Saturday, November 14, 2009


Ooohhhhh Maasssrrraauuuwwwwiiiii!!! Salaam min Masr, kulne mabsooteen owee hina! Masr just impossibly won a qualifier match against Algeria to get them that much closer to going to the World Cup. I just got back from watching the match in an energy-packed coffeehouse, and will do the same for the final match between them on Wednesday. I returned to my dorm to find 30 Masreaat celebrating with ululations and ruckus dancing and screaming in the common room. There are red, white and black flags streaming from every car, horns and hollers filling the streets, facepaint, and excited Egyptians everywhere. We are all Egyptians today!
I am now lying in my bed attempting to recover, but I think I'm coming down with a cold. I thought I'd use the lazy opportunity to inform you all of what it means to be a woman here. This has been one of the foremost topics on my mind since I arrived, since it is a challenge I face every day, and because my one-on-one course is about Gender Studies. It has been the ultimate example of mixing my personal experiences with an intellectual angle. Here goes, as I try to consolidate my emotions, religion, society, economic factors and history into a meaningful explanation.

On a day to day basis, life has become much easier to deal with as a female here. At the beginning, I couldn't stand the stares I got from every Egyptian. This includes women, which was even more infuriating, as I expected some solidarity, but as a Western woman showing skin and hair, I am a walking sin. I quickly learned that wearing skirts above the ankle would attract more stares, adjusted my clothing a bit, and learned to take it. I can't go into certain cafes, and at a place like the concert I went to in Cairo a couple nights ago, I am often one of the few females. I have a good street face: I don't look at anyone, just straight ahead with a tough "don't mess with this Gringa" look. It doesn't bother me as much anymore, although I of course find some men to be hypocritical dogs who deserve to be punched.

Some people back home were surprised when I told them virtually every woman is covered here, as they remembered traveling the region and not seeing as much higab before. This is due to a greater Islamization of society occurring after the 1967 war with Israel, when high aspirations of Arab nationalism came tumbling down. Nasser had failed and Jerusalem was lost. Why? Their answer was because they had been bad Muslims, straying too far toward Western immorality. Radio programs, books and pamphlets with Islamic encouragement started to be published, and the higab and the beard became more common in the streets.

Why do women even wear the higab, or the niqab (the one with only an eye slit)? Ah, the never-answered question. Here is my fuzzy comprehension. Now, I have not read the Quran Kareem, but I have been told it does not explicitly demand a woman cover her head; it suggests she cover up in vague language. My clearest understanding of the phenomenon comes from an intense conversation about religion with one of the Egyptian girls (a Muslim, I escaped conversion though) here in the dorms (in Arabic, thank you very much.) She explained to me how alcohol is forbidden in Islam because it clouds a believer's mind, makes them forget the righteous path and their faith in Allah. Sexual temptation does the same thing, and seeing a woman's hair, body, or even face, tempts men. So at this point you are all thinking what I am: why is it a woman's responsibility to reinforce a man's faith?! Mish 3adl, not fair, but it's all I have to offer.

This is not to say that women have no presence or role in this society! It is just less than we are used to back West. It also depends on class, as it would anywhere. More well-off Egyptians tend to be more liberal, practicing Islam less or more inwardly. On the other hand, if an Egyptian girl comes from a poor family, she will be married as soon as possible to relieve the burden to her father, exemplifying the cycle from uneducated daughter to housewife. And that is not to diminish the role of mother or wife, as many of you admirable women know are some of the hardest jobs in the world. But the idea that a woman is only good for those roles is the danger in this society. Thankfully, I know many impressive women here: the Egyptian girls I live with are getting educated, many of them to be nurses and doctors in this country's deplorable health system. My professors are powerhouses who are nurturing change and growth. These women don't need to be saved from the higab, or from the harassment on the streets, nor do they want to be. They make their choices because they love Islam, or Egypt, or both. If they create their own paths, I respect them.

I have learned about some outstanding Egyptian women in my course, which is taught by 2 similarly impressive doctors, both of whom I deeply admire. In terms of Masr's history, in the times of British influence and during the rule of Mohammed Ali and Saad Zaghloul (first couple decades of 20th century), Hedy Showrii founded the first female union in Egypt and the Middle East, helped run a female committee on the Wafd party (around before Nasser), and wrote about and for women. Nebwiyya Musy was the first woman to get her high school diploma in Egypt, and went on to found a very successful school for girls and publish curricula for the Ministry of Education, along with other influential writing.

Want to know a little more? The following 2 links are to recent goings-on in terms of harassment and popular Islamic culture here in Egypt:

This article is about Muslim women speaking for themselves, rather than asking the West to:

This is a longer article that was in the NYT Magazine over the summer detailing how women are the world's solution to its problems:

I hope this has shed some light on the woman's role here in Egyptian society. It is a constant struggle full of paradoxes! It is often hard to wrap my head around my emotional and intellectual reactions, but I know I am both fascinated and moved, confused and frustrated. I want to return to Egypt this summer and do thesis research on women here, with the help of my 2 professors here, InShaAllah.

Chew on that! Lighter blog entry about Upper Egypt soon to come, my heloweens (sweet ones).



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