Changing The Face Of Politics
Episode 17: Governor Kate Brown interviews Nora Noralla
Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute’s Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this special Pride month episode, Governor Kate Brown, Governor of Oregon, interviews Nora Noralla, Egyptian LGBTQI+ activist, about her experience fighting for LGBTQI+ rights in Egypt and what it takes to lead an effective social justice movement.
Governor Kate Brown: Hello, welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Kate Brown and I'm Governor of the State of Oregon. June is Pride month, and we are very excited to be featuring Nora Noralla as a guest in this episode. Nora is an activist who's been advocating for LGBTQI rights and gender equity in Egypt for the past decade. I am so looking forward to this conversation because Nora, you have taken incredible risks and you are achieving your goals. And I'm just so pleased that you're here for this conversation today.
Nora Noralla: I’m just honored and very happy to be invited and to be here with you and like to share to our listeners a bit of what we have in my country.
Governor Kate Brown: Well, June is Pride month and we are celebrating the rights and advances of LGBTQI people around the world. Could you please share with our listeners what your experiences have been like in advocating for LGBTQI rights and gender equity in Egypt?
Nora Noralla: So, I would say it's a lot of ups and downs, like everything in life, but I would say, human rights are not treated equally. And this is something that you can really see through the lenses of how human rights are dealt with in Middle East in general and in Egypt, especially. So for example, gender equality has started to take off more in the aftermath of 2011 revolution, and that kind of taking off allowed more voices from the women's sector to be heard. This kind of hearing, however, was not always like the one that you want to hear. There was a lot of conservative voices. There was a lot of call to go back to the old tradition. There was a lot of bickering between Islamists and people who are more liberal in their views, if you want to label them like that. But the most important thing that I believe that the LGBTQ movement started to really take off and take its shape in the aftermath of2011. They learned a lot and this is where it intersects heavily with the feminist movement. They did learn a lot and more or less piggybacked on the feminist movement in Egypt to achieve their status right now. So I would say in the last decade, the queer movement in Egypt did evolve a lot, and did manage to establish itself within the human rights entities in Egypt as a force to be reckoned with. But in the end of the day, there was always a problem of funding. And I think funding is like, you, Governor Brown, are also aware of this as a politician. Also the human rights field is more or less politics. And at the end of the day, you need to market yourself more or less to international funders in a way that you can get funds to allow your activities to take place. In the end of the day, I think the problem was that international funders really did not understand the context in place. So, right now the movement is still there. The movement is growing. The movement is going. There is a sense of solidarity whenever a crackdown happens, whenever a crisis happens. But again, the international funders agenda and the international observers often miss the point that misreading the context from the people who are on the ground to realize what they should do to actually support such movements, not just through money or just through press statements, because most of the time you actually need more of that. You need a lot of flopping, under the table work. And if you don't really know the context that much, or you want to ignore the context for publicity reasons, whatever, it can really harm the movement in general. But in the end of the day, I really believe that we, although that our political system right now is more or less a dictatorship, I would say the queer movement and the feminist movement is still striving and will continue to strive and we're looking forward for the future.
Governor Kate Brown: Great. Could you talk a little bit about what was your motivation for getting involved politically, literally for putting yourself on the line and what your personal connection is to these issues?
Nora Noralla: I am part of the generation that did the revolution the 25th of January revolution. I think people know it like the Arab Spring. And I don't think anyone in my generation was apolitical, even the ones who imagined themselves to be, I believe in this period of time in Egypt, this was a brief period where we had any sense of free political space for us to express anything that can be viewed as political. For me, I took part in the revolution. I took part in the protests. I saw how the government forces attacked us. I was arrested at some points and so on. So, I realized at some point in 2011 that we are really missing out that the political system that we have and the political entities that we have really talks in a bubble, more or less, that we don't talk to the common person, we talk in a bubble, especially the liberal ones, on like specific issues that we just talk within our own circles and we don't want to face the fact that outside of these sectors are in our own bubbles. There is not much equity to what we are saying. So, I decided that there is a moment now in life that we need to address this issue. And there's a moment now in life to raise awareness about what we're talking about. And even so, a lot of people see the revolution has failed and the aftermath of 2013 when we had Sisi coming to power and so on, I still believe that the aftermath of the revolution can be felt through the few, really few entities and few laws and the very few things that we were able to achieve. One of which is, as I said before, the rise and the creation of a strong queer movement that actually services communities through programs of legal aids, through programs of psychiatric services, through HIV testing. And this creation of a pillar, a civil society that operates away from the government lines and tries to exist in an atmosphere that does not allow to exist. So, in the end of the day, I think that I am political and I think everyone in my generation will be political as well.
Governor Kate Brown: That's wonderful. I think that's amazing. I want to hear how our listeners can support human rights movements happening across the globe, focused on LGBTQIA and feminist movements. What can those of us who are living in privileged, democratic countries, what can we do to support movements like this in countries like Egypt?
Nora Noralla: I would say, first of all, please, before you think of supporting anything, please do your research. Go out of your way, read from local NGOs in these countries, read reports on these countries. Know what is the context in these countries. What is acceptable to do in these countries? Like how can you actually help them? Sometimes people think that publicity and media campaigns can help, but in a lot of times in a dictatorship that may just make them more stubborn and can actually do more harm than use. And sometimes people get like tricked into these, we call them “gongos.” “Gongos” is like a governmental NGO that we have them in Egypt. A lot of them that are government NGO basically exist just to serve the agenda of the government, to wash all of their wrong doings and present themselves as this government is doing a lot for its people is doing a lot to the advancement of human rights. So, just to begin, if anyone was to support any movement, anywhere, you need to read on it, you need to read what they are doing. You need to know what the context in this country. It’s going to be a bit of work, some Google search, but you need to do that, so you wouldn't be tricked into believing some false reports on the issue. So you wouldn’t do some media campaign that actually harms the population of the country. So you wouldn't donate even for individuals who claim to be activists while they wish to serve their own personal agenda. So there's a lot of patterns to hear and people need to understand that without a context, you're just not doing enough for the country. And even if you're doing it out of a good heart or good will, if you just choose to be quote on quote lazy and just pick the first thing that you saw on the internet, that's on you here that you did fail to provide your support that you wish to support these movements, and these human rights, because you did not take enough time for yourself and for the movement to read about the context and read about the country you wish to support.
Governor Kate Brown: Thank you. I want to hear from your perspective why you think it's important to have more women and girls engaged in politics and activism. And, as well, how do we specifically get more LGBTQ women involved in activism, politics, and leadership?
Nora Noralla: To answer this, we need to first address the issue that at least in my country, what kind of politics do we want these individual to be empowered to participate in? Is it a democratic kind of politics or is it a politics that literally exists to serve the agenda of one person and one person military dictatorship, because at the end of the day, it's important to empower women, to empower queer people, to empower trans women, to empower everyone to participate in politics. But if you don't have the atmosphere of politics, if you don't have the basis of democratic institutes and you don't have the basis of safeguards to protect these people of, who wish to have more of a political participation, you're just sending them in to a battlefield in World War I and expecting them to survive. And that's not, not the way that it should be done. We should first look how some countries participating in politics will either mean that you sell your beliefs and just work with the government and do whatever they want, or be prosecuted and risk your own life and the lives of the ones you love for that. So it's not about empowering a group of people. It's about establishing a system that actually allows these people to be empowered out of their freewill and not being forced on doing whatever the government wants to do. So, without the democratic institution, without a basis to this kind of political, free political atmosphere, I would say the empowerment will fall short.
Governor Kate Brown: From your perspective, do you think there's a difference in the way women than men lead and engage with others? Or is it similar?
Nora Noralla: Well I think politicians more or less work in the same manner. I don't like the gender stereotype of women being more soft, of being more kind, of being more smart because they listen and men being more of like a machoman who just do what they want. That can be true in some aspects, I'm not denying that, but in the end of the day, as a gender activist who called for the abolishing of gender rules in the society, I cannot agree that I would vote for a woman just because she's a woman. I can't agree that a woman would do something different just because she's a woman. This godly right to rule because of womanhood, I do not believe in. And I believe that both of them can work and can serve their communities, but in the end of the day, I believe men have the worst reputation because if you look to the history, most of the rulers were men, and most of these rulers came from other military backgrounds. And the military background is that they will be very tribal in their dictatorship and in their style of rule. And that's, I believe why there's this myth that a woman can do things better in politics than a man. At the end of the day, politicians have an agenda, politicians have a system surrounding them, a support system. And if they follow the support system and do what the people want, they will be successful no matter what gender they are.
Governor Kate Brown: If they are totally empowered to be successful, right, and achieve and thrive, whether it's economically or socially or culturally. Could you talk a little bit, I'm assuming that your life as an activist puts you in the public eye, and certainly there might be some surprising things that come as a result of that. What have been the pluses? What have been the minuses, and then I'll ask you about lessons learned.
Nora Noralla: I would say the public eye makes you turn into either a diplomat or a politician or a businessman. I got either, if you always, when you get into the public eye, you turn into something of a story, more of an activist, because then you have to do things a certain way. You can't really, you can't really meet, if you're an activist or presenting a group, and then you meet the funder that is funding you, you can't really tell them that yeah, your agenda is bad. You shouldn’t do that. No, you will have to basically just shut it in and just say ‘yes, yes, thank you a lot, you're doing great.’ And the same way you do advocacy is the same way I believe you do politics. Because advocacy is just politics, but framed in a way that makes you feel good about yourself because you're a human rights advocate, so you're not a politician, so you’re doing things better for the world. So, but basically advocacy is just like you have an idea, have a product, and you're selling it to the person in front of you. Whether it's like a politician, whether it's a diplomat or whether it’s an investor, you just do that. So, being in the public eye basically turns you on to this representative of your group and means that every step you take is like you're accountable for. The worst thing that comes out of this is the rise of what I call this weird cancel culture. The people that just waiting for your mistakes, so you would be canceled. I don't know this. I noticed it in the U.S. to be honest, luckily we don't have it yet. We kind of have it in Egypt, but people will criticize you even if there is nothing to criticize, just because they do not like what you want to say or they think that you're too forward, you're too direct. And like, at the end of the day, they want you to be within the line of the group, of the line of the community, of the line of the NGO that you're working for. And this is something unfortunately that I don't like to do, and I don't know how to do, so I am always direct and I am always honest about my opinions. So at the end of the day, I think my honesty and directness I think, is very effective. So, in the end of the day, you just need to find a balance between being a diplomat and being an activist.
Governor Kate Brown: Very well said. And yes, we do have a bit of a cancel culture here in the United States, I would say. And myself, as an elected official, I get concerned about saying something through a press conference that's sounds stupid or is wrong, and just getting beat up about that. And that's really, really challenging. And I think what people want to hear, at least in the United States, is that their leaders are authentic, that they're passionate about the work that they do, and that they're trying to do the right thing. Right?
Nora Noralla: Yeah. Most of it is ignorance to the human factor that we are as human, we're not perfect. I might say something by mistake one time, but this crucifixion like this, like let's go and hung the person for saying whatever, like ignoring the fact that we are humans. And like if it was not intentional, I believe that like a lot of things can be taken out of context or like the being cautious really can harm like the statements that you want to present to a group of people in the end, because you're going to be too cautious. And then the message might get lost.
Governor Kate Brown: So we have, over the last year, been facing challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic. And I'm curious whether this crisis has influenced or changed your political or strategic viewpoints at all? And has it changed the way you interact with others because of social distancing caused by the virus?
Nora Noralla: So I think the most remarkable thing that I learned out of COVID, that there was a lot of free persons about countries using emergency laws to limit rights, to limit rights. And that was like, oh, wow, we have been in an emergency law for 53 years now. No one talks about that. So, life is unfair. So, I learned to share my experience living under the emergency law with my counterparts. So, now few of these laws are as restrictive, which is ironic. From my side, in Egypt, for example, I did not feel a change apart from one month curfew that we had and that's it. I didn't feel any change in any tone that the government used. They did persecute some doctors for saying some stuff they didn't want to say, but they did the same style, like they used it before. So it's not like COVID came with its own political change in the country of prosecution change or undermined human rights in any remarkable way. But, for me personally, I think the most remarkable thing that, because the Egyptian police usually targets LGBT individuals from the streets and they arrest them from the streets, the numbers went down because there is no one on the street. And then, that's was the most ironic part that because there's no one on the street, the numbers went down because there is no one to arrest. And that's like was something very, very ironic for me that COVID brought this upon us, that our numbers of arrests went down. Of course it opened a whole new challenges, that none of us saw, is the fact that a lot of people live with their families and their families are abusive and really homophobic and transphobic and so on and that really caused a lot of problems and really opened that discussion about how can you provide a safe haven for queer individuals in a secure way that will not present a danger for yourself? And that's an answer that we, as a movement yet to answer, how to provide that in a country like Egypt, where everything is literally criminalized.
Governor Kate Brown: So I am, as an advocate for human rights, I am very proud of the work you're doing across your country, in the world, frankly, but I'm also curious with your level of dedication and determination, what you do to take care of yourself so you can continue this activism?
Nora Noralla: I mostly do, I started to take more care about my mental health, seeing a specialist and so on. Before that, I was really bad with it. I learned to take time off. I learned to go on long hikes, which is not very good for me because I'm not fit. I learned to listen to poetry, and write about philosophy, and be intellectual or sort of, stuff like that. So, I just learned to find a way to write things off of my chest and my head, and just try to find this balance between serving a community, and feeling emotionally connected to this community, and feeling emotionally harmed when someone is harmed. And between myself, I try to create a sort of a barrier between being too involved, because too involved in this line of work would mean that you will have a heart break every five minutes. That's not sustainable. And I do not think anyone should go through a heart break every five minutes. So in the end of the day, I believe that every person in my position, or every person who advocates for human rights in a dangerous situation, should learn to have a barrier. Doesn't make you less of a good person, doesn't make you less of a good human rights advocate or an activist, it doesn't mean you don't care. It just means that you know what is good for you and you're working on that.
Governor Kate Brown: Okay. Our next question is about gender equality, inclusion and democracy -- how they all work together in your mind and in your country?
Nora Noralla: I think gender equality and inclusion and democracy, I will give the same answer for democracy that the lack of democratic institutes means that this does not exist. But I would like to point out this unique initiatives, it's not even NGOS, created by leaders in the different sectors. We have an initiative that was called, “your honor sitting on the bench.” It was about enabling women to get into the judiciary and getting into the judicial sector and they have been advocating for the past ten years. And finally, there was a decision just last week to allow women to receive this position in October. So, inclusion and gender equality does not come out of the same political process that you would think of in a democratic society or in the Western world, it comes from these individual initiatives. That's one example. Another example is a revival of the #MeToo campaign that led to a new law against harassment in the country last year, and led to a prosecution of a very well known harasser and even a rapist. But in the end of the day, these things only happens because your government allows it to happen. So, the government has a very clear agenda, they call it Egypt 2030, to achieve gender equality and achieve judicial representation and so on. So they want, if you are going to work on achieving what they want, they will allow it. If you want anything that they do not want, they will not allow. And this is the mind that people work in Egypt have to work on. How over the line can I go before the government decides to come after me and prosecute me and so on? And how is the government actually using gender equality to again, wash its wrongdoings and its human rights abuses by promoting itself as this reformers of women’s rights. And we had a female genital mutilation law and we have an anti-harasser law. Now we have women judges, look at us, we are doing great. But then at the end of the day, they are doing that just to serve their agenda, just to make themselves look good, not to provide the country with a true gender equality based on like that equality between all humans, regardless of whatever they are. And that's the key here that whatever advancement of gender equality we will have in the dictatorship, it's the government action, and it's just meeting the agenda of the government.
Governor Kate Brown: That is really unfortunate. We have certainly made good strides in this country in terms of gender equity and LGBTQ equality, much more work to be done. We are grappling with in the United States, post-pandemic, the ugly impacts of racism. The pandemic really ripped the band-aid off the wound that is racism in this country, in this United States. And I'd be interested to hear your perspective about the United States and racism and what you think needs to happen here in America?
Nora Noralla: In America, I think there is problems run deep. I obviously believe it runs deeper than a lot of places on earth which can really view throughout its history. But in the end of the day, there is a good aspect of ripping the bandana off, that you actually now see the wound and you know that you need to treat it. And I think in the end of the day, the good thing that a lot of sectors in the US now moving towards the understanding and realizing that this is actually something that is common in this country. It's not something that is just limited to one group of people, or limited to this marginalized society. But at the end of the day. I think what the US misses the most is a fundamental change, that they do not want to have this fundamental change in anything. The partisan system is not the best one to achieve fundamental change. You can't achieve fundamental change with a federal system where every state, if you crossed the line, you are in a different legal framework. So, the change needs to come from the top and a strong federal government needs to take a strong action towards racial equality in the country. But as long as they keep dusting the old books and putting the blame on the state logistician or this police force out of nowhere or this blah, blah, blah, without actually tackling from the issue from the down, and from in space, it's not going to really going to be effective. And that’s the problem in the end.
Governor Kate Brown: Thank you. What do you think we should be doing across the world to accelerate the pace of change for our women's movement and our LGBTQ empowerment? What would be, if you were queen for a day, what would you do to accelerate the pace of change?
Nora Noralla: The thing is that what people don't understand is that change doesn't come from an external factors that change come from within it. So if you want to generate change anywhere in the world, you need to empower the local factors that allows this change to happen. But in the end of the day in the world we live in, we realize that there is something called geopolitical influence, and there is economical ties and there's military cooperation, and so on. If we take the example for Egypt, for example, every country on earth knows the bad records of the Egyptian government regarding human rights and LGBT rights and so on. But yet, the way they call out the Egyptian government is very shy because of why? Because it's for geopolitical importance that you can see in the way President Biden treated the Egyptian government in the beginning, people were championing him as the human rights advocate internationally. Even so, everyone in the Middle East was like, yeah, he's just like same old, same old. The first thing that happened, Gaza happened for our President interfered, he was the hero President by the thank you Egypt, such a great government. Let's say it like, so in the end of the day, if you want to like accelerate human rights anywhere, we need to understand the geopolitical system that operates beyond around, surrounding that human rights system. And we need to understand that we need sometimes to undermine the geopolitical importance of a country, or the military cooperation or the economical trade relations of a country to achieve the human rights that we want to be achieved in this country. But like just shouting it loud and putting out release statement and so on, it's really like a way to wash the guilt out of our souls for not doing the actual things that need to be done.
Governor Kate Brown: All right, Nora, I want to hear from you, what gives you hope for the future?
Nora Noralla: It gives me hope to the future that after ten years of, Egypt lived in a dictatorship all of its life, but yet there is people who believe in the democratic change. There are still people who fight for it. There are still people who are in jail right now because of it. And it's not only my country, it's all throughout the Middle East. The Syrian civil war is still continuing to this day, you won’t believe. Even through all of the factors that are against them. The same in Libya, the same in Jordan, to all of the activists out there in oppressive regimes, they continue to do their work because they believe that some day they're not going to see the work done. They're not going to see the fruits of their labor, but they are just putting up a base, a brick to build on for future generations to take advantage of whatever base you have put in place, and then they can take it from there. But I do not believe that you should wait for the fruit of your labor. We just need to live with the hope that the future generation will eventually see it.
Governor Kate Brown: All right. My last question. Any advice for budding young activists?
Nora Noralla: First of all, don't be afraid if it’s political, if it just gets too political, yeah, it gets like that. You're going to learn how to talk. People will teach you how to talk, how to write, how to do everything, like from A to Z. Take time for yourself, do a barrier, there is no wrong in that. Don't overwork yourself. Don't be sad because something you did didn't work out. And at the end of the day, most importantly, care about the security and wellbeing of yourself, because you're not doing anyone a favor if you end up in a prison cell or worse, you end up in a bad mental condition that would lead to something that’s not good for you or for the community. So in the end of the day for you as a young activist, we want you because you are our future. Take care of yourself because without you, we can’t continue as a movement.
Governor Kate Brown: Well, thank you, Nora. I think we have come to the end of our time, and I just want to say, I am blown away by your leadership and your efforts to secure human rights for folks living in Egypt, and I just really am grateful you were willing to spend time with us today.
Nora Noralla: I'm very thankful to be here, and it was very much a pleasure to see you. And if I ever come to your state, I will give you a call for sure.
Governor Kate Brown: That would be great. Thank you, Nora.
Nora Noralla: Thank you.
Closing: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at ndi.org.