Monday, January 02, 2006

Growing Up Female

Growing up isn't an easy task in any case. I certainly wouldn't want to do it again, and I recently got a new perspective on the process for some of our multicultural kids in Cairo. They say that birds of a feather flock together, so it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that many of my friends are foreigners married to Egyptians. Likewise, many of my children's friends are the product of such marriages. While I've always been aware of the stresses that I knew could plague such mixed culture families, there are some that I'd never noticed.

Until very recently, it was the law in Egypt that although the children of an Egyptian man and a non-Egyptian woman could be Egyptian, the children of an Egyptian woman and a non-Egyptian man were not. A recent change in the law allowed the children of Egyptian women (especially those married to Sudanese) the Egyptian nationality, enabling them to attend public schools instead of private ones and to take part in Egyptian society. It cannot be said that the legal and social position of men and women in Egyptian society is equal. Boys are granted infinitely more leeway in terms of behaviour than girls are...after all, they are just boys and boys will be boys. As the product of a North American upbringing, I never had that particular prejudice, and my son was stuck with very much the same rules and regulations as my daughter was subjected to.

So it was a bit of a shock to me to be talking with some of the young women here and to discover that many of them felt, as the products of mixed marriages, that they really had no future in Egypt for the next few years. These are well-educated, bright young women. They are the sort that Egypt really needs to provide some of the yeast in the dough, but they are very, very aware of the fact that they don't fit in. The girls spoke of the constant questioning of their "Egyptian-ness", a process that they've gone through for years, many of them not being traditionally Egyptian in their looks. They speak Arabic, but are often answered in English to their extreme annoyance. They have learned to be fiercely independent and self-contained from their trials as children who were not accepted as proper Egyptians....trials that many of their mothers have been unaware of over the years. For myself, my status as a definite and official foreigner was never in any doubt, and it never occurred to me that my children might not be accepted as "real" Egyptians.

Now in university, these young women are questioning the wisdom of coming back to Egypt after graduation to work here. They've been living independent lives in Europe and North America, and are all too aware that in coming home they will be subjected to the questions of relatives, friends, and simply nosy strangers as to why they might want to have an apartment of their own rather than living with their parents, or why they aren't interested in getting married right away. Furthermore, having had the mixed blessing of being raised in two cultures, they are not traditional Egyptian women in any sense of the word, and they do not necessarily see the reason for the traditional assumption that they will marry Egyptian men. This brings us back to the issue addressed by the recent legal changes.

If these half Egyptian young Egyptian women were to marry non-Egyptian men, what would their children be? They would like to be able to live in Egypt and see the possibility of their children being Egyptian as a positive step, but at the same time, they express concern at putting their children through the difficulties that they encountered regarding their own cultural identities. As it is, for the Muslim girls, it would be expected by the entire community and the legal system that their prospective husbands would convert to Islam, since the marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man would not be accepted at all, nor would it be a legal union in Egypt. For girls who have been raised to believe that they can be all that their brothers can be, these restrictions are painful.

Most of the girls see a possibility of coming back to Egypt when they are perhaps in their 30's, to come back as adults established in their working fields. They don't want to forget about Egypt as their home, but want only to be accepted as Egyptians who aren't quite the same as other Egyptians.


The Eyewitness said...

It is my first time to comment here, but I've been reading your blog for long time now. This post raised up 2 main ideas in my head.
First about the "yeast in dough", they are really the yeast in dough. And if they (multicultural sons and daughters) can realize this, they will participate progressively in making Egypt better place for everybody. Especially girls can mostly participate in challenging this unfair situation of female vs. male in Egypt. It is not just because they are the ones who could grab some of the western modern culture. But also cause a multicultural person does always have this outsider's eye that can easily see the big hidden point out every topic. Note the dough doesn't easily accept the yeast.
The second thing is a question; about multi-culture, multi-religious marriage...It is really useful for those have experienced something like this, to write down what they have been haggling about in their lives. I think such a thing would be a very useful account for all those who are about to be involved in multi-x marriage. I'm not personally against this multi-marriage issue, but I mainly encourage that people should know what they will be going through, and then decide if they can afford it or not.

Guruann said...

my father was born in Egypt in 1933, and he and his family were thrown out in 1955, nothing seems to have changed too much.

illinoissuz said...

I love to hear your thoughts of Egypt and those who comment. Keep sending the pictures.

Gia-Gina said...

In Asian cultures it is a bit of the same thing with the child taking on the father's nationality. I had a good friend that had a chinese father and a vietnamese mother but she only acknowledged herself as chinese. That kind of surprised me esp. since she spoke both languages.

Badr said...

Sometimes i feel like a stranger in my own country...I'm an egyptian, my father is, and his father was, but i dont feel that i belong to these masses of people walking in the streets of cairo, i dont like the way they talk or even the way they think, actualy im not even able to understand them, and dont think any of my friends does.

There is this new generation, my generation who feels totaly lost, my passport says that i'm egyptian and believe it or not i actualy love this country, but i dont feel that I belong here. you know i know for a fact that every single person i know who i feel comfortable being with will leave this country within the next 5 years and probably would never return, most of them leaving because of them feeling that they dont belong.

back to your post, i dont really hate all the rules and limits that are placed on girls in egypt, you might view them as archiac, comming from a different culture you dont know how guys think in egypt, and i dont mean the guys you know i mean the rest 95% of the guys...if presented with an oportunity they'd taked it, even if it meant destroying the girls life in the process, and they'd actualy brag and be commended for doing it!

Daughter of Sarai said...

This is a wonderful blog, you've made life here so interesting. I've actually lived there long ago, but you write from a first hand experience.

This issue of nationality is prevelant all over the M.E. and amazes me. In my opinion, my children are dual, and the Arab culture does not allow any identity from the mother. The children always seem to have to 'prove' themselves to be accpeted.

Keep up the great work, and I will be back!

Shaykhspeara Sha'ira said...

I love reading your blog and I can truly relate to this post. I am myself the daughter of a mixed marriage (half swedish and half pakistani). My whole life, having lived in sweden, pakistan and syria, has been spent trying to fit in, and trying to prove myself.

In sweden I am not concidered swedish, in pakistan I am not pakistani...when I came to syria all of a sudden I was branded Pakistani. All anyone was interested in was who my father was and who my grandfather was...paternal ofcourse.

The fact that my mother is swedish didn't count no matter how many times I stressed that to the passport control officer. Same thing happened on my visit to Egypt. I felt it incumbent upon me to "fight" for my mother's right to also define part of deaf ears I'm afraid...

Janssen said...

Interesting weblog as I am the mother of 3 half Egyptian half Dutch daughters. Only recently my eldest daughter has shown an interest in Egypt and would like to study at AUC as her father did 35 years ago. We have some idea what it will be like to be a foreign Egyptian as my husband also spent most of his youth in Europe. His fortune however is that he speaks very good Arabic and my daughters do not. So they will probably remain foreigners in Egypt.

Safa said...

I've been in Egypt for the last 5 yrs....mother of 4 I'm living this. My oldest daughter is the only one who feels misplaced. We came when she was 8 yrs old. I think for those people who want to come back "home" to raise their kids....they have to make the choice early.