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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/

Women: Urban and Rural. Part 1 (June 22, 2009)

Egyptian rural women.

Women are not the same; neither are men.

The single main difference among women is the location: urban or rural residency.  Traditions and customs are influenced by opportunities to change; the more the opportunities in quantity and quality the quicker the pace of change.

Since no change is for ever acquired or taken for granted, women have to be more vigilant in preserving the gained rights by more sustained organization and unity: men are always waiting around the bend to usurp any gains that women benefit through legal aspects or State laws.

Men (patriarchal societies are dominant nowadays) rely on the power of religious myths to back their arguments and to hold on and maintain their privileges.

The Internet might bridge the gap to some extent in information, but there is no viable alternative to actual opportunities for diversity in job openings.

This post will report the visit of Laurence Deonna in the Middle East in 1968. The better part of her book “Women: Struggle of the land and of sand” is located in Egypt, in rural Said, thousands of kilometers from major urban centers and the Capital Cairo.

The author takes appointment to join Father Ayrout, a Jesuit Copt, on his regular trip to rural Egypt in the Said. Of the group we find Samira (a young grandmother), Alphonse (a young Jesuit and the designated driver), Farida, and Anissa (a social assistant from Jordan).

Rural Said regions

Knots of urchins gather by the car as it ascends south along the Nile River. The car passes the tiny villages of Beni-Souef and Minia.

The first Christian village they stop at is Manhari. Copt, Catholic, and Protestant cohabit; each sect has its own church.

The “houses” are of mud with no windows; the only entrance could be considered a window; dead wood and straw are saved on the flat roof where the wife and children spend most of their days. On the roof hens are raised, the wash is dried, and cooking done on small petrol stoves.  Inside the only room, the entire family cohabite with a goat, and a few chicken. A large bowl is used to wash cloths and the bodies. As the Nile overflows, it carries away those huts.

Every family cook its own bread; the custom wants that “on bread baking day” the family splash flour on the face as sign of prosperity.

The newly wed bride has to wait to become pregnant before she is allowed to step out the house. Once married, the customs used to be that the wife was not to step out of her house.

Mother-in-law made sure that traditions are observed and honor saved and intact. It was not rare to witness young boy of 14 complaining that their pregnant wives are giving them headaches by frequent complaints.  The wife is to keep the money for selling eggs and vegetables.  Any furniture she carried into the house is hers.

Father Ayrout demands of women to wear long sleeves and cover any mini-skirt with a robe.  You cannot see apparent differences with Moslem villages.

Misery is preponderant as well as odors.  The fellah (peasant) is a carbon copy of paintings shown in Pharaonic times. In church, the genders sit separately; three third of the seating banks are reserved for men; women sit in the back on the floor or stand behind a wooden paravant (separation sliding door) or in the gallery.

Missionaries went as far as offering gifts to encourage women to mingle with men, but the habit of tradition always prevailed.

The group crosses a large canal on an ancient barque carrying donkeys, cows, men, and women to reach the vestiges of a monastery in Deir Abou Phani. This village has been transformed into a necropolis.

Each year, pilgrims of entire families stay for 3 days in chambers inside tombs.  A recently widowed woman keeps her home for months: the more intense her chagrin the longer the reclusive period.

It is a life where people dialogue with the dead and presenting condolences is a central social activity. There are professional women for lamenting, chanting, and crying; they paint their face black or blue and cover their head with mud and clap hands.   The anniversary of the dead is sacred.

The curious little girls wear colorful worn out cloths; their plaits are concealed in handkerchiefs; red or orange colored towels serve as veil.

Women wear long black robes and all the bracelets and necklaces (kholkhal) they own.  Twice a year, henne is applied not only on hair but on hands and feet; apparently, henne takes care of louse, rejuvenates hair and stops its shedding.

Long lines of little girls are cleaning cotton leaves of warms all day long. During harvest periods (September and October),  school classes are empty in the few educational centers. They are relatively freer to move around and dress than in more prosperous villages since survival overtakes the rules of moral.

Contraceptive campaigns are more successful among lower classes since it is a critical matter.  Superstition is prevalent and oral tell-tales of traveling individuals connect the rural people to the urban centers since television and radios are rare commodities.

Girls who terminated high school complain that they have the feeling of being invitees in their homes; they go out together because they are considered different from the lot.

In Sefta, the Sisters of Charity collect abandoned babies in alleys: unwed mothers fear for their lives because “honor” revenge is common and vendettas are carried out from generation to generation.

Women are more severe in observing these tradition; they close the door till the men avenge the dishonor.  Usually, the husband denounces the wife to her family; someone is then ordered the task to kill.  The entire village keeps mute during investigation. 

In rural Said, terror of chastisement pursue girls in their universities; girls are always apprehensive that they are watched when they join universities. After graduation, girls return to their village where no opportunities await them.

In rural Said, women are less affected by the bilharzias disease (affecting the liver) than men; thus they have more energy and vigor.

The newly wed groom has to find excellent reasons, such as the need to search for a job, in order to be relieved of sexual exigencies.  Regular pregnancies render women frail; many of them have trachoma and are almost blind. Many babies die prematurely.

Only male kids are counted; a fellah would say: “I have 3 kids” even if he has four other girls.  Many women wish that the husband is rich enough to marry another wife so that they are relieved of yearly pregnancy.

Sterility is the sole fault of women; they are abandoned to fend for their survival. Giving birth is done at home, the Pharaonic style, in a sitting position.

Superstition demands that no clothes or preparation for the newly born are undertaken for fear of the “evil eye“.  Mothers believe that focusing on beautiful things that interest them will influence the one to be born. Thus, they cut and paste on the wall what they find in magazines.

The newly born is washed for the first time a week later; then he is placed in a sieve and projected three times to the floor; loud noises are produced to accustom the baby to noise.  Five out of ten babies in a family survive.

Excision (mutilation of the clitoris) is practiced among the poorer classes. This custom is African, so that wives would not feel the urge to find pleasure outside her husband.  They say that men smoke hashish to compensate for the lack of sexual desires of their wives and to prolonged intercourse.

Urban Cairo

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. Women associations attended international forums on women rights in the thirties.

Even in urban Cairo with over 16 millions, women are still superstitious: Many ceremonies, traditions, and practices are pre-Islamic.

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 Pharaonic custom.  The complaints in the written messages concern mostly the treatments of mother-in-laws.

Many statutes of famous people are wrongly considered as representing saint “sheikhs”.

Note: Read part 2 on urban women in Egypt https://adonis49.wordpress.com/2009/06/23/women-urban-and-rural-2/

Of Sand and Land: Women to keep up the struggle (June 4, 2009)

 

            It is 1968. Syria is undergoing a state of socialism after the humiliating defeat in the war of June 1967.  Aida is forty years old and has so far five kids; the oldest boy is 16.  Aida got lost boarding a bus and the family had hard time locating their mother.  Aida had to confess that she is illiterate and could not read the name of the stop stations.  The eldest boy was angry and refrained to talk to his mother because Aida had given him the impression that she could read.  Actually Aida used to get herself busy in the kitchen when asked about school homework.  One day, one of Aida’s daughters brought her the good news: the women syndicate is opening a school for the grown up illiterate.  A year later, Aida is helping her younger babies with their homework. (You may read my post “The Blemish”)

            The Union of Women in socialist Syria was very active and opening schools and artisan shops all over Syria and encouraging women to learn about their legal rights and responsibilities.  One lady teacher said “The Bedouin women are the brightest.  They are like blank pages needing to be filled.  The Bedouin women come to school with dignity and confidence wearing multilayer of colorful and bright clothes, compared to the drab and plain clothes of urban older illiterate women; the Bedouin women proudly shake the gold bracelets on their forearms.”    

 

            It is mid July 1967.  Nada is trotted by three urchins, bare footed and oversized blouses.  Nada is heading to the “potable” water truck; a long file of women waiting for their turn.  Nada lives in tent #56, street #7 of a makeshift refugee camp 40 kilometers of Amman.  Nada lived a week ago in a house by the foot of a hill and tended a small garden across from the Jordan River in the town of Bethlehem.  Nada’s husband Kamal is back to Amman for the nth time searching for a job.  The eldest daughter Amina is ten and attending the refugee’s school tent run by refugee instructors.  The eldest son Farid is twelve: Farid is not seeing life in roses; life to Farid will be scarlet red: he is getting military training with the Fedayyins after school.  What was taken by force will be recovered by force: International Diplomacy has proven its efficiency 20 years earlier when Nada’s parents were chased out of her home in Jafa, never to return.

            The Israeli soldiers kicked her door in Bethlehem while sitting for supper.  The neighbor called wolf “they are going to blow the house”; the same kind of “caring” neighbor who called wolf 20 years earlier.  Nada is wearing her gold bracelets on her arm with pride: her husband and parents loved her and she showed her loving pride. It cannot look any poorer around the camp but Nada’s Palestinian robe with golden brocades fits a princess.

 

            Mounira is a young and fragile looking woman; she is a delicate flower sitting on a oversized couch in a villa in the Capital Amman.  Mounira was chased out of her land in Palestine; her husband has been studying and working in the USA for two years now and is asking her to join him. Mounira is a militant with Al Fatah, the new Palestinian resistance organization in the Diaspora.  During the failed incursion of Israel in the village of Karama on the borders in Jordan in 1969 Mounira and 15 other women fighters and nurses joined the battle when they heard the news on the radio.  The Palestinian fighters could not believe their eyes; the militant women fighters can late but resumed the task of taking care of the wounded and the transport to nearby hospitals.

 

            Cairo, Egypt 1968. Basna is a young social assistance.  She says: “the emancipation of women in Egypt might have progressed quickly. Our husbands do not consider us vulnerable and need protection but still not as equal.  Marriages are still based on economy: the man wants to know how much the job of his prospective wife will compensate his misery salary.  Many women rent their flat and could enjoy the luxury of not moving in with their mother-in-law.  Men are consulting their wives on important decisions, especially in financial matter.  Thus, as social assiatant I have to figure out courses on how to educate women in handling money and family accounting.  A few years ago, the eldest girl had to sacrifice education for the cadet because of lack of resources.  Many school girls have to supplement university expenses by prostituting with rich people in between courses.

           

Note: These accounts were extracted from a French book published in 1970 by Laurence Deonna who reported on the conditions of Palestinian refugees after the June 1967 war.

Of Sand and Land: Women to keep up the struggle (June 4, 2009)

It is mid July 1967.  Nada is trotted by three urchins, bare footed and wearing oversized blouses.  Nada is heading to the “potable” water truck; a long file of women waiting for their turn.  Nada lives in tent #56, street #7 of a makeshift refugee camp, 40 kilometers of Amman.

Nada lived a week ago in a house by the foot of a hill, and tended a small garden across from the Jordan River in the town of Bethlehem.  Nada’s husband Kamal is back to Amman for the nth time searching for a job.  The eldest daughter Amina is ten and attending the refugee’s school , in a tent run by refugee instructors.  The eldest son Farid is twelve: Farid is not seeing life in roses; life to Farid will be scarlet red: he is getting military training with the Fedayyins after school.

What was taken by force will be recovered by force: International Diplomacy has proven its inefficiency, 20 years earlier, when Nada’s parents were chased out of her home in Jafa by the sea, never to return.

The Israeli soldiers kicked Nada door in Bethlehem while sitting for supper.  The neighbor had been calling wolf  for ever: “they are going to blow the house”; the same kind of “caring” neighbor who called wolf 20 years earlier.

Nada is wearing her gold bracelets on her arm with pride: her husband and parents loved her and she showed her loving pride. It cannot look any poorer around the camp but Nada’s Palestinian robe with golden brocades fits a princess.

Mounira is a young and fragile looking woman; she is a delicate flower, sitting on an oversized couch in a villa in the Capital Amman.  Mounira was chased out of her land in Palestine; her husband has been studying and working in the USA for two years now, and is asking her to join him. Mounira is a militant with Al Fatah, the new Palestinian resistance organization in the Diaspora.

During the failed incursion of Israel in the village of Karama on the borders in Jordan in 1969, Mounira and 15 other women fighters and nurses joined the battle when they heard the news on the radio.  The Palestinian fighters could not believe their eyes; the militant women fighters came late, but resumed the task of taking care of the wounded and transporting them to nearby hospitals. (To be continued)

Note: These accounts were extracted from a French book published in 1970 by Laurence Deonna who reported on the conditions of Palestinian refugees after the June 1967 war.


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