Thursday, October 23, 2008
There is a wonderful website that unfortunately is largely in Arabic, Kolena Laila...we are all Laila..a site for women in the Middle East that I wish had more English in it. Perhaps soon. Recently they had a Day for Laila and sent out a questionaire to women throughout Egypt, including me. Two of my assistants here at the farm (men, of course) had the fun of reading the questions to me and putting them into words that I was familiar with and making sure that my answers actually correctly indicated my beliefs. They found it most interesting and quite entertaining.
It has always been my belief that we are more alike than we are different, and I believe that this is especially true of women...maybe this is because that's what I am. I will admit to some confusion when I'm trying to fathom the thoughts of men, but women usually make sense to me though sometimes I have to work a bit at it. I think that women work more at understanding each other and that this is one of our great gifts. This is why when I get emails from women who want to visit Egypt and have what I feel are rather dismal and strange reasons for not coming, it makes me very sad. Not long ago I had one woman tell me that she didn't want to come because she didn't want to be harassed on the streets and treated badly. Where would she get this idea from anyway?
The answer to that is from the net and the media. Recently there have been a spate of stories about how women have a problem being sexually harassed in Egypt. I'm not going to say that it doesn't happen because it does and it is a problem. But the fact that it is being publicised is actually a huge step in the right direction. The harassment varies in intensity from the annoying "psss, psss, psss" so commonly heard by women from bored policemen ("psss, psss" being the same sound used to communicate with babies and cats, ironically) to actually being groped to the roaming gangs who were problems in Mohendessin over the feast as noted in the Al Ahram article. In the past it's been argued that somehow the women were at fault, but when the men attack veiled women too as they did over Eid el Fitr, this argument stops holding any water.
Does EVERY woman walking down the road have to beat off men trying to abuse her? No, of course not. To be honest, in twenty years I've only had to deal with a few instances myself, but as one of my daughter's friends noted on a trip to a Friday market with me, I don't exactly invite nonsense having a rather "fierce" aura. I had to laugh but there's probably something to it. I don't tolerate bad behaviour around me, I am polite and I expect politeness from others and I suspect that this shines through because that's what I usually get. But there is more to the problem and my suggestion in this regard may not be very welcome in some circles.
When I first began traveling to Egypt my constant companion was my young son who learned very early that "no" meant exactly that, that whining or crying wasn't going to change things, that politeness mattered a lot, and that the reasons why these things were true would be discussed, but that the balance of power in decisions rested firmly in adult hands. I caught a lot of flak from my mother in law who felt that I was entirely too tough on a little boy...such harshness would "break his spirit"! Ha! Not too likely. When my son was about seventeen, my mother in law shocked me to my toes when she quietly admitted that although she had thought my child-rearing methods were crazy when the children were young, she'd decided that maybe I actually knew something. Frankly most young boys in Egypt are spoiled rotten and never taught to be responsible members of society. They are usually given most that they want when they want it and are not taught any delay of gratification. In my mind, delay of gratification is one of the most important lessons of childhood. You might get what you want, but it may not be now and you may actually have to work for it.
I remember sitting having coffee one morning with a group of women, Egyptians and foreign, who were married to Egyptian men. As is the habit of women everywhere, we were laughing and crying over the foibles of our husbands and sons, commiserating and complaining and supporting each other's frustrations and worries. One of the women, however, said one of the most profound things that I believe I have ever heard. She suggested that until each one of us could honestly say that we had raised a son that we felt was qualified to really be a good husband to a good woman, we frankly had nothing to complain about. The behaviour of the men of Egypt is in the hands of the mothers of Egypt and it's time for them to insist that boys learn to obey, that they treat women with respect and kindness. This isn't something that one can insist on once the child is a teenager. It is something that you must build into his character from the very beginning as he is learning to walk and talk.
There is a corollary to this as well and a story for it. When I was about thirteen I recall standing in my mother's kitchen listening to the chat of the women who had gathered there to cook a communal lunch for about five families who had gathered in our home. Each of these women had been raped or molested, usually by a male relative such as an uncle or cousin, when they were young and each of them had taught their daughters that while good little girls were polite and considerate, they did not have to be polite or considerate when certain boundaries were crossed. Not one of their daughters had ever been raped or molested. I was astonished to hear such a thing and it obviously made a huge impression on me. When my children were young they learned that they had the right to expect appropriate behaviour from adults and the right to complain forcefully if this was not forthcoming. This was another sore point with my Egyptian family because my daughter was not as quiet and docile as Egyptian girls have been traditionally taught to be...but it's more than time to change that pattern. One needn't be docile to be polite and most fathers would want their daughters to be safe as well as polite. The fact that women are now beginning to demand their day in court to prosecute criminally rude men is a sign that the tide is turning as well it should. We are, indeed, all Laila, and when Laila is safe and respected her brothers will be happier as well.
copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani