This interview revolves around Egyptian feminist Hend Salem’s career and personal life. Hend is an Egyptian woman and executive director of Elles/Hunna Publishing House. She talks about her beginnings in Egyptian NGOs, the establishment of Elles, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on publishing, and her personal life, husband, and family.
Hend graduated from the Academy of Arts, Department of Drama and Criticism, in 1998. Throughout her studies, she always felt that women are subject to injustices, but back then, she was not aware of feminist theory or feminism as a movement. She went on to hold many important positions in feminist Egyptian NGOs, however. When she graduated, she joined the New Woman Foundation’s program “Female Youth Forum” and thanks to this program, she began to be aware of feminism and to adopt the label “feminist.” She also managed the “Creative Women in the Shadows” project, which seeks out Egyptian creative women outside the center, Cairo. She also worked at the Development Support Center on gender. Until 2017, Hend was executive director at “Nawras,” the company affiliated with New Woman Foundation. Then, she traveled to Jordan where she offered consultancy services, specifically in capacity building and gender. Hend says that her experience in the area of training comes from her work at the Development Support Center. As for her feminist experience, she said it comes from her work at NWF. In addition, Hend went to Kurdistan, where she participated in developing the national strategy for health services, making it more responsive to women subject to sexual abuse or abuse in general. Hend emphasizes the crucial nature of the issue of violence against women and her own passion about the cause, given that it lies at the core of the feminist movement. She also spoke about problems faced by NGOs in Egypt, especially funding, the lack of which caused many to fail.
As for Elles and its beginnings, Hend stated that she and her husband were inspired by feminist publishing houses in France during the seventies. She highlighted the fact that there are many well-established feminist organizations in Egypt already, so there is no need for a new organization. What is really needed, she believes, is a feminist publishing house that cooperates with these organizations. Elles is interested in publishing feminist writings in Egypt, the Arab world, and North Africa; it even has a section for Kurdish works. Hend had reservations at first due to the August 2017 crackdown on NGOs (including feminist ones). However, she says that her husband took the risk and Elles was established. Hend also wanted Elles to play a cultural role in society through holding workshops and cultural events. Elles held workshops such as “Methodologies of Feminist Research,” started an Elles film club, a book club, and the “Feminist Photography” exhibition, the first of its kind in Egypt. This is how Elles participates in the dissemination of culture and attempts to even change it. Its role, thus, goes beyond that of a traditional publishing house.
Hend and her husband started Elles with their own resources, with no external funding. They chose the French “Elles” because it parallels the Arabic “Hunna.” They did not try to find investors for their project, and Hend justified that by the fact that her experience comes from non-profit organizations. However, Elles is “for-profit.” Hend believes that she and her husband need to further contemplate the issue of investors because it is problematic. Elles, though, welcomes cooperation with women entrepreneurs in the same field. In a related vein, Hend asserts that the publishing field is masculinist par excellence, and that accepting a feminist publisher was challenging in the beginning. People often confuse what is “feminist” with what is “feminine” and have the misconception that Elles only publishes women authors for instance. Hend, however, states that Elles eventually proved itself in the field and its existence became more acceptable to the audience. She says that Elles is popular in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Kurdistan, and Syria, and that she hopes to open a branch for Elles in Tunisia one day.
As for the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on Elles, Hend said that all the publishing house’s activities were switched from face-to-face to online during the pandemic. She believes that this has its pros and cons. It allowed people outside of Egypt and even outside of the Arab world to participate in Elles’ activities. However, working or participating in events from home is also problematic for women, since they traditionally do most domestic work, so they get no rest and cannot separate between both types of work.
Regarding the challenges that Hend faced in her professional life, she said that since 2017 and until today, NGOs are targeted and could fail due to that. She also said that the Me Too Movement in Egypt prompted her to make sure that Elles is a safe place for women. She asserted the importance of believing survivors of sexual assault and harassment and openly discussing issues related to the movement as well as rights of survivors of violence in the shadow of a legal system she believes does not support women. She also emphasized the difficulty of maintaining Elles, since it largely relies on Hend and her husband’s own resources. She only attempts to make a small margin of profit due to the current difficult financial circumstances.
Hend believes that women are more motivated to learn than men and she sees that herself in the cultural events organized by Elles as more women join them. She also says that she is more comfortable working with women generally. In addition, she asserts that many women have become entrepreneurs on the level of informal economy. Covid-19, moreover, prompted many women to take on sales online.
Hend also spoke about her family, specifically her sister, who supported her in studying drama. As for her brothers, Hend said she feels alienated by them intellectually, since they are traditional men. She also asserts that her family rarely interferes with her work. Her husband, however, is a feminist who strongly supports her work. She believes that her personal life has never constituted an impediment to her work and that she was lucky to have found her husband.