Do we ever really have a choice? The choices we make can be hard to differentiate from those society imposes on us. The moment we decide something about our lives and feel like judgement will rain down on us—that is when we know our choices can be dictated, that they are preordained by our society and the fabric of our culture. Ikhtyar, which in Arabic means “Choice,” is self-described as a feminist collective that aims to spread knowledge in order to achieve gender equality in Egypt. They believe more knowledge means more choices, and with more choices comes variance and understanding.
In a society that is openly patriarchal and steeped in religious conservatism, change is generally slow-going in Egypt, where gender and sexuality are largely considered taboo subjects. Ikhtyar’s efforts are grassroots: to achieve its goals in a conservative society like Egypt’s is an effort that requires more thought than going in with good intentions and guns blazing. By celebrating differences and creating a safe, inclusive space, Ikhtyar hopes to reconstruct preconceived notions of what we have come to believe gender and sexuality are.
Started in 2009, Ikhtyar is an open forum for discussing gender and sexuality in order to document, as well as develop, a base for it in Arabic. As most research is largely done outside of Egypt, and is often in English, Ikhtyar works to translate and communicate this knowledge for Arabic speaking communities. The texts that are already translated and available in Arabic tend to be outdated, so Ikhtyar is playing catch-up with the rest of the field while simultaneously developing their own research initiatives.
While there may be people who can translate the knowledge, Ikhtyar understands that this is only the first step on a long road for change. All of this new research into gender, sexuality, and identity politics then needs to be refracted through the language and culture of a place. Otherwise its message is inaccessible as it seems only to apply to the lives of other people in other places. Their groundbreaking work identifies with the region rather than examining it externally, their goal ultimately being change rather than just documentation.
What is groundbreaking about Ikhtyar is that they take theory and knowledge and put it into practice, using theatre, movies, and art as a way to reach out and start discussions in order to change minds and perceptions. Not only do they translate feminist works, they also issue periodicals made up of personal essays and reflections documenting a wide range of experiences in order to open up more of a community dialogue. Their seminars provide a survey and discourse of gender theory and understanding. They screen films that challenge and invite the viewer to explore and discuss themes of identity and gender. The plays they produce and perform combine interactive learning with art, targeting and depicting the lives of young, rural women in Egypt and the hardships and limitations they face due to gendered ideology and cultural standards.
In just under of a week, Ikhtyar’s campaign to raise enough money to keep their office space and their initiative up and running will come to an end. There is a link at the bottom to their website and campaign on Zoomaal, where they give you a break down of their expenses and what this money will go towards. Ikhtyar is doing hard and much-needed work; spread the word because a little really does go a long way.