“What is it like to live in Egypt as a Western woman?” During the years I lived in Cairo, I was often asked this question while visiting my native Finland, or when travelling outside the Middle East.
My short answer was “different”.
In fact, I was asked this so many times that I decided to write a book about Egypt. I contemplated writing about how I first came to Cairo as a 22-year-old Arabic language student who hadn’t travelled much and had never heard of Lonely Planet travel guidebooks. I could explain to those who asked that I was immediately captivated by the orchestrated chaos and megapolis charm, or that the city also drove me crazy at times for this very reason.
I could tell them that every time I stepped outside my door, I had to take certain precautions: no bare shoulders or knees, sunglasses to avoid eye contact with the idle men on the street, an iPod so I didn’t hear the whispers of men I passed by, which usually qualified as sexual harassment. Indeed, according to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, 98 per cent of foreign women reported being harassed. But, more importantly, 83 per cent of Egyptian women also reported harassment, sometimes on a daily basis. This number did not change based on whether the respondent wore the hijab (headscarf) or not.
Harassment is a nuisance and sometimes a danger to all women in Cairo, and I am constantly impressed with the Egyptian women working to put an end to it. There are brave Egyptian women who are also fighting against the cultural practice of female genital mutilation, and for the right to make an individual choice about wearing the headscarf in their workplaces or universities, be elected to parliament, or be allotted custody of their children in case of divorce.
And so instead of writing about my life as a foreigner in Egypt, I decided to highlight the voices of the strong, amazing Egyptians I saw everyday and who inspired me.
Among these, feminist author Nawal el-Saadawi is perhaps the best known. She is in her 70s and still an active speaker and writer on feminism, health and politics.
Lesser known to Western audiences, but not less influential in Egypt, are Hiba Ra’uf Ezzat and Hiba Qutb. Ra’uf is a moderate Islamist affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. She looks to Islam as a way to improve women’s status. She doesn’t call herself a feminist, although she espouses “feminist” values, believing that a woman can be president and that women should serve in the army.
Qutb, on the other hand, is a sexologist. She wears a headscarf and regularly appears on Arab satellite channels to discuss sexuality, surprising audiences by arguing that Islam invented foreplay.
Another woman whose courage impresses me is a young costume designer in Cairo, Hind al-Hinnawy. She became a celebrity in Egypt after demanding her estranged boyfriend, an actor with whom she had an urfi, or informal marriage, prove his paternity of their daughter. In an unprecedented scenario, she went on television to publicly share her story, and Egyptians – including the Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa – took her side. And even when the estranged boyfriend refused to take a DNA test, the court nevertheless declared him the father.
After a two-year legal battle, her daughter, Lina, received a birth certificate and was finally recognised as an Egyptian citizen.
And it is not only contemporary Egyptian women who continue to surprise and inspire. The Egyptian Feminist Union was established in 1923 by a charismatic heiress, Huda Shaarawi only three years after the successful suffragette movement in the United States. And in the 1950s, an Egyptian feminist named Doria Shafik went on a hunger strike demanding equal rights for the country’s women.
This is why, when I sat down to write a book about how I felt about living in Egypt as a foreign woman, I instead ended up providing a broader look at Egyptian society as a whole, of the Egyptians, both male and female, who defy stereotypes and create change in politics and culture, religion and economics – and who do it with a sense of humour. You cannot write about Egyptians without writing about their jokes, hence, my book Hold on to Your Veil, Fatima! was born.
* Sanna Negus is the Middle East correspondent for YLE Finnish Broadcasting Company and author of Hold on to Your Veil, Fatima! And Other Snapshots of Life in Contemporary Egypt (Garnet 2010). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).