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Women: Urban and rural (Cairo, Egypt). Part 2. June 23, 2009

Egyptian Urban Women

In the previous article I focused on women in rural Said of Egypt.  This post is on Urban Cairo, the Capital of Egypt, as reported by Laurence Deonna in ” Women: Struggle of the land and of sand” in 1968 for a project “Searching for the woman“.

Cairo keeps assimilating increasing numbers of rural citizens.  Cairo is a metropolis of over 20 millions and increasing at a high rate.

About one third of every new born will end up in Cairo Birth control policies, education, and facilities are not making any appreciable dent in Egypt.

President Nasser called the large birth rate as “politics of rabbits“.  A young woman says “as long as I am pregnant then my husband will take care of me”.

When Deonna tell her that her baby might die if not taken to the hospital, the girl replies “I will have another one, Inch Allah

Rural women have added superstitions to their heavy rural baggage; many ceremonies, traditions, and practices are pre-Islamic and of African origins.

Reading current novels and social accounts you realize that society in Cairo has not changed appreciably in customs and traditions since 1968 as of the accounts of Laurence Deonna.

The heavy international investments are not directly concerned with social improvement.  State institutions are not able to sustain the flow of immigration from rural Egypt and the high rate of birth that no laws or pressures could slow down.

The customs and traditions of rural Egypt are basically setting the tone for any kinds of reforms from the center to the periphery.  Unless reforms are focused on the peripheries then the major urban centers in Egypt will continue to drain any surplus of economic development.

Women demonstrated along side men in 1919 for self-autonomy of Egypt from colonial Britain. Women snatched the right to walk unveiled on streets in 1923.

Panels carried by demonstrating women in 1924 read “Educate your girls, respect your wife; a civilization is judged by the wife“.

Ceza Nabarawi was the right hand assistant of the first leader of women movement Hoda Chaarawi.  Ceza lived in Europe in her youth and refused to wear the veil when she had to be back to Egypt. Thus, she locked herself up for a month.

One windy day, Ceza had her veil and hat blown away; a kid returned them to Ceza saying “I bring your head back“.  Ceza said young girls were locked up in harem at the age of 12 (in rich urban families since peasants had to work).  Women drove out in closed carriages with heavy drapes drawn. In theaters, wood netting separated women from the public.

Hoda Chaarawi was the daughter of a pasha and was married at age 13 to her mentor. She separated of her husband for 7 years.

Hoda founded the magazine “L’Egyptienne” of her own money (father’s money) and Ceza was the editor-in-chief for 15 years; this magazine did not contain kitchen recipes or questionnaires such as “Are you sexually jealous of your girl” or “Do not forget your feet, the main seductive part of your body”.

“The Egyptian women” magazine exposed their rights, political analysis, art critics, and reports on women congress that the women association attended around the world. The “Women association” attended international forums and conventions on women rights and the Palestinian problems in the thirties and forties.

The magazine told stories of women conditions in Northern Africa, Iraq, Sudan, and even China.  Ceza met Gandhi in 1931 in Alexandria because the British authorities refused Gandhi to disembarque.  Gandhi handed Ceza a letter that she published praising the Egyptian women movement as the first messengers for peace and progress; the irreducible disciples for non-violence.

Ceza and Hoda struggled for closing down the privileges of the foreigners in Egypt.  The foreigners houses could not be violated by Egyptian police forces and there were two courts of laws; one for the Egyptians and another for foreigners.

In 1938, the movement held a gathering of the Middle East women in Cairo and discussed the Palestinian problem because Jews were dispatched to inhabit Palestine and form a majority.  The Palestinian problem was also discussed at length during the Copenhagen congress in 1939.

The “Arab Women League” was established in 1944. The Palestinian problem was also exposed at the “International Women Alliance” in 1946.

Hoda Chaarawi died in 1947, a few days after Palestine was partitioned.  Ceza founded in 1951 “Women Popular Resistance Committee” and worked for the Egyptian population to vacate the Suez Canal.

Deonna is visiting the Zoo of Cairo; there are hippopotamus, Indian Elephants, and monkeys among other animals. There is a seat sculpted in stone that fitted the behind of King Farouk who had a “pleasure grotto” in the park when he was King of Egypt.

A woman decked in a long white robe is praying in the zoo. Women are more superstitious than men here; is it because women have learned to be in intimate contact with invisible forces?

Women invoke the Imam or the Sheikh most of the time. Imam Shafeyi, dead 13 centuries ago is their favorite Imam: women line up in front of shrines asking favors; stamped letters are also sent to shrines in the present tense with the name of the sender and the name of her mother, as is the case in Pharaonic custom.  The complaints in the written messages concern mostly the treatments of mother-in-laws; retributions demanded go as far as gouging eyes of the nemesis. Many statutes of famous people are wrongly considered as representing saint “sheikhs”.

Among the superstitions is for families to keep secret engagement transactions for fear of the “spirits” meddling in the affair.  A young girl is readying to get wed; she dips her feet in water containing all kinds of green vegetables, a loaf of bread under her armpit, in her mouth a piece of sugar and a piece of money, and the Koran on her head with a lighted candle on top of the Koran; these things symbolize successively expectancy, food, a soft tongue, prosperity, protection and light that the wife will bring to her new home.

Exorcism and bewitching ceremonies are common. The “sheikh tariks“, including women, are specialized in mystic and magic ceremonies; they distribute hundred of magical recipes for any kinds of condition and situation.  The “sheikh tariks” have huge influence among the superstitious citizens.

The “zaar” is an African ceremony practiced by women as therapeutic outlets and for exorcism purposes. In a corner incense is burned to attract “djinns”.  A dervish turns, dances, and orchestrates the ceremony.  Women pick up the dancing tempo until they lose conscious.  There are the flutist, the tambourine, and the singing specialists. Sitting on straw mats, other women are waiting for their turn.

It was the fashion among the high classes, but now is practiced by the lower classes.  By the mosque Al Hussein blind women assemble. Frightful women mumble unintelligent words accompanied by gesticulations; they are the “megazibs” or fools who pretend to be possessed by the spirit of Allah but do not respect religious holidays.  They are usually simple minded who have been patients in asylums. Many women avoid prosecution by joining this “sanctified” crowd.  The “zikr” is a ceremony practiced by men, close to mosques, and has mystic and religious meaning.

Note: Read part 1 on Egyptian rural women https://adonis49.wordpress.com/2009/06/21/women-urban-and-rural/


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