It was almost by accident that I found myself, on a cold November evening, sitting in the Oxford Union at the weekly Al-Jazeera head-to-head with Mehdi Hasan. The guest that evening was Mona Al Tahawi, the formidable Egyptian women’s rights activist renowned for consistently stirring up controversy both in the Arab world and in the West. I was most struck by the eloquence and force of Mona’s words, and walked away from the talk with the question she relentlessly poses in her controversial Foreign Policy piece – why do they hate us? – ringing insistently in my ears. Mona’s very extreme standpoint, which creates a stark dichotomy between men and women, frustrates many of her readers, who sympathise with the essence but not the expression of her activism. Outrageous as much of what she says and writes may be, Mona certainly provokes thought. Arab women in particular complain that she approaches the issue from the outside, as a Westerner, and several women expressed this exact view that evening, at the Union. “My father doesn’t hate me, he’s trying to protect me”; “I want to agree with you but I can’t, men aren’t all evil”.
Being an Egyptian young woman, this talk had double relevance for me, and naturally I applied the issue to my own city, Cairo. Egyptian society is a curious phenomenon: deeply divided, but then thrust together in the chaos of the buzzing metropolis so that one necessarily encounters, on a daily basis, a series of juxtapositions; a barefooted child with a dirty face and wild hair begging for money at the window of a classy Mercedes with tinted windows; a private and exclusive sporting complex in a middle-class residential neighbourhood, and just a few streets away from it, a slum. Gender inequality is certainly among the most pressing of social injustices: it is inscribed within the very constitution.
Set on fire by the fierce debate that night, I felt compelled to seek an answer in the streets of the great city, in the voices of the women being so abstractly discussed in Oxford. I have never been fond of abstraction, and that is why I truly appreciate having grown up in a city like Cairo, where everything becomes very real, perhaps all too often. And so it was in the words of Rawyah, Ebtisam, Basma, Aida and Um Wa’il that I sought to understand what it means to be an Egyptian woman, and how that is different from being a woman elsewhere in the world.
Each of the interviews was of course very different from the other, and this was precisely what I had hoped for: an array of socio-economic backgrounds and diversity in opinion.
Basma is 22, lives with her parents in the densely populated neighbourhood of Imbaba, is a recent graduate of Cairo University, and now a teacher of Arabic at the Comboni language school on the affluent island of Zamalek. I began by asking generally about the extent of her personal freedom.
“I have small freedoms. I can go out but can’t stay out too late. I can’t go out every day, so maybe every other day. I obviously can’t be in any relationship, and one-on-one contact with a boy is impossible. I’m free to work, I’m free to wear what I want, but I myself wouldn’t wear anything too tight or that would attract too much attention. And if I did I’d be advised to change.”
Basma is in many ways very representative of an educated, lower-middle class Egyptian woman. She wears a headscarf, is politically quite disillusioned but sympathises strongly with the Muslim Brotherhood. What, then, is her take on the role of women in society?
“There is no real difference between the role of men and women, their roles should complete each other. The woman does of course have to bring up the children, this is her essential role. Everything else is almost extra and the fact that she balances all that makes her better than a man.
The enrolment of girls in universities is much higher now, things have changed. The woman isn’t necessarily a housewife alone, she can also be educated and work. And plus, women are restricted by their financial dependence on men; some husbands use this against them, as leverage, and as blackmail. They use it to oppress. But when a woman works she has her own life, her own money and as a result can be independent. I have turned down suitors because they demanded I don’t work.
I want my children’s lives to be different to mine. I want them to have more freedom and I want them to learn from my example. If I work my daughters will want to work too.
And plus, women who stay at home all the time become small-minded and petty. They spend their time gossiping.”
In fighting for her right to work, Basma has been fighting for her freedom as a woman. It was obvious that her work is so important to her because it is her only access to true independence. The notion of a young woman leaving her family home to live on her own is entirely out of the question in Egyptian society and more generally in the Arab world. I remember once reading a witty remark that the Egyptian dream is moving out of your parent’s home – and as funny as that may be, it does shed light on the extent to which this applies, both to men and women. It simply isn’t done. Not until one is married and starts a family of their own in a new home.
However, the thinking behind many of the attitudes regarding work goes quite deep, and refers back to ideas about masculinity and femininity entrenched deep within the Egyptian mentality. The role of a man is to provide for his family, and failure to do so is in fact one of the few legal grounds on which a woman can appeal for divorce. But more than that, if a man is unable to fulfil this role he loses his honour and sense of worth. Such thinking applies to all strata of society.
I got a better sense of this in my interview with Rawyah and her mother, Aida. Both have been selling vegetables by the pavement on a street close to where I live for as long as I can remember. What began as a few questions addressed at the two women eventually developed into a group discussion involving an unknown female relative of theirs, who took a seat on the curb beside me, a middle-aged man helping them clean and chop their vegetables (the porter of a nearby building), and a few random passer-bys, who were keen on participating in “the survey” – I had to explain myself somehow. It was far from what I expected, but that is the case with everything in Cairo.
All of the women live in a village on the outskirts of Cairo, and make their journey to the city each morning, on a horse-drawn cart, to sell their produce. They were all veiled and traditionally dressed in a black long-sleeved and ankle-length jallabeya. I began with the same question I had first asked asked Basma – what do you have to ask permission for, and who do you ask?
“Most things. Almost everything actually, we have to ask the permission of someone older. A husband, father or older brother.”
Rawyah then added that in some cases, women cannot go out at all without the permission of a man, especially in the village. “But that’s the extreme. Me for instance, I can go about where I live without any problem, doing my errands and everything, even in the evening.”
And at night? The nameless woman spoke for the first time: “We don’t go out at night”.
I asked about their opinion on the role of women in society. The man took initiative and very confidently informed me that it depended on where you were. “In the village it’s different to here, here in Cairo men and women are the same. In the village things are slightly backwards, many men forbid their women from working.”
Aida then interposed: “But so many times in the village women work and men don’t! The men sit at home. Like with Nasma, for instance.”
They began discussing their neighbour Nasma’s case, but the man soon interrupted the babble, with great authority: “Yes but those men are failures. They’re losers. They sit at home while their women earn the bread for the family.” To which Rawyah gleefully added: “And she divorced him at the end!”
Despite being around the same age as Basma, Rawyah’s thoughts on work were quite different. “I don’t want to work once I’m married. I don’t want him to get used to it! I want to raise my kids and take care of my home. A woman should be able to choose which she prefers though – that’s what I’d prefer. Many Egyptian men don’t want their women to work because it’s a shame. What would people say?”
What would people say? – a thought ingrained deep within the Egyptian mentality.
What did they think of this? I wondered. “I don’t like it” Rawyah admitted. “As the saying goes, you should do what you want, eat what you want” Her mother disagreed: “Of course it matters!” The man, though, authoritatively concluded the matter: “You cannot judge based on appearances alone. Take for instance clothing: a woman can be wearing a niquab but be very bad deep down. And some women have their hair all down but they are good people. It varies. Respect doesn’t come from what you wear”
But, of course, to a certain extent it does. Society judges quite harshly, this was becoming increasingly clear. It creates for people an unspoken code of conduct, rules that they impose on themselves, and that, on occasion, they are reminded of by others. And because of the very collective nature of Egyptian society, so unlike the rugged individualism of the West, the law of the country becomes secondary to the law of society. So although a woman can, in theory, appeal to the court for the resolution of a family dispute, she will not because of the inevitable stigma that will follow. Such is the case with domestic abuse, which is considered a criminal offense and is punishable by up to three years in prison. It is also a valid reason for a woman to request a divorce. However, the victim will rarely come forward and inform anyone outside her family of the incident because what would people say? And realistically, the authorities to which she reports such a crime, i.e. the police, would in most cases be far from helpful, and might even accuse her of trying to frame her husband. This particular issue was heavily touched on by Um Waa’el.
A widowed mother of seven, Um Waa’el works as a servant in a middle-class family home. She lives in Cairo, but started working very young, meaning that she essentially had no formal education and remains to this day illiterate – along with 26% of the Egyptian populace. Um Waa’el has four daughters, all of whom are married, and three of them have been beaten by their husbands.
“One of them, I spoke to her husband and told him to stop hitting her. I told him its only animals that are hit, not human beings. He stopped, but he still shouts at her and insults her when he’s angry. But at least he stopped beating her.”
“With my other two daughters, there’s no hope really. I’ve spoken to their husbands, and so have my sons. The husbands reply saying that she’s their wife and they can do with her as they please. Many times I don’t even find out from my daughter but from her children. She doesn’t tell me because she doesn’t want to hurt me or upset me.”
“One of my daughters though is married to a teacher, a very good man. He’s never hit her or even insulted her. He shouts sometimes, just like any man does when he’s upset or angry or nervous, but no curses and no beating.”
The greatest cause of dispute between Um Waa’el’s eldest daughter, Hayam, and her husband, is the fact that she works. He has consistently expressed his disagreement, but she persists regardless, mainly for financial reasons. She uses her money to buy things for her house and children. She is not, however, forgiven for the slightest neglect of her household duties. Even just a slightly delayed meal can earn her a beating. For Hayam to appeal to the state for protection would be unthinkable. It simply would not cross her mind, and she is probably unaware that a domestic abuse law even exists. Moreover, somewhat conflictingly, section 60 of the Egyptian criminal code clearly states that a woman can obtain no punitive damages for being beaten so long as it was done with ‘good intentions’” – meaning that the beating was not too severe, and not directed at the face or any fatal areas. The law, then, can hardly be said to protect and empower women: we still have a long way to go.
The question then remains, what is being done on the ground to fight for women’s rights?
The struggle, it seems, has been renewed since the 2011 revolution. Several movements have sprung up in the face of the mass harassment that began as protests swelled in size and number –not that the issue of harassment is one new to Egypt. According to a 2008 report by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights two thirds of women are harassed on a daily basis, although this is for the most part entails verbal harassment, as opposed to anything physical. It has however long been accepted as an unfortunate fact of life – that is, until the issue gained prominence in the extreme cases of January 2011 and onwards. Among the most memorable was that of Lara Logan, the CBS correspondent who was brutally gang raped in Tahrir Square in Febuary 2011. Her story gained much national and international coverage. There is much evidence to indicate that these group assaults were pre-planned and intend to scare women from participating in mass protests, although it is almost impossible to uncover who was behind them.
Fortunately, groups such as Anti-harassment, HarassMap and Tahrir bodyguard were quick to form, intervening physically in demonstrations, raising awareness in schools and universities, and teaching women how deal with various situations that may arise in which they find themselves vulnerable. What is perhaps most encouraging is that these groups consist mainly of young adults who wish to see a change in the culture of acceptance surrounding the general issue of sexual harassment.
On a more official level is the NWRO (Network of Women’s Right’s Organisations), a network of eleven NGOs working towards reforming the Personal Status Law and combating violence against women. They do so by carrying out research and creating pamphlets, by holding seminars in universities and training representatives to independently carry on with the activism, and by organising educational projects for teenagers in village communities.
The NCW (National Council for Women) is an example of a group with a more political focus. I spoke to one activist working with them, Ebtisam, asking her what exactly it was that they did.
“Our main aim is to provide training for women seeking to get into politics, preparing them for elections and parliamentary roles.”
“We also raise awareness in villages, talk to the women there, and help them get IDs. Can you imagine that some don’t even have identification of any sort! We talk to them about FGM, and tell them this isn’t part of Islam, and that what they’re doing is wrong. We organise lectures in Upper Egypt. We also made a stand against the constitution. Mervat Al Tallawi, the head of the NCW, is in direct contact with Amr Moussa. She takes our complaints to him.”
Ebtisam admitted to being often frustrated by the attitudes of even the most liberal male politicians. “The liberals sometimes seem worse than the Islamists. Men simply don’t want women in high ranks and ministerial positions. It’s a deep rooted mentality, it’s what they’re used to, but we need to change it.”
In her own life, however, Ebtisam is certainly among the most liberated of Egyptian women. I also spoke to Sherine, who shares a similar background – educated, middle-class, and, relatively speaking, liberal. Sherine is married with two daughters, but also has a small decorating business of her own. She works with hotels and shops around Cairo, and sells her products in a shop in the up-scale, residential neighbourhood of Mohandiseen.
Unlike all the other women I interviewed, Sherine essentially doesn’t have to ask permission for anything. “It’s only when I travel that I really need to ask, otherwise I do what I like. My husband and I both work. Obviously if I’m out at night I let him know, just so he doesn’t worry, but that’s normal, it’s not permission I need, I’m just informing him.”
“But a lot of women around me have far less freedom than I do, despite their families being just as educated. So many of them are shocked that my husband doesn’t mind me travelling alone. It’s all about the mentality – even some of my Egyptian relatives living in America think this way!”
Like many wealthier inhabitants of the city, Sherine is committed to social work. She regularly visits a village just outside Cairo called Si’eel with a group from her church. They visit individual families, providing them with financial and emotional support. “Some of the cases there are extraordinary. I sometimes feel as though I’m in another world. They speak about Cairo as though it’s a whole other country. Most of the women, especially, haven’t left their village. They don’t leave their houses much. Church is their main outing, and banning them from going is a form of punishment.”
Sitting and chatting with one of the families there I really got a sense of what Um Waa’el and Rawyah had been speaking about earlier: the rural outlook on work, by which it was perceived as something to be done out of financial necessity alone. But this seemed, then, to be a question of opportunity. What opportunities were there in the village for a woman to pursue a career of her own? And what would possibly encourage her to do so if the women around her rarely continued past high-school and instead sat at home waiting to be married? The influence of the city has, however, spread in recent years. One elderly woman told me: It’s different from my time. We barely had any schools, but now there are plenty around. And girls all go to school, of course. Many of them now have certificates, diplomas; they’re educated and want to work. And prices have gone up so much. That’s why so many women have to work.”
Was Mona then really too extreme in posing that very provocative question – why do they hate us? Although hugely inspirational, I was beginning to see why so much of what she says and writes, in the Middle-Eastern context especially, comes across as so far removed from the reality of things – how could women such as Aida or Um Waa’el do anything other than dismiss her ideas as crazed and absurd? We need Mona because she reminds us of the pressing urgency of the matter, and of those extreme cases in which all the ugliest oppression of women in the Middle East seems to be embodied. But I remain hopeful, having witnessed the continued struggle of so many activists: for a constitution that will safeguard the rights of women, for raising awareness and improving education, for empowering women to a point where they no longer need to always rely on a man for protection and support. The struggle to liberate Egyptian women is a struggle to ensure they have sufficient freedom to choose – and this can be realised only from within society. It is, after all, the Egyptian mother that brings up the next generation of Egyptians.