Street Girls and the Female Stuff: On Toilets, Periods and Sanitary Towels

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I always try to hold my pee until I go home. Not just in Cairo, but in London, in Germany, in the USA, wherever I am. I have this feeling that my pee needs to pass somewhere clean, somewhere, where I know the people who own the pee that passed before mine. Yes, sometimes that meant bouncing between legs, jumping up and down holding it in. It also meant at times a few drops would escape betraying my control. That didn’t matter, because at home, there was a clean shower next to the toilet and laundry basket and clean clothes. It’s because of this, pretentious need, that I had not had to use any of the shelter toilets till that day.

I had developed a urinary tract infection while I was in Cairo and holding in my pee was more difficult than usual and so, in the spirit of sharing the experience, being the “real” participant observer I was trying to be at the shelter, I excused myself to use the toilet. I knew where it was because I had stood outside it once trying to calm a girl who was self harming inside, trying, along with others to reassure her she was loved. It didn’t smell, but it was dirty, everything was broken, the tiles, the mirror, the toilet seat and there were drops of blood on the sink and the walls. As soon as I closed the door, I gagged. The cockroaches that scurried in such a hurry from between the hinges, or where ever it was they were coming from made me gag. I hold cockroaches, I gently place them outdoors when I see a someone holding a slipper to attack one, so don’t get me wrong, reader; I wasn’t gagging because I was scared of spiders. I gagged because the blood, the cockroaches and the broken everything where the shelter that the children ran to – what then, I wonder, of the circumstance that they were running from?

It was in Germany, while on an exchange programme that I was invited to a shelter for girls and young women. This safe haven was set up for them to escape the violence of the neighbourhood in which they lived. The vibrant colours were so welcoming, I was deciding on taking a few ideas for my future study one day. The smell of baked cookies warmed the air, the pot of tea, the ceremony of opening a library upstairs that a 12 year old had been guided and encouraged to open for the other girls; all so inspiring. I felt so happy and optimistic and prayed so hard one day I would walk into somewhere like this for our girls in Egypt. But when I went into their bathroom to wipe some of the milk that I had spilt on my top, I closed the door behind me and I cried. By the wall, there was a hanging toiletries bag with three types of sanitary towels and tampons. There were posters on the back of the door about female hygiene and numbers the young women could call anonymously if they had any questions or just wanted to talk about the changes that were happening to their bodies as they were growing up. And as my friends had so many dreams for Egypt, to fight for freedoms and rights, I was in a bathroom praying for period pads for the girls I had grown to love.

I remembered the first time I had retracted from my decision not to give money to the shelter. I dug into my bag on an impulse and gave Sarah 100LE and told her to go and get as many pampers for the babies as the money could get her. I am amazed at how judgemental and naïve I was when I first arrived to the shelter. I had such a fixed idea of how things should be run that I got so angry at everyone so quickly not realising the repercussions if things were to be done the way I thought they should be. This was one of those times. I had given the money in anger at hearing that nappies for the babies were rationed to 2 nappies a day. I found this out when I asked the child mothers what they needed from the pharmacy and they all, without exception asked for nappy rash cream. I started a pompous talk about hygiene and how they should wash and change the babies often and it was then they told me that they would, if they could. But later I found out that the reason the nappies are rationed is because the mothers, also children themselves, use them for their periods.

The day I needed to use the toilet at the shelter, I had just finished talking to one of the girls that I later found out was pregnant. I hadn’t realised it then, but I guess she was trying to get advice from me on how to abort a baby without having to go to a doctor, or dying. During this conversation she told me how one of her friends trying to abort a baby that she’d conceived after a gang rape fell very ill after drinking 25 bottles of castor oil as suggested by the street leader. She also recounted how one of her friends on the street had died because she had been advised to remove the foetus with a metal hanger via her vagina. According to her, the hanger went past her tummy and grabbed her soul instead and she bled to death. All the girls and boys that were around her ran away because they were scared the police would think they killed her. Was it the cockroaches that made me gag? I sat on the toilet seat, my body losing more fluid than just the pee, I cried for the things that we don’t notice and the needs that we can fulfil but don’t even know we can because we are so acutely unaware of what needs doing.

I am not writing to change the world or to inspire big changes, but to talk about the small changes that create an amazing ripple affect. How many people, who are good enough to think of the trials of street children, or their resilience, think beyond finding ways to raise money for shelter, food and clothes? It’s time we realise we can build our own small community in a world bent on ridiculing those who believe in utopia. It’s time that someone who works at, or owns a pest control company should go visit these shelters and spray them for the kids, someone who owns a pharmacy or works for P&G should get on to request they provide a monthly supply of period pads for the girls shelters.

We can create alternative realities, redefine utopia into something we can live; a cathartic moment, a moment that eases suffering. So for the mother who offered her breast milk, for the doctors who offer their clinics and staff, for the teachers who go over to read and nurture, for the dancers who go and give aerobics classes, for the lawyers who ran from police station to another making sure our street kids don’t disappear, for the other teacher who makes bracelets of hope with the children in Canada to send to the kids on the street in Egypt, to the hair dresser that goes every week to each the girls the craft and for all the others still figuring out how they can embody change, not out of their purses, but out of their entire being, it is you that give me strength to carry on and it’s you all who have created the utopia I live in. Thank you.

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Street Children: She was rosy cheeked and bright eyed. But she was raped at 9.

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“A faraway place… where there are no people, only the sea and trees. Where people live very far away, because people are bad and they hurt each other and those who are good aren’t able and don’t know how to do anything about the bad people and they can’t help me”. This was Amal’s description when we asked the children at the shelter to draw a picture of what the best place they could think of (her picture is above). Continue reading

Street Children: Reem and the Four Year Old Eyes that Haunt Me

She looks at me very seriously every time I walk through the door to the children’s room on the third room. As the other under fives come crawling or running towards me, depending on which they can do, Reem stays where she is looking me, piercingly. It’s hard not trying to interpret and analyse Reem’s looks, her tone, her words. She looks at me as if she is waiting to see if I have delivered a justice she is expecting. I ache at these looks and I want to tell her to stop looking at me. I want to tell her the burden she is expecting me to carry is one too heavy. But when she eventually joins the other children to either fight to hold my hand or crawl up on my lap, the warmth of her small body balances out the cold with which she had looked at me.

She never speaks till she is spoken to – a lesson; I imagine she has learnt a hard way. Heba who speaks with a vulgarity that is shocking to those who come for visits for the first time and endearing to me for it’s unpretentious spontaneity, tells me “mama, Reem was holding a glass and she was going to cut herself and the Miss took it off her, she wanted to do it because she was angry”. Calmly, but with a hint of defensiveness, Reem tells me, “No, I’m going to do it because I want them to know I want to be with me sisters!” Not having the slightest idea how to deal with the issue of self-harm with a four-year-old, despite years working in a child helpline, I say, “you must miss them very much… you only have one more year Ya Reem to join them in the big girls shelter, did you know that?” She nods once, not humouring my attempt at making her feel better.

But I’m not going to give up. I am here for Reem as well as all the other little ones. Despite the way she looks at me and questions me, her little fingers wrap around mine, her little head rests in competition with the others over the parts of my body that they fit themselves on and around. I’m amused by a thought that jumps to my head: for a moment I am grateful that I am fat so there is more of me they can sit on! I laugh and Reem asks me if I’m laughing because I’m happy to be with them. I tell her I am. I tell her that I am happy because I am around children that I love. She responds without compliment, “I am happy when I am with my big sisters. They cry when they know what Hassan does to me”. I ask her who Hassan is and she tells me that’s her father’s name. “Hassan did this the last time, look” and her little fingers leave my hand and she jumps off my knee to give me her back as she lifts her little hand-me-down t-shirt and shows me some bruises.

Is it because Reem’s story is so fresh, so current that I cannot deal with it the same way I am able to absorb the older girl’s stories that they relay from their past? Or is it because Reem, unlike them, has not had the years to teach her to accept it, deal with it, and sometimes laugh about it? I’m not sure, but when Reem is at the shelter I know that for nights to come I will not be able to sleep, I will call my mother and cry about injustice and I will hear her little voice and see her beautiful, accusing black eyes stare right at me asking me what have I done since the last time we spoke. I will her those frightening words she says in the little innocent four-year-old voice that will keep ringing in my ears and which I cannot shut out.

Without having asked for anything else, Reem says “Om Ashraf came in and kept saying “leave her ya Hassan, she’s only small, leave her and God will be pleased with you if you leave her,” and when he didn’t listen to her, she came in and pulled him off me and she carried me and hid me in her house till she bought me here.” I pulled her back up on my knee and 1-year-old Maria passed her a crisp right into her mouth; which Reem took. Reem rested her head on my chest and said “one day the police will come and get him and put him away so my mum can rest and if they don’t I’ll grow and be strong and kill him.”

Why am I writing this? Because I want to you, reader, to be outraged like me that there is nothing that the shelter can do to protect Reem from her abusive father. There are no laws implemented that can stop us handing over Reem when he comes to take her on “family visits”. We are campaigning and we are fighting for children’s rights… all battles so they can access services and are afforded protection they are entitled to. Money isn’t going to help us save these kids; rather, having a rights based understanding of how to help them will. Funding won’t ensure their inclusion in society, a will to include them, will.

Street Children and the Girls who were Once Loved by God

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“Go say hello quickly and bend down to kiss her hand, she’s one of the people that takes care of your daughter”. As soon as the short, fair skinned, green eyed, toothless man with a small white cloth hat fitted tightly on his head, had finished instructing his daughter to hurry towards me, she moved in my direction faster than I had time to retreat, grabbing my hand trying to kiss it. I pulled my hand away and stroked her head asking her how she was today. She stares at me but doesn’t respond.

There had been great commotion half an hour earlier when we got word that Lucy’s mother and grandfather had come to see her. Only yesterday we were discussing the one year old and wondering why she was so scared of sounds unlike her other “brothers and sisters’ at the shelter. She had been bought in the day she was born, but unlike others, she did not enjoy or seek physical affection, cried at the slightest sound and was almost always found laying awake, still, in any one of the cots.

We’d been discussing Lucy specifically because she had acted very much out of character the day my husband came to the shelter to visit. Lucy had demanded his attention, accepted being carried by him, allowed him to rock her to sleep the hour he stood and held her. None of us had commented at the time so as not to disturb the natural bond being experienced by the pair, but as soon as my husband had left and Lucy had returned to her isolation, Shaimaa and I were so joyous to have seen her so emotionally responsive that Shaimaa said she’d have to note this on the little girl’s records.

It was during that conversation that I learnt that no one from Lucy’s family had been to see her since she was born. I wondered whether the lack of any maternal contact contributed to her insecure attachments – even though the other one year olds were often abused and hurt and used by their mothers on the street, when they came back to the shelter they were affectionate and always seeking physical attention from those they were familiar with.

So this visit was very timely. Except, after learning of our visitors arrival, Mama Madeeha took Lucy down to meet her mother and a few moments later we heard a piercing scream and cries of a girl desperately trying to convince someone “She’s not my daughter, she’s not my daughter!! My daughter is only a few days old, this is a big girl, I want to see my daughter, my daughter is small and soft, don’t try to trick me.”

I watched from behind the door not wanting to intrude or to scare the fragile girl any more than she was distressed. Mama Madeeha spoke to her gently explaining how her baby had grown up and had to become bigger and that this was good and she should be happy to see her grow. The sweet, calming reassurance of mama Madeeha seemed to calm the girl back into her detached, blank state. She sat back down. Mama Madeeha slowly placed the one year old into her mothers lap and the girl held Lucy without looking at her and started to gently rock her. Lucy, like a fish in water, accepted being held like the daughter she had missed out on being.

I watched for a few minutes. She handed her daughter back with an angry voice that matched neither the apathetic eyes or the caring grip she had of Lucy “I’ll only hold her if you feed me! Feed me, I’m hungry!” I could tell that Mama Madeeha was running out of resources; her role in the organisation was “alternative mother”, she was there to cuddle, feed,  wash, tuck into bed all the under fives. At times her job description was stretched to incorporate new training for children found on the street abandoned like Maha (5), Mahmoud(4) and Maher(3). The three young siblings have never since had anyone come to ask after them. The three little children, when in need for the toilet, would find a private spot between wardrobes or any other furniture and pull down their trousers and get it done. It would be at those times that Mama Madeeha, according to a special training plan provided by the shelter social workers and psychologist would patiently try to alter these behaviours while looking after four one year olds, three four year olds who have escaped very abusive backgrounds and her own three children. Dealing with Lucy’s mother was not part of neither her job description or her training, or her capacity. So she just laughed at the request of food and went to the kitchen to see what she could offer her.

It was then I  walked in; when Lucy’s mother seemed a little calmer. It was then that the man ordered her to come kiss my hand. When I started stroking her head, continuing to do so when she showed no objection and seemed to be calmer, he tells me this:

“She’s a good girl really, wallahy (I swear by god) she’s a really sweet girl, she used to be my favourite. But look at her, she’s mad, she’s crazy now. I just picked her up an hour ago from Al Abasseya” Al Abasseya is the most infamous mental health care institution in Cairo and he whispers the word. He goes on “she’s been there since she gave birth to Lucy, she went mad you know after they raped her, they did what they did to her and there’s nothing a poor father like me can do. It would have been easy to report it to the police, but one of the men is a police man. What is a poor man to do? We must accept our fate and ask God for compensation. God is the greatest prosecutor of the evil.”

I told him he’d done well to bring her to see her daughter. He suddenly looked ashamed and in an apologetic tone said “I’d bring her every day if I could, I’d even take her out of the hospital but I am poor and cannot feed myself and my wife to be able to feed her and her daughter. I bought her to see the girl because I don’t want God to judge me for not doing the right thing. You know, my daughter, she is really good, God used to love her so much before this happened to her, she used to hear the prophet speaking to her, that’s how pure and good she was. But God  has turned angry with her after they did what they did to her.”

Throughout his story telling, the girl looked ahead of her, only moving once to encourage me to carry on stroking her hair when I had paused for a moment. This tiny move she made with her head made my heart ache, ache for the affection she was craving behind those stone cold eyes. I ached for her, for her father who thought God, if God indeed existed in all his loving compassion, would stop loving his child that had been violently gang raped. My heart ached for little Lucy who had become a living, breathing reminder to her mother and grandfather of, in his own words “God’s spell of anger towards the family”.

Mama Madeeha returned with some food. The girl refused it and reached out for her daughter. She sat holding her vertically by her heart, stroking her hair just the way I had been stroking hers moments earlier.

FGM: Mutilating the Female Spirit

This is a picture of a 10-year old at the local barbershop used by the CNN in 1995.
Please note: details have been changed to protect the identity of those I write about.

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She asked me if I liked her, a lot – not only if I liked her, but also if I liked her “a lot”. It’s hard breaking her good heart. But the truth is, I could not see past the fact that this woman she was asking me about, had made the decision to mutilate the genitals of her five female daughters. This woman had made the choice of subjecting all her daughters to a procedure she herself had gone through, one that I was afraid to imagine. She had decided to deprive them, forever, of full sexual pleasure because, she argues, “females are prone to being horny”.

I took the metro to visit this family in a part of Cairo I knew I would be frequenting during my stay here; a key site for my PhD research with street children. I would, of course, be dressed differently when I came for my fieldwork. There would be no designer flip-flops, no low cut maxi dress and no flowers in my hair. I would try to blend in the background, as “decent” women, here, are expected to do. Impressed with how clean, calm and courteous the metro was, one man, well into his 70’s and on a walking stick, got up to offer me his seat and would not have me turn down his offer. My friend had marked the house as the building next to the barbershop.

There was much going on that I know in any other circumstance, would have made me sit here, passionately writing. I would be typing away either about the gender roles and the non-patriarchal household (despite the presence of a husband and father); about the five young ladies that came scurrying out of the shared, tiny, cramped bedrooms with their big dreams; I would have written about the generosity of the poor compared to the rich we’d been visiting. I would have been sitting here being judgmental about a whole range of different things. But, none of the above, could motivate me to write today more than FGM. I walked into this house knowing that all the women in it had suffered something I was lucky enough to escape. It wasn’t only that I sat there knowing I would enjoy sex in a different, fuller way to these girls that outraged me, but more than this, that the mother, herself, had inflicted this.

I sat between them remembering a procedure I had undergone as a child in a clean, relaxed London hospital to check on my kidneys and the “reflux” they thought I was suffering from. The procedure involved a doctor inserting a sterilised tube up my urethra to see inside my bladder. It was done with my legs open in the air. I can still remember the details of the room; how big it was and considerably empty with just the seat i was on, a tray with wheels and a screen. I remember the offensive, but reassuring smell of disinfectant, the doctor’s gloves freshly picked gloves from the box in front of me, and his professional, but kind reassurance. I even remember the length of the hair on his eyebrows and the thickness of the frames around his glasses. It was more embarrassing than painful, but it was a procedure that 24 years later, I have not forgotten. It was also a procedure that meant it took many years before accepting that anyone could touch me “there”. I wondered what smells these girls could remember; could they recall the smell of the rusty blade, the impatience of the local barber, the dirt under his nails, and the humiliation at having lots of people watching? Could they remember the feeling of trickling blood down their thighs, fainting under the pain? I could not imagine how these girls felt at the thought of being touched “there” again.

I have often dismissed engaging with the fight against FGM, arguing to myself that there were plenty others who had taken this fight on. FGM wasn’t personal, I didn’t know enough about it, and I had my sleeves rolled up facing other human right violations. Today, however, I didn’t know how to deal with myself. I could not concentrate on any of the things that usually amaze me in these situations. I came home and couldn’t write about something I didn’t know, so I started doing some research. I wanted to start just by sharing a chronological commentary on FGM; which in many countries where the procedure happens, became known as one of the “Three Feminine Sorrows” – the first was the actually circumcision, the second was the wedding night when the woman had to be cut open again, and the third was during childbirth, where again, she had to be cut open.

The term “Pharaonic Circumcision”, which most girls who suffer FGM in Egypt are subjected to, originates from its practice in Ancient Egypt under the Pharaohs. Leonard Kuber and Judith Muascher, document that circumcised females have been found among Egyptian mummies, and that Herodotus (c. 484 BC – c. 425 BC) referred to the practice when he visited Egypt and there is reference on a Greek papyrus from 163 BC to the procedure being conducted on girls in Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital, and Strabo (c. 63 BC – c. 23 BC), the Greek geographer, reported it when he visited Egypt in 25 BC).

It wasn’t just Egypt, or Africa that practiced this, though for the purpose of this blog I did not research more about the history of the practice elsewhere. It was interesting to find, however, that gynecologists in England and the United States carried out FGM during the 19th century to “cure” insanity, masturbation and nymphomania. It is important to note thee pivotal date, June 1993, when the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights agreed that FGM was a violation of human rights.

It took some time for Egypt to catch up, even if only superficially. The health ministry banned FGM in 2007. The five girls would have not benefited from this ban, even though it is naive to think the ban actually made a difference on the practice, in fact, it probably made the procedure worse because it had to be done in hiding. The ban came to save face the Egyptian government after a photograph (above) of a 10-year old girl became public. She was undergoing FGM in a barber’s shop in Cairo in 1995. The image was broadcasted on CNN and caused a public out roar. The photograph was taken in a barbers shop. As soon as I read that I could not stop thinking about the barber’s shop beneath the house were in. The head of the household kept speaking about them being long life neighbours that loved her. I started to feel sick hoping to god it wasn’t here the girls had become “pure, ready for marriage”. 2007 also saw the case of 12-year old Badoor Shakir who had died of an over dose of anesthesia during an FGM procedure in the southern town of Maghagh for which her mother had paid a physician in an illegal clinic the equivalent of $9. After this news broke out, the highest religious authority in Egypt, Al-Azhar, issued a statement that FGM had no basis in Islamic law, enabling the government to ban it – ban it, not outlaw it and hence it’s enforceability is problematic.

There is much to speak of, of course, other than historical dates that bought about change. There is the procedure, the experience, the cultural resistance of women, more than men, to give it up. There is the link between the ideas of mutilating the female reproductive system with a pure maternal being. There is link between FGM and the cultural expectations of some for women and the unnatural immobility during intercourse and their efforts to hide orgasms should they be lucky enough to experience them.

The physical and psychic trauma that these girls I visited have gone through and that which still awaits them makes me ashamed of all the times I have turned away from this debate. Education and awareness is key. For them, I start judging. For the children whose bodies are still being mutilated, I start writing.

Kafr Elzayaat – Where Women Don’t Hang The Clothes To Dry

They say the delta of Egypt is where She gets her life. It may be true; but it’s not where She necessarily gets her freedom. I came to Kafr Elzayaat on my second trip as part of the election campaign, that I have been kindly allowed to join, in a bid to see a different side to Egypt; one I would otherwise not have access to. I took off on this road trip trying to see the delta with fresh eyes, uninfluenced by my awe of Upper Egypt and all the things it changed in me. But, it was hard to step back and embrace it objectively. I admit I am a product of what I experience and I had to remind myself often to make space within me for the beauty and pain that this place might reveal.

The road was new. This road didn’t pass through the agricultural Egypt, instead, it cut through the desert. Unlike the air that was thick with human stories in Upper Egypt, the air here was thick of sudden death. Is was one of the most dangerous roads in Egypt, claiming a large number of lives a year. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who died on this road. Mostafa also was not the same. The animated man full of stories of struggle and hope was tired. He was being pulled thinly across Egypt in different directions. He hadn’t slept for days, started taking painkillers every 12 hours and was starting to taste the sting of criticism as he gathered both supporters and critics. We temporarily swapped roles on this journey. But as soon as we arrived and our hosts welcomed us, I was amazed at where he gathered all the strength from. He was back! Optimistic, faithful in delivering his message and sincere in his support.

The man running for elections in this constituency was a character that filled me with such a strong compulsion to create a caricature of him or one of those flick books to capture how comically serious he was and how quickly he spoke and moved. You could almost see the ideas fly by in is mind and you had to be super quick to catch up with both his thoughts and words. I loved him and didn’t believe a word he said! His optimism was endearing but his lack of awareness or conversation about anything other than now many votes he was sure of securing made me wonder if he was the best candidate for this part of Egypt. I felt we should have carried a responsibility away with us to take back and talk about, write about and fight for. This man was not going to give us the humanistic tour or answer questions about struggle and needs.

The generosity we we’re offered in this home matched that of Upper Egypt and the food was delicious! We had already eaten and tried to explain we couldn’t possibly eat now but it was almost like those were words that did not make up any part of the vocabulary of an Egyptian home and all that was said was “That is not my concern”! So we sat and ate.

After the food I started to learn what I had come here to learn. About women. Where were the women? While Mostafa was taken to a separate part of the Villa to change his clothes, I was introduced to Nadia (her real name has been changed for her privacy). A very beautiful 27 year old who opened the door to greet me. She stood behind the door gracefully in a long white and sky blue Abbaya, earrings that were so big and heavy I was in awe at how she didn’t have to bend over to carry them. She was white with the blackest hair sleekly brushed back from her face and she wore grey contact lenses that I was sure hid even more beautiful eyes. Nadia greeted me with the smile of an old friend and started chatting straight away, even before I sat on the very modern beige and cream couch, about my marital status and why I wasn’t married till now?! I loved her instantly.

A few minutes later I was “called for” (it felt like I was called for by my master which irritated me from the “messenger”) by Mostafa. I went over to where he was dressed (very smartly may I add) and he, with a very embarrassed look on his face said: “I’m really sorry Nelly, I didn’t know, but no women are coming to the conference. You’re not going to be able to join us”. He seemed more irritated than I felt and so I decided not to express my outrage immediately. But at the same time this was relevant. This spoke more about this candidate who had earlier left out the most important stories of the place. His second mistake quickly evident; his marginalising the women who were going out to vote in a couple of weeks. It was crazy.

What struck me as surprising was the comparison to my recent visit to Sohag. Sohag, a part of Upper Egypt, known for its conservatism, and it’s need for gender equality awareness seemed to be years ahead in terms of their involvement of women in the political scene. So much so that in my post about Sohag, I very naively did not mention that the 1000 strong crowd was half women and that a woman from the constituency was running for elections! Today this seemed significant and very worthy of celebrating and mentioning.

While Mostafa went to the conference, I stayed with Nadia. Nadia taught me much in the couple of hours I spent with her and she unwittingly, through her small talk, gave me a bigger, clearer picture of what it meant to marry a man from here. Nadia has been married for just 3 weeks. “This was probably the worst time to get married to Mohammed because of the campaign”. She goes on to explain, “but, of course Mohammed can’t leave his brother to go through this alone”.
Her appreciation for solidarity that chewed into her honeymoon touched me. I asked her if she went out here and had made any new friends. She looked at me with a look that said “you’re a foreigner and I’m going to have to explain this to you slowly”. She told me laughing, “friends?! What friends? I’m not even allowed to stand out in the balcony to hang the clothes to dry!!” Then, she went on to tell me, lovingly, that sometimes her husband came home early at 8pm and she’d spend time with him. That seemed the highlight of her day. I asked if this made her miss Alexandria (where she’d grown up) and her friends there, and she explained, again very cheerfully, that she only had one friend since knowing Mohammed because “a man is always right in terms of his insight about the world and he had explained that most of her friends where “no good”. ”

I wasn’t sure if it was what she was saying or the cheerfulness she was saying it with, that was making me so uncomfortable. I decided to change the subject from personal relationships to her plans for the future. With every conversational manuver I was making I was discovering how arrogant I was. She did not have plans for the future. She told me that her family owned a series of makeup and accessory shops and that her mother had made each of the 7 children responsible for one of them. She giggled as she confessed that the one week she was in charge of hers she had been responsible for a loss of over 2400 Egyptian pounds and this was for goods that were usually under 5 pounds… She went on to explain to me that different people were made for different things and she was a failure at the outside world and was made for staying at home and shopping when she went to Alexandria.

What happened next was something I don’t know how to explain. I couldn’t just listen passively and I told her she can’t be so harsh on herself or call her self a failure simply because she didn’t perform well in retail, that the world was so big and there were a million and one other things that I was sure she could excel in. If you would be quick to accuse me that I was being pretentious, then explain how I broke all the social barriers of this extraordinarily beautiful woman and suddenly moved from a formal eating of gateau in the living room to sitting cross legged on her bed eating biscuits and her showing me her makeup and scarves and telling me intimate stories of friendship and love.

The bedroom we had moved into housed the large LCD screen where her favourite Turkish TV series (which she had watched three times before) was showing in an hour. This was also the only other room she had private access to. It did not match the modern minimalist look of where she received her guests. When she directed me to sit on the bed, I looked at its height thinking “will she pull out some garden ladders, or a stool perhaps to climb?” But I quickly realised no such assistance will appear and so I jumped on the rich ruby silk and decided to enjoy her hospitality and the friendship she was offering me. As she was opening the drawers to show me her scarves, she explained that a few years ago she had tried a scarf on and realised she looked more beautiful in it so she never took it off since then. Her honesty was refreshing! She was veiled because it accentuated her beauty rather than her modesty and she wasn’t in the slightest ashamed. I wondered how many more of the veiled girls had decided to wear it for the same reasons.

I asked her if she was happy. She told me that she was. That though Mohammed would swear at her and take out all his frustrations at her, she “worshiped the soil he treads on” and that he was the best sort of man because though “he would hurt her when he was angry, as soon as she apologised, he would act like everything was ok again”. How I wanted to throttle Mohammed and society and everything that made this woman who had so much potential feel so weak and grateful for treatment that others take their partners to court for. I didn’t say what I thought, not only because there was not enough time, not because I didn’t want to intrude, but because I didn’t know to want extent I wasn’t respecting the cultural relativism that I so believed in. Who was I to impose what I thought a healthy relationship was. I say this, but at the same time I felt like screaming at the absurdity of it all, at the plight of women and at how damn hard it was living like this. This trip made me temporarily fall out of love with culture.

We were interrupted by the maid who came in to the room to tell me “you’re being called for at the conference”. I didn’t want to leave. As I was leaving, Nadia insisted I freshen up my make up and use her perfume so I could be ready “should I bump into my fate on the way”. She stood next to me in the mirror inspecting a spot that appeared on her otherwise flawless skin and complained. I said it might be her period coming to which she took much offence and said “spit those words from your mouth, hopefully it won’t come and a baby will instead, what else has he married me for?”

I got in the car waiting for me with two strangers who drove me the 30minutes to the tent I did not want to go into. I wasn’t invited in. I was told I could hear them via the speakers from the car and the driver was instructed not to leave me alone to make sure I was “safe”. I felt suffocated and I hoped no one would vote for this candidate. The show (it all felt like a show now) came to an end and again Mostafa left the conference with tens of people around him, again trying to be as close to this man as they could. I hadn’t heard what he had said to them (the quality of the speakers wasn’t great) but the look on the faces of these men was different to the other people on the street. These people had been motivated and you could see it. why the women couldn’t be part of this was meaningless.

Mostafa got into the car and apologised to me for my having made the journey and not getting the chance to learn much of the socio political scene that I had come for via the conference. This of course was an unnecessary apology. I do not think I could have learnt more at an artificial set up where politicians play on dreams as much as I did in the coziness of the small room and the genuine sharing of Nadia that evening.

We were driven back to Cairo and I could not help but feel how lucky I was for the privilege of having choice. Not only the choice to participate or to disengage, but to not have someone like me leave my home after my being as hospitable as Nadia had been, feeling pity out of their arrogance at thinking they understood society or what was best for me as I had done. It’s never as simple as your convictions make it out to be; the truth is, it’s complicated.

[Photo by Neal http://www.flickr.com/people/31878512@N06/%5D