Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ya Bint el Baladi.


Sometimes I get a very sharp reminder that here in Cairo, a woman’s expectations for life, are more like those of UK maybe 60/70 years ago. Today, speaking with a friend in distress, was one of those times.

I am not talking about the life of most educated, westernised girls, although certainly laws regarding equality in the workplace etc etc have a long way to go, but of the poorer girls who really don’t have much say in shaping their own lives.
The majority.

This is a summary of a girl’s life taken from real life situations and examples that I know of, from girls themselves.

After she leaves school, at the age of an unmarried girl’s life in Egypt is this;

She wakes up (in a bed that she shares with her mum and/or sister) and goes to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for the entire family. Once everyone has eaten she washes all the dishes and tidies everything away before going round the house, making all the beds (not just her own) and cleaning. Then she either prepares lunch, or helps her mum do so, eats and the again washes up everything for the whole family. After lunch there might be a little time to rest in front of the TV, assuming the entire house is clean before preparing dinner. However, she will have to jump up to fetch anything her brothers ask her to go get for them so they can remain in front of the TV. Clothes have to be washed by hand in the bathtub (assuming they have a bathtub... ) which involves bending over scrubbing perhaps up to as many as 8 peoples clothes in cheap detergent which ruins her hands.

This is assuming she doesn’t have to go out to work. If she has a job, she is expected to hand over all her earnings to her mum to put towards the food and rent. If she has brothers/father who work then she usually won’t be allowed to work even if she wants to. If her ‘men folk’ don’t have work, or well paid work, she may well be financially supporting them as well as her mother and sisters.

Families often take in relatives from the countryside to live with them here in Cairo, so often the girls will be cooking, cleaning and running after (and perhaps financially supporting) her cousins in addition to the rest. She may also end up marrying one of these cousins and staying in the family home with her husband, doing all the same work for the rest of her life, if there isn’t the money for their own place. She may have to limit her private, personal life with her husband to times the rest of the family go out... or ‘borrow’ her mums bed for a short while, when the husband decides.

If the girl is still unmarried by the age of 25, everyone, especially her, starts to panic. Everyone is on the lookout for a groom for her, but if she finds one for herself she is treated as if she had started to go to Cairo's "red light district" ,Sharia Harem and sell her body, with everyone in her family questioning her morals and making accusations. If she speaks to any man over the phone her brothers take her phone off her, break it, beat her, and call her all the names you can imagine. Her mother sits and watches it all happen, unable and unwilling to engage in yet more stressful confrontations.

If a groom is found for her, at least the law has been changed in the last 10 years so that she actually has to be present and sign her own name to make the marriage official. Before then the father could sign for her and girls would find themselves wives without ever having given consent or even meeting the man. Only within the last 10 years.

Again, if a potential groom is found, she might find he demands she quits work before they can marry. Not wanting his fiancée to be out in the big bad world, potentially talking to male colleagues or customers. If her work involves her coming home after dark then he assumes the worst and refuses the marriage on grounds that she is therefore probably a prostitute.

If once she is married she is unable to have children, the man has the right to divorce her, and/or take a 2nd wife. Often wife number 2 will live in the same home as them and wife number 1 will have to cook and clean and look after the others children. She can leave... but she will be alone with no man to look after her and the near impossible task of trying to find a man who doesn’t want children. She is an outcast from society without any of the social statuses with come with being 'wife' or 'mother' .

The girl feels rather fed up with all of this. She wants to travel to see the world, experience how others live. She cannot travel abroad without a signature of her legal guardian, assuming she could afford the passport and visa for wherever she wishes to go. Even to go on a day trip to Alexandria etc she would have to prove she was travelling with people her family trust... and be home before dark.

If the girl has had enough of being the unpaid slave for her entire family, who treat her with no respect or gratitude for all the work she does at home, and wants to leave home she can’t. To live away from home before marriage is as good as admitting to being a prostitute. Of course, to earn enough money to pay rent anyway for herself would be difficult on the low wages that young girls in work receive. She cannot leave without her reputation being in ruins and this is a society where reputation is everything and 'honour killings' do still exist.

Throughout all of this, somehow she has to gather together her 'bottom drawer' for her wedding. When a couple get married in Egypt the man has to provide the flat and the large furnishings, beds, sofa’s etc. The girl is expected to come into the marital home with enough clothes to last her for years, all the towels, bed linen, curtains, all the kitchen white goods and crockery etc. If her family has money then this is their responsibility. If they only have enough to just get the food on the table and rent paid, then a girl knows with a sickening of her heart that she will have to continue being the unpaid slave, since she will never be able to afford to marry. Often in these cases young girls end up marrying old men, perhaps as the 2nd or 3rd wife, just to be able to leave their life of drudgery.

All of this after she leaves school. Often fathers remove their daughters from school early. Before they get their diplomas or anything if he feels that she will ‘see too much of the world, hear things she shouldn’t hear’ if she stays in school, especially if she should do well at school and go onto college or university. Some don’t see the need to educate daughters, better they stay at home and learn how to cook and clean properly, since this will be their job for the rest of their lives. If a father chooses to remove a daughter from school no one, not the girl, not her mother, not the school or the government can interfere. This is still very common today. Not with the families with money... but the majority of Egyptians don’t have money.

I started writing this to give a little insight into the lives of those girls less fortunate than others. The ones whose voices never get the chance to be heard. The more I write them more I realise I know about this horrifically sad and shackled sector of Egyptian society. I am sure some people will refute what I am saying... not wanting me to air the negative side of life in Egypt, preferring to deny that it exists. It does exist. I know girls personally who have gone though every single example I have set out above, and more that I haven’t written about because I figured a lot of it is so horrific that people just wouldn’t believe me. Including a girl swearing she would marry any ‘Kelb’ (dog) of a man who asked... just so she could get away from her life, as aware as I was when she said it that she would probably only be swopping one hell for another.

I don’t know what the answer is, other than education, education, education.

I know of one girl, whose own brother voted for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate in the current presidential elections purely because he said they would clear the women out of the streets and the jobs and leave the jobs open for the men. (whether they would or wouldn’t isn’t the issue here- the fact is that this was THE reason this man gave his own sister as to why he voted as he did, that is what he deemed as a positive step forward for this country)

In UK, the word ‘bint’ is often used as a derogatory term for a girl, brought back from the UK army when they left Egypt.

 In Arabic the word actually means daughter, or girl.

I’m sorry to write such a long, serious, painful blog entry.

These girls give me the dance art form that I love and live by. The least I can do is acknowledge the lives they are forced to live. Please, fellow lovers of belly dance, give the ‘Binet’ (girls) of Egypt a thought from time to time. These girls will grow up to be the mothers of Egypt. 

God Help Egypt.

12 comments:

Anna said...

I rarely get to read blogs these days, but just happened to be online as you posted this. I too am waiting for some idiotic responses to it, saying you don't know what you're talking about. Without a doubt, it will be a guy, because every girl and woman in Egypt knows this is true. Sadly.
Sad subject, but great post! Now I'll start reading backwards!

Anna said...

I rarely get to read blogs these days, but just happened to be online as you posted this. I too am waiting for some idiotic responses to it, saying you don't know what you're talking about. Without a doubt, it will be a guy, because every girl and woman in Egypt knows this is true. Sadly.
Painful subject, but great post!

Anonymous said...

Yes, education! But also the fundamental belief that a woman is in charge of her own life. Women don't require permission - for anything. My husband is my partner, not my master. And he believes that too. Changing a law isn't sufficient without changing the society that supported the initial law. How does that happen? I admit, I don't know.

Adham Khairy said...

Dear Anna,

I'm going to disappoint you here and support every single thing Lorna said. The situation here in Egypt regarding women's rights is shameful. What's worst is that what Lorna has described here is in Cairo, and I'm sure that if she moved to the rural areas, things are going to be even worse.

I had big hopes the revolution was going to bring change to this miserable situation, by at least starting with providing good education which I believe is the base for any kind of change, but it seems things are going to take a bit longer than I expected.

Thanks for the good post Lorna.

Rhona said...

I think writings like yours is the best way you can help the cause of the repressed female. We are so fortunate to be able to live the way we do , at least here in North America. I do to try to make a concious effort to talk about womens rights or lack there of. I give you full marks for acknowledging and reporting on the struggles of these brave girls. Proud to be your cousin.

Lorna (aka BellyLorna!) said...

Thank you all so much for your feedback- whether here or on Twitter or Facebook.

Rhona- I am proud to be your cousin too (that comment made me well up!!!)

Anonymous said...

This is a perspective of a person who is not Egyptian, Arab or Muslim although some issues do seem odd this is a way of life for some people and to each his own.

OrientalIndianRose said...

I've had some family members behave like this to me in the UK! Luckily I was able to say no and stop it going any further. Sometimes educated women's families do this to them too.
As for ordinary uneducated women (and men) in Egypt, they seem first and foremost uneducated about Islam. I must say that the Quran itself never advocates this kind of treatment of any woman. It is ignorance which causes repression. And yes, my own feeling, having read writers like Ahdaf Soueif, who recently published a book (Cairo:My Revolution) is that Egyptian women of any background will organise themselves and help and educate each other as they have in other so-called repressed societies. Also Western women can be pretty unfairly treated too (just look at the body/weight fascism and sexual double standards, egged on by the Western media, not to mention pay and work discrimination, experienced by women in the West).
Our Egyptian sisters I am sure will come forward, but they need the space to say what it is THEY want.

From A British Muslim Bellydancer and Baladi Dancer.

Anonymous said...

SO glad we have a white saviour to lead the way for us poor Arab women with the vague solution of "education."

Alaska Awalim School of Dance said...

To the previous poster, it doesn't look to me as tho Lorna is trying to be any kind of "savior," she is opening a dialogue which is important to the entire global community. In th US, many women do not realize how recent our own rights, both legal and socially enforced, were fought for, how fragile those rights are or how easily we could lose them. What Lorna described above is not too different from what I saw in the poorer classes when I lived in Central America 15 years ago, tho there was more legal support and a degree of having many men leave the community for work made for some differences. I would like women in Egypt and around the world to know that we aren't here to "save" them, but weare here to help & support. Beyond that, we do need to discuss as a global community what does work in helping women find their rights to self-determination.

Anonymous said...

How one-sided and typically British! Most things the author mentions are consequences of one simple fact: Egyptian society is much poorer. And Brits have helped it a lot.
The truth is that each system has its own provisions. I would rather be married to a decent Moslem, than to another Westerner who keeps his bank accounts private (I have been both).
I am disgusted to live with British mates who cannot wash after them and believe that this is ‘slavery’. Despising homework and delegating such tasks to foreigners is so very British … And I am disgusted to watch my constantly suffering from hangover British female co-workers, crawling from one pub to another on every occasion. Some of them pay rent to their parents (!!!!). Everyone has a PhD, so enough education. Is it your idea of feminist achievement? Certainly not mine. I do not see anything wrong in returning home before dark to people that respect you.
Cultural differences, as it happens.

Anonymous said...

Well, we were waiting for the stupid comment, "Anonymous" above has kindly provided it!

Yes, it probably is to do with poverty, I don't recall Lorna alluding to the reasons for these differences, merely their existence, so how is that one-sided?

Absolutely each system has its own provisions, there are many things wrong with the West also, some of which you mention, although I will NOT apologise that the vast majority of the population have a good standard of education, sorry for you if you are such a product of the Mubarak-era propaganda that you see this as a bad thing!

As for making the comparison between being married to a decent Muslim or a selfish Westerner, that is a ridiculous comparison for many reasons. For a start, "muslim" is a religion ALSO PRESENT in the West. "Western" is geographical/cultural. You are aware that Muslim Westerners exist? Many of them being from Egypt, who have decided life is better for them in the West. "Anonymous" is a case in point: no qualms about moving to the West presumably for financial reasons but has to endure "continual suffering from hangover [sic] British female co-workers" (presumably your male colleagues don't get hangovers). If the suffering is so overwhelming, you have the CHOICE - there's that word again- to LEAVE!

And of course, please try to find me any person on the planet who would rather marry a selfish person or a decent person...? Demographics are irrelevant!

And lucky you: you have the CHOICE. This is the POINT! For whatever reason (culture, poverty, geography, you choose), there is a huge chunk of a population who live in a way women in the west could not imagine, and would not hear about were it not for observers like Lorna. It is not an imperialistic throwback of sentimentality, "pity the poor native", it is a stark reminder to women outside of Egypt how lucky they are to have the choices open to them.

And in the interests of being "balanced", at least "Anonymous" doesn't deny the reality of the situation at least, that at least shows some degree of open-mindedness compared to many who simply deny the reality these women face. Well done you for your liberalism.