Block 1, Cell 8: A Letter from Damanhour Women’s Prison


From Mada Masr, publishing a letter by Mahienour al-Massry, an activist from Alexandria imprisoned for illegal protest:

Ever since I set foot in Damanhour women’s prison and was placed with my inmates in ‘Block One’ — The cluster of cells assigned to those accused or convicted of embezzlement — only one thing has been on my mind and I repeat it like a daily mantra: “Down with this classist system.”

Most of my inmates have been imprisoned for defaulting on the payment of instalments or small loans. They are loans taken out by a mother buying some direly needed items for her bride-to-be daughter, or by a wife who needed money to afford treatment for her sick husband, or a woman failing to pay back a LE 2,000 ($280 US) loan on time, only to find herself slammed with a LE 3 million ($420,000 US) fine in return.

She recalls a similar, but more high profile recent case:

At this point, news reaches us of Hosni Mubarak’s three-year sentence for charges of widespread corruption, embezzlement of funds, and financial fraud in the ‘Presidential Palaces Case.’ Cracking up, I ask them, “What kind of future do you expect me to have in an unjust society, in which the regime thinks that Umm Ahmed (‘Ahmed’s mother’), who has been incarcerated for the past eight years and still has six more to go for signing a bad check worth no more than LE 50,000 ($7,000 US), is more of a dangerous criminal than Mubarak?”

Let us imagine that these women are indeed guilty, have broken the law, and are justly imprisoned, however unjust their sentence and the system behind it may be.

Mahienour and other January 25 activists forged their revolution at least in part to overturn this system. I imagine other activists are laboring with those like Umm Ahmed, to provide legal counsel and advocacy for those perhaps guilty but entrapped in this system.

This post is not for evaluation of Mahienour’s option; this choice is three years ongoing with mixed but still inconclusive results, even if she has found herself on the wrong side of the bars.

But even so she counsels:

Freedom for Umm Ahmed, who hasn’t seen her children for eight years. Freedom for Umm Dina, who is the sole provider of her family. Freedom for Niamah, who agreed to go to prison instead of someone else in return for money to feed her children. Freedom for Farhah, Wafaa, Kawthar, Sanaa, Dawlat, Samia, Iman, Amal and Mervat.

Our pains compared to theirs are nothing, as we know that there are those who will remember us, say our names from time to time, proudly mentioning how they know us. Instead, these women, who deserve to be proudly remembered, will only be mentioned at most in family gatherings.

Do they deserve freedom? Allow lawyers and judges to argue over this. But they deserve remembering. They deserve advocacy.

Lord, when did we see you in prison and go to visit you? … I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.

Surely there are a number of activists who intercede already for the likes of Umm Ahmed, but is this not a challenge to lay before the Egyptian church?

Lawyers and judges can argue over Umm Ahmed, but does she even have a lawyer? What if Umm Ahmed and all in similar circumstances knew they could go to their local church and find advocacy?

This challenge would not be Mahienour’s. It is not to overturn the system, not even to reform it. Let other activists labor in these struggles, as warranted.

But that someone might stand with Umm Ahmed in the courtroom, plead her case and seek at least the minimum sentence, would this not be a service worthy of the church?

Some might be bold and say the church should stand with Mahienour also. Perhaps they are right; I do not know the details of her case. If she is jailed unjustly, if the law imprisoning her is unjust, should not the church speak?

Let Christians debate this; some might find it an improper interference in politics. Perhaps it is.

But there are no politics with Umm Ahmed. There is no statement against the system. There is no public protest, there is no agitation.

There is only solidarity with the occupant of Block 1, Cell 9. And 10, and 11. Maybe 12 deserves her fate. But Cell 13, and 14, and …

The Anglican Church of Egypt already has a program to visit foreigners imprisoned in local jails. Some have committed crimes, others are detained on visa irregularities. But the church regularly visits to encourage and furnish needed supplies. It is a good application of the above verse, and donations are welcome.

But could the churches of Egypt do more? If not the churches, could the Christians? Could they do so in close partnership with like-minded Muslims?

If so, I imagine they would please Mahienour immensely. But more importantly, they would please the women of Damanhour prison, their families, and even, it could be imagined, the state.

Here, Mahienour will likely disagree. But which would the state prefer? An activist calling “Down with this classist system,” or citizens working quietly on behalf of individual cases of justice? The guilty would still be sentenced, but the women and their families would know they were treated right. The church would ensure it was not otherwise.

And with accumulated evidence, the church could possibly ensure that all are treated right. Once a critical mass of accountability is reached, the system might naturally reset. A large segment of popular discontent with the regime might be quieted. A revolution might not be necessary.

Surely Mahienour would have been happier if she had the last three years of her life back, and with it a more just society. Let activists and citizens argue the type of activism needed, but surely there is some.

What kind can the church provide?

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