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.