Women in Upper Egypt: Between Domestic Bliss and Public Debasement

Women in Upper Egypt: Between Domestic Bliss and Public Debasement

“Break a girl’s rib and she’ll grow 24 more.” “To father a daughter is to be burdened to the grave.” These are just some of the proverbs that girls are raised on in Upper Egypt. Cultural heritage can generally be seen as an expression of the reality of a people. Thus such ideas are entrenched in the minds of fathers and brothers, who in turn consider women to be inherently a source of dishonor. In turn, women are ever the culprits, and the scapegoats for every wrong, whether committed by them or not.

Patriarchal Paradoxes

Sweetening her ears in the dark, humiliating her in public, whispering sweet nothings in the bedroom, disdaining her among family members. When they are alone, he demands of her the boldness of the women he sees on screen, but in public she must appear the paragon of chaste virtue. In private, he seeks her opinion, listens to her views, and admires her intelligence, then later takes credit for her opinions in the presence of family and friends.

“I got engaged to my husband out of love and mutual understanding. He’s my cousin, and since we were children it was known that I was betrothed to him, and him to me. Since the day that we got engaged, he described me as the reasonable one, until one day, he was very angry, and he told me, ‘Fatma, we need to create some ground rules, so that we can continue living together.’ Then he went on to make a list of these rules, as I stood there in silent stupefaction,” Fatma Saad tells Raseef22.

“Among these rules were that I am not to express any objections while he is speaking, and if I have any comments about his opinions or actions, I am to hold my tongue until there are no family members present. I recalled that I had said in front of his mother that Mohamed made a mistake when he began a business with his friends without auditing the accounts first, and so deduced that his words came as a reaction to this. Despite having told him the same thing previously, when he didn’t seem to mind, so I assumed he was just angry because he lost a lot of money.”

“A year and a half into the marriage, the same thing happened again. During a dispute between his sister and his sister-in-law, he decided to send his sister-in-law back to her parents’ house. I disagreed with his decision, thinking it was unfair because he had only listened to one side of the story; his sister’s. So I stated my opinion very simply, in the presence of his father and our cousin. He hit me, and said: ‘Mind your own business,’ then ordered me to go back to my father’s house, just like his sister-in-law, although I wasn’t even part of the problem in the first place,” she continues.

“Although he only ever refers to my as ‘my love’ and ‘my darling’ at home, he’s convinced that custom is king, and that I have to comply in silence as he treats me with hostility in the company of others, so that no one views him as subordinate.”

‘Victims of an Illusory Honor’

Women in Upper Egypt bear the brunt of the blame for any mishap; if a child falls ill, or if she gives birth to a girl instead of a boy, in which case she is dubbed the bearer of bad luck. If her husband dies, she is the bird of doom, and if she is accused of anything, she is deemed guilty by society, which plays the role of judge and jury.

Hajer is a college student in an Upper Egyptian village who met a young man at university. He asked for her parents’ address to ask for her hand in marriage. But fate would dictate a different course.

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Shaimaa Sayed, a friend of Hajer’s, recalls to Raseef22: “She was very excited when he came to ask for her address; she’d always had hopes of starting a new life and living in the city, and getting a job after she graduated. And so she gave him her parents’ address and her brother’s number. And indeed, he contacted them, and came to propose to her. But Hajer’s parents met him coldly, and offered only a harsh rejection. ‘We will not marry our daughter off to someone we don’t know, whose origins are unknown to us,’ they said. He took it as an insult to him and his family, and within a month, a video had circulated throughout the whole village, in which Hajer stood naked in front of him, while he was also unclothed.

“The next morning, the mosque announced that Hajer was dead, while her parents prided themselves on burying her, amid endless hearsay among the village locals. Her father was arrested, before being released a few days later.

“I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it. The stories people told about her and their denigration of her; all the terrible things they said about her. I knew Hajer well, and I was certain of her principles. I had witnessed the whole story from the beginning, from the moment he first saw her, and sought to talk to her, until he visited their home. But I couldn’t speak a word in her defence; if I did I would be the next target of their slander, since I was her friend and went to university with her.”

Sayed moreover noted that shortly after her death, the real video emerged, revealing that it was not really Hajer who stood there naked, but rather that the initial video had been manufactured. Everyone began silently blaming her father and brother for their hastiness in killing her. “But will blame bring Hajer back?”

Sayed moreover confirms that, as far as parents are concerned, a young woman is just a commodity. Her honor is safeguarded in the form of her hymen, until they relinquish possession of her to her husband. Any other ambitions she might have, or any mistake she might make costs her her reputation, and ultimately her life, even if she is not the guilty party.

‘A Woman is Forbidden from Expressing Her Emotions’

Sanaa Mostafa, a poet from the governorate of Qena, says: “I began writing poetry in the first year of middle school, and my English teacher encouraged me, until I went to college and participated in a number of poetry festivals in the university and outside of it. I remember I used to invite my father to attend these festivals. He would only come on the condition that I did not recite any poetry, as this would embarrass him in public. Until a renowned poet, who was friends with my father, told me in his presence: ‘Write whatever your imagination dictates, and don’t allow anyone to dictate the conditions of your creativity, not even your father.’

“Of course I consider customs, traditions, and society’s perception of me to be obstacles to my creativity, and sometimes they kill this creativity. Readers are always searching for the author’s character in the text, trying to tie in what they read with the author’s personal life, particularly if they know the author in person. What, then, if the writer is a woman?”

She answers her own question, saying: “The female writer resorts to avoiding topics that arouse people’s curiosity and prying. She raises her concerns with caution, in a patriarchal society in which so much is permissible for a man, simply because he is a man. Meanwhile, women are prohibited from doing the same things, and society is quick to cast upon her the shadow of its distorted thinking. And so, I advise every true female writer to unleash her imagination, if she wants to have an effective role in her society, and if she wishes her words to become immortal.”

Of the most difficult circumstances she endured on her journey, Mostafa says: “When I am invited to travel to attend a conference or poetry festival, or to participate in a seminar, there are a lot of responsibilities and arrangements I have to take care of that men simply don’t consider in the same situation. A man can just pack his bag and get on the next train or plane, without thinking of any consequences or responsibilities that might obstruct his mobility. Several times, while convincing my husband that I had to travel and making arrangements for all my affairs with great difficulty, my mother would admonish me, saying: ‘How can you leave your husband and children and travel alone?’ No matter what developments occur, society is still narrow-minded regarding the position of women in it, as well as their rights to mobility and travelling without the guardianship and supervision of men.”

Discrimination Among Siblings

Dr Mona Al-Mahdy, Professor of Pharmacology at Assiut University, affirms that, if they have to choose which child to educate, they will always choose the male. To them, the female’s natural place is at home, then her husband’s home.

“There is a major double-standard in Upper Egypt. Men call for women’s rights, pronouncing that they represent not just half of society, but its entirely. But when faced with the possibility of a woman being their superior at work, they vehemently reject the idea,” Al-Mahdy says.

She noted that when she wrote poetry for a period while she was studying, her teacher told her to continue writing, but not to sign her full name on her work, and to suffice with her initials, so that people would not view her negatively. Even though her poetry was not sentimental, women who write poetry in Upper Egypt are viewed as unrespectable, although a man is permitted to write whatever he pleases.

Al-Mahdy explains that when a woman gives birth to a daughter in Upper Egypt, she is referred to using a male name (i.e. Umm Ahmad), even if she has not given birth to one yet, as though a girl’s name were a disgrace that they must renounce. Thus begins the discriminatory treatment of boys and girls inside the home. The boy is granted the inalienable right to interfere in his sister’s life, denying or allowing her anything, from the clothes she wears, to when she can go out and with whom. A brother can even go through his sister’s phone, if he so pleases.

Black-listed Jobs

Certain jobs are denied women in Upper Egypt, as people generally think it preferable for a woman to stay at home. If a woman resists and completes her education and goes on to look for a job, her best options are to work as a teacher or government employee in local councils. Should her ambitions extend beyond this, and should she wish to become a nurse, or journalist, or artist, for example, she will pay the price by having her reputation shredded.

“The most difficult thing a young woman faces as a journalist, particularly in our narrow local societies in Upper Egypt, is the attempts to besmirch her reputation. The situation becomes even more difficult if she chooses to become an investigative journalist, amid a society that is rife with administrative corruption and professional irregularities,” says Abeer Al-Adwy, a journalist from Beni Suef.

“The most difficult experience I endured was during the tenure of a previous governor, while I was investigating administrative and professional violations. The governor found this to be unacceptable, and I was surprised to be met with a vicious battle and relentless attempts to distort my image. They used every dirty trick in the book, trying to pull me into several traps. Women are much more susceptible to defamation if they try to undertake their journalistic work ethically.”

As for society’s rejection of women working in certain professions, she says: “I was about to get involved

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