us with tear eyes of joy.
When we asked her what she thinks of ongoing targeting of women to break the revolution using sexual terrorism as a tool to scare women from going to Tahrir her answer was “we have to fight back and be determined that no one will get us our rights, we have to make our voices heard and our present, visible for the whole world to see that they don’t scare us and we will win in the end”.