Human Rights Defender Profile: Yara Sallam from Egypt
Human Rights First is running a series of profiles on human rights defenders we work with in various countries. These profiles help to explain their work, motivations, and challenges.
Ms. Yara Sallam is the Women Human Rights Defenders Program manager at Nazra for Feminist Studies (Egypt); the first program in Egypt that focuses on women human rights defenders. Yara previously worked as a professional legal assistant at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in The Gambia, as researcher on Freedom of Religion and Belief at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), and as a research assistant at the Institute of Research for Development (IRD) focusing on women’s rights in Egypt. Yara earned two degrees in law (LL.B) – a Licence of Law from Cairo University in Egypt and Maîtrise of Commercial Law from Paris I University Pantheon Sorbonne in France in 2007. She has also been awarded a Master of Laws degree (LL.M.) in International Human Rights Law at the Law School of Notre Dame University, the United States of America (2010).
How did you become an activist?
I started getting interested in the field of human rights when I was 15 years old, I was a volunteer in an organization that worked on child rights. Later on when I started my studies in law school I got involved in students activities, and I attended human rights courses that were available at that time. Since I was in college I knew I wanted to work in a field where I felt I was doing something positive and relevant to my field of study. As soon as I graduated I started working on women’s issues related to divorce in a research institute, then I worked on religious freedom in a human rights organization (EIPR), and since then I knew I wouldn’t switch fields and that this was what I want to continue on doing. At the moment I’m working for Nazra in its program on women human rights defenders.
Do you see yourself as a Human Rights Defender?
I do not think that I can give that title to myself, I see myself as someone who believes in the human rights cause and working to achieve it in any way that I can, regardless of the title.
How do you perceive the current situation in Egypt – for women especially?
Although many can see the situation as black and getting darker by time, I am very optimistic of where we (generally Egyptians and more specifically women) stand at the moment. The change that started happening since 25 January 2011 cannot be reversed. It is not a question that women took part during the first 18 days of the revolution, however the inspiring aspect that came with the revolution is the increasing number of girls and women who started their activism for the first time with the revolution’s events, being pushed to the public sphere by a national cause. I do have faith in every single one of them that they will not back down when it comes to restricting women’s rights, and so I am not scared from any group taking power as long as we have that driving force within us that rebel against oppression.
What do you want to see happen in Egypt – outcome based?
I dream of Egypt that is free from torture, ruled by the law that is equally applied to all its citizens respecting the principle of fair trial, and I dream of Egypt that is inclusive to all its diversities. I dream of a country that has a space for women from all walks of life, in all sectors, who are eager to serve their country with the best they can; whether in politics, science, or any other field. I dream of a country that fights impunity, especially for human rights violations.
What risks are posed on your everyday life?
I cannot claim that I am facing risks because the situation in other countries is worst, but I do not perceive life in Egypt for a woman who chose a non-traditional path as easy. Women in their daily lives, including me, face sexual harassment in the streets and have to constantly fight for their presence in the public sphere, as well as fighting the traditional norms and values about the gender roles in our society. Other than that, working for human rights organizations is not as legal as everyone think it is in Egypt, everyone in this field is working knowing that he or she can be arrested for any random reason ranging from taking foreign funding, defamation or threatening national security.
What is a normal day in the life of…Yara Sallam?
In a normal day, I would go to work from 10:30am-6:30pm from Sunday to Thursday to work on my growing to-do list, then I go back home to get some rest. I am running a program on women human rights defenders at Nazra for Feminist Studies, where I’m working with motivated feminists (both men and women). I try to meet my friends and family during the weekend or if I can squeeze some time before or after work. I always try to do something different like learning a new language or exercising but it seems to only continue for a month or two.