Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What Is It Like to Be an Egyptian Woman? | Basma El Baz
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"Are you repressed by your family? Were you forcefully married? How come you are here in Italy, are you allowed to travel alone?"

Meeting different nationalities from all over the world, I get to hear how those I met perceived an Egyptian to be or behave and most of the times they get surprised from what they hear or see because they discover that their perceptions are mostly inaccurate stereotypes or that they simply generalized special cases. Occasionally, some questions made me feel so frustrated because I --as an Egyptian or an Arab -- felt I was being seen in a very negative and very wrong way.

I decided to put together all the questions I got and answer them below. The answers -- though they may seem personal -- will be telling about how things are for many women in Egypt but certainly not all.

So as a start, I am a freelance editor, 30 years old and happily single. Let the questions begin:

Your ancestors are the Pharaohs. How do you feel about that?

I am person whose ancestor's lasting legacy dates back to 3100 BC and whose country was ahead of almost all Middle Eastern countries in many fields. Egypt had the first university, first constitution and first parliament in the region. An Egyptian woman was the first female member of Parliament in the Arab world. To all Arabs, Cairo is the Hollywood of the Middle East. This mix of the sophisticated ancient Egyptian civilization and the renaissance my country started in the 20th century is something I take much pride in.

How come you are speaking good English? You studied in an American school?

I was in a governmental language school. I studied all subjects in English language and was taught by Egyptian teachers. I then enrolled in a public university and I studied English literature. It is perfectly normal to find Egyptians speaking English, and you might be surprised if you knew we also have many who speak French and German.

Why are you still living with your family?

Because that's the way things go in the Middle East, we do not leave our homes when we are 18 and go live in an apartment on our own. We -- whether you are a man or a woman -- keep living with our families until we get married. Living alone rarely happens and is usually considered a strange thing if it does.

When our parents get old, it is solely our duty to take care of them, so putting them in a home for the old people is not widely accepted, actually it is considered unethical.

How is this affecting your independence?

I live with my sister and my mother, and I am the bread winner for the family. Yet I can say I am as independent as it can get, no one in my family imposes anything on me and I can take my decisions freely. I consider myself a part of one unit which is my family, and I take this unit into consideration whenever I take a decision. When my work chose me to relocate to another country, my family supported my decision to travel because that was in my career's best interest. But after almost 2 years living abroad I took the decision to come back after we discovered my mother is suffering from Alzheimer because that was in my family's best interest.

So maybe this is not your definition of "independent," but it is ok. We do not have to have the same meaning for it, what is important is that I feel it as much as you do.

You are 30 and not married. How your family is dealing with that?

Well, my mother expresses from time to time how she would love to see me married but that's about it. My family wants my happiness, and as I did not find a proper match they are fine with me being happily single. I feel amused when my brother replies to a neighbor saying "Oh, we hope your sister gets married soon" by saying, "She has more important things to do." Ain't he awesome?

You are wearing a hijab. Do you consider other Muslim girls who are not veiled as less religious?

I do not consider what people wear as a sign of them being religious or not, and anyway, how do you know if a certain person is religious or not? You don't. It is a thing between each person and god, maybe she doesn't wear a hijab but to Allah she is a way better person than me because of the things she is doing in her life.

Is it ok for you to have a boyfriend?

Yes it is, but being in a relation with someone does not mean I will be having sex with him. It just means that we love each others, we hang out and we dream about the future together. Sex comes after marriage.

If you got married and your husband decided to marry another one, is that ok for you?

Hell no! Marrying one wife is the rule, having a second wife is the exception. As far as I understand Islam gives men permission to marry again on condition that the first wife has to be told and that this is to be allowed in certain cases (such as having a wife who is unable to bring children but the couple do not wish to separate and the wife is ok with him marrying again). It is also true that many men remarries just for the sake of it and that many are making the exception a rule. The Egyptian society, though it accepts the exception as a rule, does not really look so positively to a man who remarries on his unknowing wife and mostly he is looked upon as being unloyal.

So in a nutshell, if I am married and my husband decides that he wants to marry again I will immediately file for divorce.

Are you allowed to drive?

This is Egypt, not Saudi Arabia. So yes, women can drive.

What do you think about ISIS?

How can this be a question? But anyway I will answer. First of all I hate calling this terrorist group Isis because it is the name of a goddess that represented health and wisdom in the ancient Egyptian civilization. I call them Daesh (a name they hate so much that they threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who uses it in public). Now back to your question, any sane person on this earth will tell you that this is a barbaric terrorist group. They represent themselves only, and they are using religion as a mere tool. I know very well that if a fighter from Daesh sees me, he will kill me because I do not share their beliefs.

How are you coping with the problem of sexual harassment in Egypt?
This problem can be found in certain areas more than others. Since I returned to Egypt in April 2015, I was not subjected to any kind of sexual harassment. Perhaps I became an expert in avoiding it, I can scan the street and spot the could-be-sexual-harasser, I know which areas in the city to avoid and if I had to go in one of these areas I ask a friend to accompany me. Egypt unfortunately suffers from this plague (which ranges from cat talk and may reach to a physical touch) in many streets, and this issue exasperated after the revolution. It is true new laws have been made and many civil society movements are trying to counter sexual harassment, but these efforts need to be more and more magnified.

How do you see Egypt now?

Egypt is facing huge challenges yet I love my country and I believe it has untapped potentials that if used well could unleash the genie and do wonders.