Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘rural Said

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




June 2023

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