Live Through This

I Was a Teenage Activist

The amazingly true stories of five young women who make teenage girls everywhere look good.

Alya El Hosseiny

Alya is the most modest revolutionary I’ve ever met. Not that I’ve met that many.

She was introduced to me, by one of her friends, as a young activist who had done some protesting in Egypt, and who was involved with the revolution there. I asked her a few questions over email, as I did with all of the folks I spoke to for this piece; she mentioned that she often communicated with other activists through Twitter. Then I found her Twitter. And I realized that I had been speaking with the first girl who tweeted #jan25. This would be the Twitter hashtag that protesters used to communicate with one another about the massive series of protests this year that kicked off the Egyptian revolution itself. That revolution was aimed at ending the corrupt and abusive regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled for 30 years, and it succeeded—but not before Egypt blocked Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to quell the rising tide of protest.

When Alya sent out that first tweet, protests were already being planned. She only linked to information about it: “http://on.fb.me/fBoJWT over 16000 of us are taking to the streets on #jan25! join us: http://on.fb.me/fQosDi #egypt #tunisia #revolution,” the tweet read. It was retweeted by only two other people. But the #jan25 hashtag picked up steam, and became a way for activists to communicate and keep track of one another’s activities—while also providing a way for outsiders to watch the revolution happen in real time.

“At the time,” Alya told me, “my main channel of activism was talking to people about protests; I talked to my classmates at uni, and to shop owners, taxi drivers, etc., and tried to persuade them to join the protests. I’m not sure the tweet impacted much, beyond providing the hashtag. I mean, that’s important, because it gave us a handy way to stay updated about people joining, police crackdowns, etc., but it would’ve eventually happened without my tweet.”

I asked her what inspired her to get involved. “I grew [up] hearing about police brutality and torture, about workers’ strikes, about imperialism and what can be done to counter it,” she said. “Getting involved was always the next logical step. But I think a lot of it is also growing up as a shy, nerdy girl. I read a lot, and I learned to value education. I spend a lot of time online, and I like to read up on feminist issues, for instance. I learned to look critically at the reality around me.”

Looking critically at reality, and acting to change it, has carried some very high risks. “My family has always been supportive, but they worry about me. We had a ‘no going to protests alone’ rule, which effectively kept me from getting involved in some things I’d have liked to be involved in. A rule like that does make sense in Egypt, though, where police can arrest you at any time and no one would know about it,” she said.

“The revolution, which started in January, has been a reward beyond anything I dared dream of. It’s not perfect, and to tell you the truth, we’ve still got a long way to go before it’s over and we can have a safe, free country. But it has opened up a horizon of possibilities I’d never thought I’d see. It has inspired me to get more involved, and now I can see my activism changing the world around me in little ways. I truly believe these little things have the power to effect real and lasting change.”

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16 Comments

  • Tara September 15th, 2011 3:28 PM

    this is such a great article! it’s wonderful to see young women making their mark on the world in such a positive way (and by using the internet universe as a tool for their trade). all of these women are incredible. I’m immediately inspired after reading their stories. this is what needs to be shown to those silly adults who as this article states feel that youngsters today are incredibly passive in terms of activism.

  • Anna F. September 15th, 2011 3:53 PM

    I was mildly familiar and impressed with the works of Jessica Yee and Lena Chen (through Bitch Magazine and Amanda Hess’s blog, respectively), but I’m so pleased to be introduced to the works of the other three as well.

    (Now to be all annoying and switch from speaking in the third person to the second): What I love is how you all work in different venues and for different causes, yet each have inspiring and motivational statements to make. It’s been a while since I’ve been involved in any activist work and this was the kick that I needed to get off my couch. I especially loved what Jessica Yee had to say about the methods of activism is constantly changing – it makes sense that a progressive movement would be constantly improving it’s game plan.

  • Anna F. September 15th, 2011 4:03 PM

    That last commented sounded ambiguous – in the first line, I meant to indicate that I was mildly familiar, yet thoroughly impressed!

  • Catherine_CC September 15th, 2011 4:18 PM

    I love this article so much, I’m not sure I can put it into words! Last night I was facebook chatting two of my very best friends and, as always, we were talking about everything and nothing. We had previously talked about how are desires and beliefs are very different from those of our parents. One of the things we’ve been talking about is how my parents have wanted me to be a doctor my whole life, and I went along with it because I wanted their approval, I knew I would have to support them when they were older, and I genuinely love to help others. As a junior in high school, I am well into the decision making process about what career I’m headed for. With the encouragement of my friends, I told my parents that I don’t want to be a doctor and that I want to do something in international politics (my hero is Aung san suu kyi). Surprisingly, my parents were ok with that. They were a bit disappointed because they REALLY want me to go into medicine, but they said that they want me to be happy. This article just gave me more heros to add to my list, and has encouraged me to start making a difference now. (Also, I love the website. You guys are doing great!)

  • Stephanie September 15th, 2011 4:42 PM

    These girls are my freakin’ HEROINES!!!!! I was so excited and proud to learn about them. They inspire me and I know they will inspire many others.

  • bloodymessjess September 15th, 2011 4:57 PM

    It’s great to see Rookie covering such awesome activists! I actually just read a piece written by Lena Chen today about her experience with Asian fetishism which was really good. Last year, the queer group at my school and the Aboriginal Resource Centre collabed to bring Jessica Yee to talk about Two-Spirit, and Ive been following her on Twitter ever since. She goes to so many places and does such amazing work – I highly recommend trying to get her to come speak at your school.

  • Jenny September 15th, 2011 5:29 PM

    Heck yeah, ladies! I love Jessica Yee’s writing on racialicious, and I remember feeling so angry about the media response to Lena Chen’s blog. I’m so happy to read about all these kick-ass girls.

    I love that Yee says, “I feel like a lot of [activism] comes from a very well-intentioned place, but it’s a lot of talk about ‘let’s save these people, let’s get involved in their lives,’ without really thinking about what that means.” I’m behind that 100%!

    I remember I interned one summer for the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, and it was the first time I had ever really considered the difference between “advocacy” and “community organizing.” The former was about speaking for a community of people and telling them what they needed to make their lives better, and the latter was about empowering that community to speak for themselves and identify for themselves what they needed to improve their lives. It was also first time I had ever really thought about the implications of “charitable work,”–the idea that there are people who need to be helped and there are people who are going to do the helping. Or the idea that it’s “saintly” and “generous” to “help” rather than it’s everyone’s duty to constantly fight for the realization of a world that is just and equal and dignified.

    These girls get it, and I only wish I had been more inspired and active as a teen!

    • garconniere September 21st, 2011 6:25 PM

      i keep thinking the same thing as i read a lot of these articles: if only i had been exposed to this at 14, 15, 16.

      jessica yee is one of my heroes.

  • Sunshine September 15th, 2011 6:23 PM

    These ladies are so inspiring! THESE are the people we should be idealizing, not celebrities. =D GIRLS, YOU ARE MY HEROS. (Right after Tavi, of course) :}

  • Whatsername September 15th, 2011 8:00 PM

    Oh man, reading about what all these people did is making me feel lazy.

    These girls are amazing. It’s people like these that end up changing the world for the better. c:

  • Angie Bitchface September 15th, 2011 9:16 PM

    this is such a great and inspiring article! it makes me so happy to think that this is a teen magazine publishing content like this, and makes me feel hopeful for the future of the teenage girls of today.

  • AmandaLouiseHobba September 15th, 2011 10:37 PM

    I am completely inspired by Syreeta Gates, she is doing the kind of things I dream of doing in the future!

  • kelsey September 15th, 2011 11:37 PM

    Dude. This rules.

  • Syreeta The Culture Creator September 20th, 2011 3:14 PM

    Thank you ladies for taking the time out to read this amazing post! Who RUNS the world??? GIRLS

  • saranev September 20th, 2011 10:07 PM

    This is such an inspiring piece.

  • Margelo September 23rd, 2011 11:38 AM

    when i was younger- not a teenager- i went to marches and rallys in LA, to fight the thought of war in iraq.
    me and my friends would hang out with signs that read- don’t attack iraq- while we would play games and stuff.
    i’m really glad i did it now. i’m glad i stood up to war. :D