In honor of Women’s History Month (and today being International Women’s Day), Dr. Nancy Okail recently spoke to WIS Middle School students and faculty at their assembly. Dr. Okail focused her remarks on making positive change in the world, even when it feels incredibly difficult. She began her talk by saying, “I want to talk to you about breaking down these cliches we have: the idea of an oppressor vs. the oppressed, good vs. evil, that they are separate and not part of one system. I’m going to explain to you why this way of thinking is bad, and how we can change it.” 

While serving as Director of Freedom House’s Egypt program, Dr. Okail joined thousands of protestors in early 2011 as part of the Egyptian Revolution. The protests focused on many issues, including police brutality. As Dr. Okail explained, “We had the most notorious police officers in the region. They are known for their brutality, for having so many weapons; they shoot to kill. So no one ever thought that we could defeat them. When we went into the streets to protest, everyone said we were crazy — this is the most brutal and well equipped system of security in the Middle East. But we did it. We tried to go on across the bridge in order to reach the square to protest, and we were met by all the police officers that you see in these pictures. As more people kept joining us, the police started using water cannons to disperse us, but we became more persistent and went on. Then they used tear gas to spread and scare us. 

They started shooting people. And that only made people more defiant and more resistant and we all came together. But this is what happened afterwards: the policemen ran away, and we all ended up in the square and started the revolution.” 

As a result of her participation in the revolution, Dr. Okail was one of the 43 nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers convicted and sentenced to prison in a widely publicized 2012 case based on alleged use of foreign funds to foment unrest in Egypt. During the trial, the defendants were kept in a cage in the courtroom. Okail made headlines when a picture of her reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (his memoir of fighting fascists in Spain) in the cage was featured on the front page of The New York Times. While out on bail, Okail left Egypt. She was ultimately tried in absentia and sentenced to five years in prison, but was exonerated in 2018. 

Despite these rough and intense circumstances, Dr. Okail remains positive and continues to fight for a more peaceful, just, equitable and sustainable world. She shared some powerful lessons with the students:

“Fear is your biggest enemy. There is always this pretense by mighty governments and powerful people or institutions that they are so invincible that you cannot threaten them. And when they present this image over and over again, you wouldn’t even want to try, because the cost is high. However, when people stop being afraid of the consequences, and realize that power is just symbolic, they change the rules and systems.”

“Another thing I learned: violence and aggression are not signs of power. They are signs of lack of power. When I was put in that cage, I was just one woman; I had no weapons or anything dangerous. There were so many guards around me, other people holding the keys to the door, and all this security — and I just thought, ‘Wow. All of this is trying to stop me, and I have nothing in my hands.’ Of course it was a scary situation, but when I got into the cage, I saw that a previous prisoner had written on the wall: ‘If defending justice is a crime, then long live criminality.’ That has given me so much strength, because I realized that strength does not come from the number of weapons you have, or all the awards you have — it really comes from knowing what you stand for. And if you know that, then nothing can really challenge that.”

“I also learned that freedom and equity and justice are VERY expensive. It takes trillions of dollars to launch wars and millions of dollars to pay bribes and corrupt people. So you’re not going to change the world by just having a good conscience. You have to understand that there is a price to pay, and there is a high cost. And in my case, although I love everything that I do and everything that I did, I did pay a very dear cost personally and professionally. I was defamed by the news in Egypt, my home country. I was separated from my kids for nine years. I lost my parents when I was in exile. It has been challenging and I'm still being chased and followed by regimes who do not like to be exposed. But in order to change the world, you do not have to make all those sacrifices. You don't even have to be in politics in order to challenge injustice, racism, discrimination, inequality. You can do and be anywhere and do anything. You can be a scientist, a basketball player, a doctor, a gamer. Whatever you do, don’t be a minion. Be an active participant in making change.”

“Expand your network. Try to find allies rather than finding enemies.There is a saying that I think has been so correct and right in my whole life: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ Something that is very important to realize is that you have power, that you can challenge these systems and ideas.”

“My photo behind bars that was on the first page of many newspapers was not a message for me. It was a message to the people saying, ‘if you end up going into that route of fighting for human rights and defying the system, this is where you are going to end up. This is where you’re going to be.’ And that was when I realized that we needed to flip the narrative and redefine the story. But even though I got a lot of praise for doing that, this is not the narrative I wanted to promote. I wanted to say a different story, that if you follow the principles, fight injustice, racism, sexism, and all this, you’re not going to end up there… the good people are not always the people who are defeated. There are good allies everywhere. And there are people who stand by you everywhere.”

We are so grateful to Dr. Okail for taking the time to share her story and inspire our Middle School students and faculty with her messages of hope and resilience.