In 2008, a young Egyptian woman, Amani Eltunsi, started the first radio station in the Arab world dedicated to women only. Despite being imprisoned and attacked under both Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, she is, unlike them, still standing.
Advertisements for cosmetics, a picture of a chicken dish, a pink background. The homepage of Banat We Bas, the first online radio station in the Arab world only for women, does not look like a feminist haven. But the first impression is misleading. Banat We Bas is the place to turn to when you want to learn about women’s rights, sexuality and empowerment as a young Egyptian woman. The boss here is Amani Eltunsi, 29, who in 2012 received the BMW Foundation Young Leaders Award, the World Summit Youth Award and the Austrian League for Human Rights’ Award. She was recognized for being “one of Egypt’s leading feminists,” as well as a radio programmingmaker, activist, publisher, author and businesswoman.
This is the Amani Eltunsi of 2014. But the story of her success started in 2008, when Egypt looked very different.
At the time, Hosni Mubarak was still in power. A general strike that April forecast the coming revolution. The same month, Eltunsi, a computer science student, was driving through the streets of Cairo and saw a man beating up a woman in the street. After the woman eventually ran away, Eltunsi took her into the car. “You should not accept this. You need to report him,” she told her. “But he is my husband,” replied the woman.
Her answer made Eltunsi realize the urgent need for change. “I knew that I needed to reach these women. And not only one woman but as many as possible,”she recalled in an interview with an Austrian daily. The idea for Banat We Bas was born.
Setting up a regular radio station was not possible due to the legalized monopoly that Mubarak’s regime held forall terrestrial broadcasting. Eltunsi then got a private loan to set up an online radio station that would not be affected by the restrictions. For three years this loan was her business’s only financial backing. Thanks to her background in computer science, she could create the website herself. To earn money, she worked as an artdirector for a magazine, but in her freetime she was on the air talking about everything that touched Egyptian women.
“If we had delicate topics, we disguised it as a book review,” she said. “We advised women to keep on reading in the book where we had to stop on the radio. We told them: Go buy this book and you will learn a lot. And give it to your daughters.” For Eltunsi, journalism and activism go closely together. “I want girls and women to be protected and their rights to be heard in politics.”
Because of her ideas, Eltunsi has come under attack, as both a journalist and an activist. Under Mubarak, the National Security Council forbade her to talk about religion, politics or sexuality. Then came the revolution. Tahrir Square became the celebrated symbol of democratic hopes, but behind the waving flags, hundreds of women were assaulted during the protests.
Violence against women had been a social problem and a political tool in the Mubarak era, but since the 2011 uprising, gang rapes have become epidemic in public places, making women keep away from the streets. According to a study released last April by UN Women, the United Nations entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women, 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. The Cairo-based institute Nazra for Feminist Studies documented 250 cases of rape between November 2012 and January 2014 in central Cairo.
This was the situation Eltunsi felt obliged to report about, but during the revolution her license was suddenly terminated. She was arrested for her activism and was forced to stand in a room without windows for six hours. All her radio recording equipment and all of her assets was seized. In prison she reached a deal with a security guard, and she gave him her Facebook password. “He changed my profile picture to a Hosni Mubarak picture and my status to ‘I’m so sorry, I love you my president,’” she recalled in an interview with Deutsche Welle. This led to her immediate release.
With the money she earned from her job as a network designer, she repurchased all the necessary recording equipment. When Mubarak was toppled in February 2011, Eltunsi was one of the few female reporters covering his trial. But even under the short regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, things did not get easier for Banat We Bas. “They tried to hack us, but we have the better hackers,” said Eltunsi about a hacking attack by ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis when I interviewed her in 2013. She laughed. The Salafis had not studied computer science, but she had.
By now the radio station has more than 20,000 listeners per program. About 5 million people worldwide have subscribed. “Our subscribers count on us to report,” Eltunsi said. “Our task is to give them the information that otherwise is detained. This is how we tell women that they have rights; we question the image of women in the media. We trust in these women to keep fighting for their rights until these are granted to them.”
To ensure that this happens, Eltunsi is not only active in radio. As a part of Banat We Bas, she has founded a publishing house, printing books by young authors who write about taboos. Since 2009 she has released more than 40 books, two of which she wrote herself. One of the most important things for her is contact with the people. In a scene from the Austrian documentary “Private Revolutions,” which features her story, she stands in the streets of Cairo and asks a woman, “Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood will bring democracy to the country?” A controversial discussion follows.
“We have to be in the streets to be in touch with people,”Eltunsi said. “The Internet is only for a few people. If you want to spread an idea, then you better go to the metro station and talk about it with a girl.” Her aim is equality for all Egyptian women. On her website you can find a lengthy strategy on how to achieve it. Beside it is a photo of Eltunsi wearing a blue shirt that says Little Miss Trouble.