Fighting Back – Interview with Azza Hilal Suleiman from Egypt

Footage of Egyptian soldiers mercilessly beating a “red-hooded woman” during a protest went viral last year. Now, AZZA HILAL SULEIMAN tells Amnesty International Senior Editor, Clare Fermont, her story.

NOTE: Amnesty International’s action is now closed. Azza thanks Amnesty members for their solidarity and work on her case

Azza Hilal Suleiman became known internationally last year as the “red-hooded woman”. Video footage* showed her helping another woman whose underwear was exposed as Egyptian soldiers dragged and beat her during a demonstration. Then Azza too was attacked, so viciously that she almost lost her life.

I spoke to Azza at her home in Cairo about her life-changing experiences since the Egyptian uprising began.

This vibrant 49-year-old woman was brought up in a military family – her father, two uncles and two brothers are all army generals. She led a pretty conventional life until the “25 January Revolution” turned her life upside-down.

I was so innocent,” she said. “I went to the Day of Anger demonstration on 28 January 2011 by bus. I saw the demonstration, so asked the driver to stop. As we walked, our numbers kept growing. I was very happy.”

She soon witnessed the security forces using unprecedented violence against protesters, gunning people down and beating them. She was overwhelmed by the fog of tear gas.

But we all had great courage,” she said. “I kept pushing past the riot police, who seemed smaller than me. I tried to save a young boy carrying his shopping who had been grabbed by the riot police.”

The fearlessness and anger she felt that day has never left her.

She joined another protest on 17 December 2011, near Cairo’s Cabinet Offices. That’s when she saw troops assaulting the young woman, exposing her underwear. She threw herself over the woman to protect her. Then, she too was attacked by soldiers, and her ruthless beating was captured
on video.

The next thing Azza remembers is waking up in hospital. She had a fractured skull and her swollen face left her barely recognizable. She had been in a coma for a week and doctors told her family to prepare for the worst.

At the beginning, the pain was so bad that I would wake up screaming, and I fainted a lot. But lots of friends and relatives helped me.”

One of those friends was a man who soon became her fiancé. “He really supported me, and we held the same views on the revolution and justice,” she smiled, “so I melted with love for him.”

On 2 May 2012 he was shot dead at a sit-in at the Ministry of Defence in Abbaseya, Cairo, by “thugs” she says the army used “to do its dirty work”. “It was this that made me take up the battle for justice for the many crimes committed by the military,” she said, “much more than my own case”.

She submitted a complaint about her assault to the public prosecution, but nothing happened. She is determined to get justice, and vows to take her case before international bodies if necessary.

Like other women activists I interviewed in Cairo, Azza was far more interested in talking about getting justice for others, rather than for herself. She wants justice for the Coptic Christians killed in Cairo, on 9 October 2011. And for all those killed and injured during the uprising – and since then.

Does she remain optimistic, I asked. “Of course,” she said. “It was depressing before the revolution. There was so much injustice and so many things imposed on you. I used to despair and think there was no escape. Now I am full of hope.”

Her words still resonate: “Don’t give up on your rights. You only have rights if you fight for them. And the more we support each other, the stronger we are and the more we will achieve.”

Throughout 2013& 2014, Amnesty International supporters around the world took action in support of Azza, urging justice. Azza thanks Amnesty members for their solidarity and work on her case.

– story by Clare Fermont, re-posted from The Wire, Amnesty International’s newsletter for global activists