Interviews about rights of women in Egypt – Hopes and Aspirations
Since the Arab Spring, Egypt has become a country that has got the attention of the entire world. The fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime supposed the starting point of a new age for Egyptian society. In a country that has suffered many changes lately, one of the hot issues is the gender system and women’s rights. Nevertheless, how do women live there? What about their thoughts and feelings?
Therefore, in order to answer these questions, this little initiative aims to make us approach (from outside) to that reality through experiences of some women who want to share their stories, thereby learning from their impressions, thoughts and feelings. These are the stories of two of them.
Maryam Massoud (35 years old) specialized in Science during high school, graduated top of her class in art direction from Fine Arts in 2003, started an English-teaching career in 2005 and joined the American University in Cairo in 2008. The same year when she embarked on her journey in self development and spirituality, for a fellowship in Teaching English as a Foreign Language of which she graduated in 2010. Although she is now a teacher trainer and testing expert in her field, her heart has led her to make a career shift into self-development and spirituality, where her work will help focus in a more direct manner on creating change in Egypt.
MARYAM: “MY HEART AND MY TRUTH TOLD ME THAT I AM A LIBERAL PERSON, THAT I AM A FREE SPIRIT, THAT I LOVE BEAUTY AND I LOVE FEMININITY. I LOVE JUST BEING FREE”
In your opinion, how is the situation of women in your society? What about the gender system?
On the surface, a very first impression could be that women are becoming more supressed: increase of harassment, forcing to wear veil, insisting that women get married at certain age, restrictions in choices, submission in relationships… All of this has been ongoing and it has been increasing since late 70’s, when the wahhabi culture started being imported to Egypt, but there has been a very strong and subtle revolution (you see some women taking off veils, there has been an increasing of divorces, etc.) because women are awakening. They are becoming more in touch with their individuality, with their sense of being equally human… They are realising patterns that religion and the society have been enforcing onto them.
I have been noticing that we are starting to revolt. For instance, I have been noticing that some women are taking off the veil, which for some women is a battle to win against the community, against the society, against the religion… It becomes a link to many things changing within the mentality and the consciousness of each woman, although it is not a formal social movement.
Since the fall of Mubarak’s regime (February, 2011), do you think the “revolution” worked for something regarding women’s situation?
At least, I think at subconscious level this has done something in women’s consciousness. It is like there are no taboos and nothing controls me as a person. If I choose to live in a certain way then I fight for it.
Personally, I took off the veil two months after Mubarak stepped down. I’d never really made the conscious comparison of what happened to the country and then my personal decision but I think it actually helped subconsciously to that decision.
Regarding your personal story, what do you think about your personal situation as a woman? What kind of challenges you face in your daily life?
I kind of live in a bubble. That has been the most recent development of mine. I’ve noticed that I keep myself away from the mainstream. For instance, I am 35 and I am single. I’ve never been married so I have just put myself away from situations where people would be focusing on my marital status, or the lack of my marital status, better said. I have been putting myself away from dogmatic people who would look at me as the quite liberal person who is an ally of the devil, because these people are quite many in the country. Thus, I have distanced myself as much as I can from people who would not accept me for who I have chosen to become.
I step away from any sort of judgemental people altogether, but then of course in my daily life I struggle with walking in the street having risks of harassment even if I am not harassed. Thankfully, I am less harassed than many other women who are mostly veiled. I believe that harassment is mainly about a female walking in the street radiating lack of self-confidence and fear; so if a woman really believes in herself and lives from the source of her own power, it is less likely for her to face these situations. Interestingly, I believe men have like an antenna for that. If they sense that this is a weak woman, they will harass her. If they feel she is powerful, then they just step away.
Concerning my father, who is quite open-minded in comparison to other Egyptian men, there are these little things where he becomes quite Egyptian man and he gives me a curfew even though I am 35 and I am independent financially. However, I kind of understand that because it is like I have the winning bargain anyway. It is very unfortunate for me to say that, but he has “given me this amount of freedom,” but if I’m talking from the basis of how the society works then I have to use this kind of statement. It is the only thing that really frustrates me, such curfews and fights, although I have the freedom to travel over the world and to have male friends, he doesn’t question… He just wants to be sure that I am safe, so I just choose to look at it from that side so I live in peace with myself.
In your opinion, what do you think about the role of men in women’s situation in your society?
Of course, there is the patriarchy. A woman is born into a society that tells her ‘you are less than a man and you should be grateful that a man is actually taking care of you and is treating you well’, although there are lots of questions around this ‘well’ because it is not really well. That’s the main teaching of religion; that if you treat a woman ALMOST like she is a full human being then this means you are honouring her. Thus, both genders are raised to such an idea. It ends up that a woman is less than a man in MANY aspects in their lives. There is the man, he controls the woman because he was told that ‘you take care of the woman’ or ‘you control the woman’ or ‘the woman is your property in a way or another’.
Hence, this is one side of things, but then I believe that no specific gender holds the full responsibility for women’s situation and for women’s suppression or weakness because women have been told the same; and if they have enough observation and enough critical thinking and if they follow their hearts enough, they will know this is wrong. This is not the truth. They would be able, bit by bit of course, to stand up for themselves.
I may add that, sometimes, the way women suppress other women is actually far worse than a man supressing the woman. Some women in the society are more patriarchal in their thinking and dealing with other women than men actually are.
You were veiled until two months after Mubarak’s fall so, what was the turning point? Why did you decide to change your mind-set about women’s situation?
I was basically becoming really depressed because I was becoming more and more connected to my heart and to my truth. My heart and my truth told me that I am a liberal person, that I am a free spirit, that I love beauty and I love femininity. I love just being free. When I looked at the mirror wearing the veil, I started losing the connection with the girl that I saw, literally. I was like ‘this is not me’.
I remember an incident that happened exactly by the time of the revolution. I saw pictures of a woman on Facebook (an acquaintance of mine) and I saw that she took off the veil. In the past, knowing about such a situation used to annoy me and I used to feel sad like ‘Oh my god! This woman took off the veil! Such a pity! She just lost connection with god…’ But then, for the first time in my life, I looked at that girl with some sort of envy. I was like ‘Oh my god! She is really brave!’ I found that I would love to have such courage, and then I monitored these emotions and my pattern of thinking along with the loss of identity and the loss of connection to whom I saw in the mirror and in the pictures. I was like ‘Ok, so I need to live my truth. I don’t want to become one of these hypocrites who wants something but don’t do it and choose to look at the brave ones, who actually go forward, and envy them. I don’t want to become one of those people’ Thus, I ended up making the decision and then… I did it!
When you think about other women, especially younger ones, do you think your society is moving towards a change regarding the gender system?
There is polarity. Younger women are either becoming more religious or more liberal and less in touch with the heavy dogmatic traditions. I believe this polarity is for the benefit of the development on the long term because contrasts show each other. They make the other obvious.
My perception is quite optimistic. For example, you see younger women riding motorbikes not just taking off the veil. There is an increase of wearing dresses, like short dresses very feminine 60’s style. A number of young women are going back to their power, to the real feminine power and I believe that is going to increase in the long term, although I don’t have such a rosy perspective because there are who are becoming more dogmatic, more strict, more supressed…
Moreover, to be fair and quite objective, I have to point out that not all veiled women and not all religious women are oppressed. Not all of them are dogmatic. Not all of them are intolerant. Somehow, they are really good examples of what a moderate religious person would be like. I was one of these people, especially in the last period of me being veiled. I was veiled for 9 years. I was quite strict for 5 of them and then I started becoming more moderate because my heart and my soul just couldn’t take all these very harsh intolerant teachings. Hence, to be fair with these people, I cannot generalize and say that the veil is a sign of oppression. Every girl just takes her path.
In this polarized society, what is your hope?
All I hope is that everybody is just living their truth and living up to what ethics says, live in peace (both from within and from without) whatever this means. Whatever path you want to choose, choose. As long as you are not harming yourself, as long as you are not becoming depressed, as long as you are not being controlled by someone else and as long as you don’t look at other people as if they are less or as if they are lost, then this is all we need to improve as a society and to develop and grow.
Javier Milán López (27, Spain) graduated in Political Science and Public Administration and specialized in International Cooperation, Project Management and Development Processes. He has been involved in activist movements as well as getting involved into Social Field through volunteering. He has worked for NGOs at national and international level (Spain, Senegal and Egypt) as project manager assistant and consultant/facilitator. Currently, he is doing a European Volunteering Service in Romania.