Greetings from Cairo part XIII
Published in Ishtar 4/2009

The Secrets of the Egyptian Female Soul

translated by Anu Toivonen

The western world often thinks the Muslim women are in a weaker position compared to the men, that often the women do not have the same opportunities and that their life is more restricted. While this is partially true, there is another point of view – that of the Muslims woman’s.

Islam will teach that all people have their place in this world. Based on biology, it is easy to divide men and women in separate categories: irrespective of religion or customs, the women’s physical weakness compared to men and their ability to create life has kept the women close to the camp fire ever since the dawn of humankind. The changing world will also change some of these requirements: supporting the family does not necessarily require strong muscles or lightning reactions, the largest male does not always rule the roost. The human habits and customs have changed all over the world.

Male foreign politics

Islam sees the man as the head of the family and it is his responsibility to support the family and ensure its well-being. He cares for his extended family and ensures the family’s survival in the best possible way. Because of this, many things reflect in the family’s respectability and honour. Respectability will guarantee the family’s better treatment in everyday life, better marriages for its members and, in general, higher position in the community.

Gossip is an important form of entertainment in small circles: everything is long and carefully talked over and molehills become huge mountains. If a family’s lifestyle or manner changes in the slightest, the tongues begin to freely wag. A new galabeya or abaya is worth mentioning, and if instead of the normal three-pound (approximately 40 cents) purchase of fruit you happen to buy them for six pounds wild speculations are made on what happened, who is going to visit, what is celebrated or if there is just extra money in the family and where it came from. In such surroundings everybody knows everybody else’s business and the family reputation can easily be lost even because of an imaginary misstep. Within the family, the husband is responsible for the wife’s reputation, father for the daughters’, and brothers – especially the oldest – carefully watch after their sisters. Often one man has several roles – and a flock of women to watch after.

Internal relations between women

Within the four walls of the home, the women have their own roles: they look after the family – bring up the children, clean the house and feed the whole family. Men are supposed to work outside the home, the women to uphold it.

In the ideal situation, the women would not have to work at all outside the home. Especially the young women in Cairo, after finishing school or the university, find a paid job. After getting married or, at the latest, after the first child is born most of them are happy to stay at home and realize their ideal way of life.

The women are proud of their part in life. Usually, there are several women in the family to share the household work, and time is comfortably passed while chatting and working. In some families it is a point of honour for the women to absolutely bar the men from the kitchen, and they strictly hold on to their territory.

Laundry hanging outside the house is also a source of respect in the community: the whiter the laundry, the better a laundress a woman is. It is common to show the linen cupboard to a visitor and the visitor later tells to others of the straight piles of linen.

The women are also responsible for interior design and the men are happy to give their wives free hands in this. As the Egyptian selection of furniture is rather limited, the same sofas, bookshelves and wardrobes with very slight differences can be found in practically every home. The family’s financial situation has probably a larger influence on the differences in interior design.

In some families, the mother takes care of all the finances: she collects the wages from those working outside the home and distributes money according to need. These women have power in decisions on the family’s use of finances even in larger matters. On the other hand, if the mother should acquire some own income for example by selling vegetables, she may not tell the real value of her business to her husband. These women are capable of earning more than their men can know and they are also able to use the money as they see fit.

The miracle of birth

Small children are wanted and a newly wed couple is expected to announce a pregnancy within a few months of the wedding. Even before there is an actual marriage contract between two families or, indeed, before there is any idea of a future father for a child, young women are planning for a child and eagerly waiting to have one. I once heard of a case, where a marriage between a young woman and a young man was discussed: one of the factors in favour of this marriage was that both of them had thought of naming their future son by the same name. Both had long considered this point and it was also discussed while making the contract. I often feel that, for the girl, the actual husband is not very important at all, but that the small bundle to rock in her arms is the dream-come-true.

Egyptian families tend to be large. There are any number of siblings and first and second cousins, and brothers and especially sisters soon learn to care for the smaller ones. The daughters quickly grow used to handling babies and, all untaught learn the role of a mother as they grow up.

After a child is born, the woman’s name will change at least outside the immediate family, and sometimes even within it. The former Yasmina may become Umm Mohamed (Mohamed’s Mother) or Umm Sahar (Sahar’s Mother); a woman will be called after her oldest son or, if there is no son, after the oldest daughter so her name may change twice during her life. Changing the name the women is known by also enhances the importance of motherhood. The woman leaves back the childhood and also her time as a bride, her old name is forgotten, and including the child’s name in the way she is called is bound to change her identity.

Being childless is a tragedy and childless couples are deeply pitied – especially the woman is treated compassionately. If no offspring is produced, the husband often either divorces his wife or takes another. Children are so important to a woman’s identity that a childless woman may often experience herself as being incomplete. Nor does she want her husband to be left without an heir, so she may even find a new wife for her husband herself. Adoption is unusual in Egypt.

Seeking a spouse

Even small children are presented with potential marriage partners within the family and the parents and the rest of the family will keep talking about these “couples” all through their childhood. Even if these marriages may never take place they mould the children’s way of thought and the girls start to wait for their marriage when very young. Also the early assembly of the trousseau makes the future marriage seem more real.

Weddings are an important occasion in a woman’s life. The local music videos present love and loving couples as regularly as everywhere else, but the fulfilment of the dream differs in Egypt: it is the wedding celebration. An engagement ring at the end of a video guarantees the happiness – and success – of the woman. In one music video by a male singer, he selects the most pleasant lady among a group of women presented to him and the video ends in a happy wedding party.

When a young woman marries she secures her future and she has a husband caring for her – at least in theory. She proves she is a desirable member of the family and community. Getting married used to be, likewise, an important sign of position also in Finland and even today, the world ‘spinster’ has a negative connotation whereas ‘bachelor’ never did.

Many things change for the young woman after the wedding. The girls keep waiting their own wedding, the celebration, their own part in it and their day as a princess. At the time of the engagement, they receive gifts and they feel they are at the centre of things and never really come to think what it means to be married. The young bride will exchange her family for his husband’s and move sometimes far away from her own home, in which case family visits are difficult to achieve. She will in all likelihood live within her husband’s family and their customs; the food does not taste the same and thing are just done differently. They just have to endure this stage before the children strengthen their position, as this is and it is expected to be a part of the woman’s lot.

Beauty and the femme fatale

Even though the differences are not great while children are still babies or very small, some slight variation exists in how the children are treated. The girls’ ears are pierced and you sometimes see babies and small girls wearing bracelets. In the western world these would be considered dangerous and in older children, they would be thought to hinder playing. The girls are very early taught to be beautiful and pretty ruffles and bows are absolutely necessary. In Finland, these dresses would not be considered practical as the colour-matched outfits do not tolerate machine-wash and the ornaments soon fall out. These little Egyptian ladies are fully aware of their attractiveness and will continue to carefully consider the details of their outfits while growing up.

Beauty is hard currency for a woman and a pretty face will raise a woman’s worth in the marriage business. After the marriage, this beauty is directed towards keeping the husband. Even though she may walk fully veiled on the street, at home with her flowing hair and her make-up on she is still desirable to her husband. Soft words, coy looks, and charming brushing of her hair are her weapons and a way to hold his interest. A wife may also want to dance for her husband in the bedroom, as so often depicted in Egyptian films, and this is entirely acceptable as it happens only between the two of them and the woman is not publicly presenting herself to other men.

Even though all around the world the human life cycle is relatively similar – birth, childhood, marriage, having children, old age – the life of Egyptian women may be more homogenous than in the western countries: many of them share their hopes, future expectations and their past. In the west, the women compartmentalise their life: there are family, work, hobbies and other interesting matters. The Egyptian women happily settle for family. Hobbies are largely unknown in Egypt as the men usually have no time after the working day and, depending of the family income, the women might be able to fit in a hobby but it just isn’t a part of their world.

All in all, the women’s life is centred on the family and its internal affairs as well as being a mother. The women find these important and consider them to be their responsibility in life. Largely unchanged, these role models are inherited by their daughters.




Photo by Päivi Arvonen

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