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Literary elles
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 02 - 2019

Elles, Hona – the logo turns the second word, Arabic for “here”, into an eye – is the name of one of Egypt's more interesting publishing ventures, the feminist house whose cosy office in Manial proved a welcoming respite from the cold. Simply furnished, with a rich array of bookshelves and a small but well-equipped space for discussions and seminars, the space reflects the spirit of the project, which focuses on gender and feminist issues. It provides a room for children, allowing mothers to focus on cultural activities and, according to its founder Ragai Moussa “rejects commercial and patriarchal culture”.
For years before he thought of establishing the publishing house Moussa, a writer and psychologist, was engaged in feminist studies bringing together anthropology, literature and cinema. He was inspired by a Paris feminist bookshop which he encountered in a novel, he says: “I thought what a brilliant idea, why not. Then I slept on the idea for several months before I started looking for a place that might work.”
A 1994 graduate of the psychology department at Cairo University's Faculty of Arts, Moussa had worked with the homeless and child labour for many years, earning an anthropology masters on the San Bushmen from the Institute of African Studies.
“Considering the country's ailing economic situation, and the increasing number of publishers, some friends told me this project would be suicide, but I wanted to start a real cultural hub, not a mere publishing house.” It has been almost two years since Moussa and Hend, his wife and business partner, kickstarted their dream project. “We now boast a considerable number of friends of the House. We prefer to have friends rather than customers. I want to build up a community of cultural supporters, and I believe we have managed to achieve a good score so far.”
Moussa feels prioritising women's issues is the only way forward for the culture: “I strongly believe in the power of women. If we are to make any change in our society, it has to start with improving girls and women status.” The media used to present feminists as monsters, he says, but that is now changing. “It is present in a pressing way. We witness issues of sexual harassment and domestic violence every day, and the media cannot shy away from that. Feminism is a vision of the world, and Egyptian women intellectuals' participation in the fourth wave of feminism has become more visible, I believe, combating sexism as it appears in everyday speech, in media and cinema.”
Around 25 books have been published by Hona, which it distributes in Alexandria, Fayoum and Domyat as well as Cairo. Although the house has yet to establish partnerships with larger publishers or attract very big names, this makes for a powerful backlist including poetry by Amal Khlaif and Nawla Darwish and a novel by Feobie Sabry which deals with Armenian-Coptic-Muslim relations in 1940s Cairo.
Hona hosts a film club, screening a film every Monday with a focus on female directors and feminist topics such as the 2015 British film Suffragette. Hona also observes the yearly campaign to combat violence against women from 25 November to 10 December which the film helped to start.
The space also offers workshops in various fields, including a feminist anthropology workshop, creative writing for children (notably in French, by Algerian writer Najat Belhatem) and psychodrama. There will also be gender-specific feminist workshops.
But what about the business side of Hona? “I am optimistic,” Wanis says. “Success is inevitable. As long as we give it all our time and effort, at some point it is bound to give us back.”


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