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Thursday, 18 March 2010

A New Perspective

Gosh! It's been a long time since I was last here but recently felt like putting this on paper.

This topic came to mind when I was speaking with my boss the other day. He has me doing a lot of errands at the moment so I do a lot of walking and sometimes I catch the bus. I think I said something about having a car and he asked me if I could drive. He was genuinely surprised when I told him, “yes, I can drive". I have been driving for 39 years now, and I have driven here in Egypt when I first came as a Tour Leader because the company provided a car. It's possible you may have seen my earlier blog about the driving here which is based on my personal experiences.

This set me thinking about all the things I have observed, heard and learnt since I arrived in October 2007 that are very different to the way things are in Europe.

First of all, if you stray from the main tourist centres (and sometimes even within these centres) you won’t see many women around, especially in a working context. This does not mean that none of them work. It’s just that those who do work tend to be in a back office or a work situation where they are not on public display. For some this is a free choice but for others it is imposed upon them. Some women want to work but are not allowed to. In contrast, others don't want to work but are told they have to!

The majority religion here with over 85% of the population is Islam and within Islam the man is very much the head of the household and responsible for ensuring that the whole household follow the rules of Islam as laid down in the Qur’an and extracted from the Hadiths (these were written by the followers of the Prophet Mohamed [pbuh] and are either quotations of his sayings or notes of those things and behaviours he either approved or disapproved of). To quote the entry from Wikipedia: “Hadith are narrations originating from the words and deeds of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Hadith are regarded by traditional schools of jurisprudence as important tools for understanding the Qur'an and in matters of jurisprudence. Hadith were evaluated and gathered into large collections mostly during the reign of Umar bin Abdul Aziz during the 8th and 9th centuries. These works are referred to in matters of Islamic law and history to this day. The two main denominations of Islam, Shi`ism and Sunnism, have different sets of Hadith collections.” Most Moslems in Egypt today are Sunni.

Here, in Egypt, women are legally allowed to work if they want to. However, there is often a great deal of pressure from husbands, fathers and other family members on a woman not to work. The husband’s word is still law in the home here, so if he says, “no” then it’s no! In fact, Egypt is the most liberal of all the Arab states and in some other states it is actually against the law for women to work in paid employment.

Certainly, Cairo is a very liberal international city and much of what I write does not apply there. In Cairo you will see a lot of women driving and working in customer-facing roles – something unheard of in other parts of Egypt. Cairo is Egypt’s showcase to the rest of the world that here, too, life can be as modern as anywhere else. You will see plenty of women walking the streets in western dress and behaving just like they might in London, Paris, Berlin etc. It’s when you leave metropolis and start to experience embedded local cultures that you notice the changes.

So we start to get a picture of women in general here. Most areas of their lives are governed by the men in the family and by tradition which plays an exceptionally strong role. In a really traditional household, women do not work outside the home. They have a job which is to look after the home, have children and bring them up. If they do work it has to be out of public view and in a situation where they do not have male colleagues. Women do not have male friends generally and friendships between the sexes, once puberty sets in, is strongly discouraged. In fact, from this age, the lives of the girls in the family change dramatically.

They go from being carefree children to becoming demure adults. This is the time when they will start to wear a galabaya (the long shapeless garment that covers them from neck to wrist and ankle) and headscarf. Again, in Egypt, by law the wearing of these items is a personal choice but peer and family pressure is usually brought on to ensure that a girl complies. Indeed, in the most traditional families, the women wear a headscarf that is also a sort of cape reaching down to the waist, so that the neck is fully covered, and then a face covering, leaving just the eyes visible, and gloves. The gloves are so that they do not actually touch a man even by accident while they are out. This may seem draconian to us from the west but many women here embrace this form of dress because they see it as declaring to the world how decent and respectable they are. If they are of marriageable age this declaration of decency and respectability is seen as an important issue by any potential suitors making them a more attractive proposition as a wife.

It is also necessary to realise just how important it is for a woman to marry here. A woman needs to be married so that there is someone to care for her during her lifetime. The extended family is very important – being married she will have children who will also get married and have children and they will all feel an obligation to look after their parents and grandparents as they age or if they become ill (Egypt is not a welfare state).

In Egypt there are supposedly no arranged marriages and a woman is free to choose her own husband. In practice that may not always be the case. Frequently, when a man reaches a certain age his parents will start to look for a bride for him. When they find someone, they will approach the girl’s parents about the subject of marriage. If both sets of parents agree then the young people are asked if they will also agree to the marriage. In most cases they will agree. They may not ‘love’ each other in the way we understand in the west but they trust their parents to have found them someone who has all the right qualities to fulfil the role they will need to undertake. In order to marry a man must be able to support his wife and have somewhere for them both to live. In a poor economy this often means you will see men in their late 30s and even into their 40s getting married for the first time to a young girl in her late teens. Whereas he needs to be financially secure and able to care for a family before he can marry, girls are encouraged to marry as soon as possible (again this does not apply in Cairo). It is considered important by both parties that they are both virgins when they marry. Much of the behaviour expected of women actually seems to be designed to minimise any sexual allure leaving no temptation for a man to stray.

So, what are the roles they have to play during this marriage?

Well, the woman has to be a faithful wife, available for her husband when he wishes, to bear and raise his children and to keep house. The man, on the other hand, has to ensure that there is somewhere to live and money for food, clothes, education, health care, and anything else they need. In fact, one area where Islam seems biased in favour of women (which is rare) is that if a woman has personal wealth or income from a job (if she is allowed to work) it is hers to keep. She is not required to share with her husband when she marries. The husband is required to pay his wife a dowry upon marriage and in the event of divorce he has to let her keep it. Thus she ends up with all her own money and whatever dowry she received.

Another visible indicator of the cultural differences can be seen in the holiday resorts. It is not just foreign tourists who visit places like Sharm El Sheikh, Hurghada, Makadi, Safaga etc. Egyptian people (the better off who can afford it) also like to holiday in these places. You will notice that, just like everyone else, they like to laze around the pool or on the beach, even getting into the water to cool off from time to time. Look at the women, though, and you will never see them in a swimsuit. They relax fully clothed. When they get into the water for a swim it's with all their clothes on. It's a bit like the UK in Victorian times or earlier when women would either swim fully dressed or change into a bathing costume that was virtually a dress. Some hotels make it difficult for them to use the pools as they ban the wearing of clothes (even so much as a T-shirt) in the water. This affects some tourists who like to wear a T-shirt while they swim as protection against the ferocious summer sun but the hotels will enforce the ruling. They will tell you outright it's to stop people getting into the water fully clothed for health reasons and if they allow a T-shirt it's only a short step to having to allow everything. Fortunately, here, on days when these women would want to swim (they have to use the sea) it's hot enough that everything will quickly dry.

In the home here, women are for the most part valued by their men folk and tend to be consulted on most issues with their opinions carrying weight. However, in public they keep quiet so that the men are demonstrably the ruling force within the household. In fact, they may not be taken out very often. It is more common to see men out alone leaving the women at home and only bringing them out on special occasions. However, the extended family is much stronger here than in Europe so you will often find the women getting together to socialise in each others' homes.

There are all sorts of other ways in which women are expected to demonstrate respectable behaviour. For example, they would not even consider extending a hand for a handshake with a man they don't know well and they would not normally speak directly to a man they don't know. This need for modesty even extends to some aspects of housework. For example, it is considered unseemly for a woman to hang her underwear out to dry where a man may see it in passing.

What is noticeable here is that there is a vast contrast between acceptable behaviour from a man and acceptable behaviour from a woman (some may have seen my earlier blog about what some people will do in public!). I have often queried this contrast and recently a friend of mine who has been living here for around 13 years put it very succinctly for me. She said that she has come to the conclusion the women are responsible for the chastity of the men because men have admitted they are weak and unable to keep their trousers fastened if faced with the slightest temptation. You may or may not agree but I thought she put it very well.

There are issues that have arisen as a result of tourism in Egypt. Tourism is very big business and brings in billions of foreign dollars a year. When considering tourism they talk in terms of tens of millions of visitors each year. Many of these visitors come to experience the Red Sea and/or desert so will go to the main tourist resorts such as Sharm El Sheikh or Hurghada. Therefore, behaviours in these resorts are not what you would expect in "real Egypt".

The tourist industry is labour intensive and demands thousands of workers to look after the millions of tourists who will arrive. Therefore, many of the Egyptians you meet in these resorts will not be local. They will have come from towns and villages very far away in order to work. Many of them will work for relatively low wages in hotels but have their accommodation, food and uniform provided for them. They send most of the money back to family in their home villages or towns. They find life in the resorts very expensive and tend not to go out socially very much because it costs too much. For example, a local bus ride that costs 25 piastres (about 3p UK money) would only cost 5 piastres for the same distance in their home towns. So while we may think life here is very cheap that view is not shared by the Egyptians who work here and look after us.

Now consider that these men are a long way from home and they are here alone. Their families remain in their home towns. They spend a long time away. Typically they will work 6 or 7 days a week for 5 or 6 weeks before having just 5 or 6 days vacation to go back home. They get to meet tourists and expats (like myself) and are quite amused by what they see because it is so different to what they are use to.

For example, many of them find it very difficult when they see women in very small bikinis in the hotels. This may be normal in Europe but the more conservative Egyptians will see this as absolutely outrageous behaviour from a woman. You can hardly imagine what they think if a woman is actually topless! Another thing they find extremely strange is when they find expat women living alone (there are quite a few in Hurghada). For one thing, they don't understand how we can cope because they don't really accept the ability of women to live independently. For another, they don't understand why anyone would want to live alone. Remember, this goes completely against the grain of the local culture. Therefore, if you are a single woman in Egypt and a man starts telling you how you need a man in your life, how it's not good to be alone and how you need a husband he may just be selling you a chat-up line but it's also true to say he genuinely believes this because this is, within his culture, how women are supposed to be.

In a tourist resort you will often find an Egyptian man dating or "married to" a foreign woman. These "marriages" are often just a paper affair barely enough to comply with a law that prohibits unmarried couples from co-habiting (if you're both foreign they don't care, it's only if one is Egyptian it's an issue). In the towns and villages that most of these men come from it's unthinkable to marry someone from another land. Traditionally they marry a cousin either from their own or a nearby village. However, in "touristland" they can get away with it and it becomes common. Many of these men, though, leave the "wife" behind when they visit family at 'home' and if you investigate you may well find another wife there too.

I did ask some local men why foreign women are so popular because I wanted to know if it was only a more liberal attitude towards sex and co-habitation that attracted them. In general, the response was that although these are positive factors for them more importantly is the behaviour of foreign women towards the men in their lives. They like the fact that foreign women will hold them like they mean it and want to be close to them explaining that most Egyptian women will hold their husbands like it's a duty they feel bound to perform.

So, if you visit a tourist area (this would include Cairo and Luxor) and get to thinking it's not so different to home, then think again. Once you wander off the beaten track it's another world with another set of rules where you will need a completely new perspective.

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