She was jailed for protesting against the removal of Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi. But Asmaa Hamdy, a dentistry student, has been spending her sentence knitting woollen handbags, to keep herself busy and send the message that imagination is free. And her “Made in Prison” line is proving popular.
Since last summer’s regime change, thousands of political prisoners have gone into Egyptian prisons, and not much has emerged – apart from testimonies of institutionalised torture.
Hamdy started making the handbags for her friends and family, then fellow prisoners asked her to make some for their relatives. Now she has attracted local media coverage and is taking orders from the public, with dozens of orders through Facebook.
Her family say she has made about 50 bags at £6 each and in a recent letter suggested she might abandon dentistry for full-time design. But, her fiance says, money is not her main goal.
“It’s just to deliver a message,” says Ibrahim Ragab. “Even if you’re jailing us, you can’t stop us: our souls are free. Whatever happens, prison won’t stop our imagination. As Asmaa is always saying, we’re beyond breaking point.”
Hamdy was one of hundreds of Egyptian university students jailed for protesting at the removal of Morsi in July 2013. Ever since, pro-Morsi student activists have held almost daily demonstrations that have severely disrupted campus life during term time. The state has fought back – killing at least 14 students, expelling 500 and jailing more than 2,000. Twelve were jailed for 17 years for their alleged involvement in violent campus protests in November 2013.
Hamdy’s five-year term is shorter, but just as undeserved, says Ragab. “They accused her of seven imaginary charges: they said she set the cafeteria at the medicine school on fire, attacked the school’s security and a police sergeant, and stole money. Anyone who sees Asmaa knows she couldn’t have done these things.”
He thinks she was targeted simply because “she believes the country is being ruled by an unjust person” – the former army leader, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
Every time her family visits, they bring Hamdy a kilogram of wool. Two weeks later, she hands over the finished articles – and receives more wool for the next batch. The prison authorities are happy for her to sell the bags, but insist on removing the “Made in Prison” label before they leave the prison. “They don’t want to admit she’s in prison,” says her mother, Manal Saber. “They think she’s in a garden or something.”
The handbags have even helped her bridge the political divide. For a time, Hamdy shared a cell with the lawyer Mahienour el-Masry, a secular revolutionary and critic of Morsi, also jailed on questionable charges in a crackdown on all kinds of dissent that has seen between 16,000 and 36,000 political activists imprisoned – depending on whether you believe state or opposition figures. Masry and Hamdy are not the most obvious bedfellows – but Masry has used her network to promote “Made in Prison”. The line already includes scarves, bracelets and knitted pencil cases. Her mother says other items are in the pipeline, and Masry has asked for instructions for making stockings and dresses. Jailhouse socks, Saber says, could be next.
source: Guardian UK