BE WARNED, THIS IS A LONG POST.
I have seen the “Marriages from around the World” segment on OPRAH twice now. I have to say that I am happy that Egypt was represented but I think that one of the Egyptian representatives, Heba, an interior designer in Cairo, didn’t paint a clear picture of what life is really like here in Egypt, While Inji the journalist was more realistic.
There were a few things that really ruffled my feathers when I watched the show the first time and the rerun. I took notes when I watched the show the second time around so that I could remember the points that I wanted to refer to. (I can be such a nerd at times!)
I- Safety for Women
When Nana, the Danish representative asked Heba if Egypt is a safe place and she answered, ‘Yes, it is very safe” I couldn’t help but cackle in disbelief.
If I was to compare Egypt to Iraq, Afghanistan or Harlem, then I would whole heartedly agree, but if I was to compare it from where Nana is from, the answer would be ‘NO’!
I don’t know the women in that interview but from the way they held themselves and the way that they spoke I think it is safe to guess that they aren’t considered ‘common folk’; they are higher up the ladder than most of the population of Egypt. I am also willing to wager that most of them rarely walk the streets of Cairo and commute 96% of the time in their privately owned cars.
I walk both in Cairo and in Alexandria and I can tell you that it is a man’s country. If a woman is or isn’t veiled but looks nice, 99 times out of 100, you will either hear a crude comment or be harassed in some shape or form.
Let me give you an example of a well know incident that happened in Cairo about three years ago. It was during Eid El Fitr, (the celebration after the holy month of Ramadan, where Muslims fast) and in down town Cairo a mob of men had been to see one of the newly released Egyptian movies and they were wired! They were so tightly strung that they attacked innocent women who just happened to be passing by the cinema at that time. How bad the attack was, the news papers didn’t report. A taxi driver tried to save one of the women by pulling her in to his cab and driving away but the mob jumped the car and proceeded to attack them both. Not long after the incident and the story came to light, Imam’s in mosques didn’t condemn the mobs behavior, but they blamed the women who were innocently minding their own business!
A more recent story was published in The Community Times magazine about two girls who almost got harassed after one of the matches played by Egypt and Algeria. They had to seek refuge in a shop until the group of men gave up waiting.
These two examples are extreme cases of what may happen here in Egypt. It is more likely to happen to natives than it would be a tourist or a foreigner living here because they know that the police and the embassies would get involved.
So, I have to say that Nana’s intuition was spot on.
She probably felt even more insecure because she’s fair skinned and a blond.
What happens abroad happens here to, but it is kept very quiet.
If anyone wants to dispute this then, I am willing to provide examples from my own personal experience as well as examples that have happened to people I know.
A word to the wise;
The best way to avoid situations like these is to dress modestly, not to walk in dodgy streets alone, it is best to have a couple of male friends with you when you are out walking, try your best not to be out walking on your own late at night and never sit next to a taxi driver.
II – Conservativeness and the veil.
I loved Nana’s observation of how some of the veiled women were dressed ‘women who are covered and walking around in tight clothing and make up, it makes it very contradicting”
I personally think Nana hit the nail on the head. There are lots of contradictions in our expectations of behavior and society and for an outsider to notice it should ring some alarm bells.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been absolutely gob smacked by the double standards that exist here.
I have seen veiled women at night clubs, drinking Stella (local beer), dating men and holding hands and some times going further than second base (if they are religious and conservative this is a big NO! NO!), go into a changing room and come out wearing a bikini in front of men in public! Who are they fooling might I ask?
Granted, some girls have been forced by their families to wear a scarf on their head, so I can understand them rebelling behind their parents backs, (I’m not saying I agree with it, I’m just stating I understand it), but what excuse do grown women who made the choice have?
I have the utmost respect for the women who chose to wear the veil as a devotion to their religion and their beliefs. It is admirable when I see women who are doing it for the RIGHT reasons. It takes a lot of will power and devotion to be able to wear it.
III- Tension between veiled and non veiled women
If memory serves me correctly Oprah asked if there was tension between the veiled and non veiled women. Nana who hadn’t been here very long said she did sense it.
Again, I would have to agree.
When I first moved to Egypt in the early 90s the ratio of veiled to non veiled women was below par. There were hardly any menaqaabeen (completely veiled with only their eyes showing). It’s with in the past decade that more and more women are veiling. Some of it has to do with many Egyptians returning from the Gulf States and bringing their new-found religious beliefs that they picked up from there, back to Egypt. The second is it is the fashion, “everyone is doing it so, I better do it too so people don’t think any less of me”. The third has to do with the economic situation in the country, when the poor get poorer and the middle class is heading towards extinction many people turn to religion for solace and comfort.
My sister and I are unveiled and we have experienced quite a few things in recent years.
We would step out of our apartment building and some times a men who would happen to be walking past our building door would swerve away, turning his head in the opposite direction, whilst uttering ‘Astaghfar Allah’ which is a term said when asking God for forgiveness’ and all because our hair is showing!
(for further translation of the phrase go to the following link, http://shiastrength.blogspot.com/2010/04/shiastrength-superiority-of-astaghfar.html)
My Mum would get the same reaction too when she used to take a taxi home from work. The cab driver would utter it under his breath when she got in and out of the car.
I remember a second incident that I found quite amusing. We were at a beach resort just outside of Alexandria. The place I’m referring to is Agami, it’s a well-known place where many people go to vacation by the beach for the summer months and people walk around in their shorts, t-shirts, swim wear and summer attire. Anyway my sister and were heading home after picking up some groceries for our Mum when this woman who was very conservatively dressed comes rushing up to my sister and I and tells us that we should be ashamed of ourselves and that we should cover up and veil. She made us feel like we were walking around naked, when we were in our mid-thigh shorts and T-shirt at a beach resort.
Some times at traffic lights there will be people handing out fliers or pamphlets that promote veiling ‘Naam lil Hijab’ which means ‘Yes, to veiling’.
My sister and I usually don’t wear any religious jewelry so people automatically assume that because we are not veiled then we must be Christian.
So, the answer is Yes, There is more pressure for women to veil today than 20 years ago.
IV- Marriages and Divorces
I wrote a post not too long ago about middle and upper class marriages in Egypt and I was recently contacted by a male reader who was able to identify himself with what I had written. Most middle and upper class marriages are based on business arrangements, (please note that I said, most and NOT all).
Marriages can also be formed as an escape from living with their parents and wanting freedom from all of their rules and expectations. Which is another myth, because their life won’t be about going out all the time and having fun, it’s about responsibilities, working and taking after the home. It can often be leaving regarded as leaving one dictating house hold for another, (demanding and controlling husband/wife).
Marriages solely to cure sexual frustration are another popular reason for getting married.
The fairy tale that has been repeated over and over again from one generation to the next about how marriage is a wonderful thing and that the girl will be the lady of her own home and can do as she likes is a sugar-coated illusion of what reality is. These girls by their late teens (17 on wards) are keeping their eyes open like a hawk for an eligible bachelor. When the wedding and honeymoon is over reality sinks in and the fights begin.
There are arranged marriages, where someone would suggest that perhaps two people would make a good union. So, a meeting with the two individuals is set, either at a neutral party’s home, where the individuals can meet under the watchful eye of their parents. A few meetings may follow so that they can get to know one another better, if a match is made then an engagement will ensue and wedding plans begin. One on one dating will not be prohibited there will be a chaperone with the couple when ever they meet or go out. This happens with more conservative and religious families.
Then there are marriages based on all the right things, finding a partner to be with because they are happy with them for who they are.
When the marriages are based on all the wrong reasons, how can you not expect the divorce rate not to be high here? During my Grandmother’s era it was almost on heard of and for a couple to divorce was a rare occurrence. Now it’s has become the norm.
I have a lot more to say about the topics mentioned in the segment but if I don’t stop my ramblings now, I would go on and on forever!
I will right more about at a later date in time.