Five days before coming to Antigua, I stopped by my neighbourhood salon. It’s become a little hang out for me, where the ladies love to chit-chat as they scrub scalps, push back cuticles and fight to straighten Egyptian curls. All the workers come from working class families, so the salon is also a slice of Egypt that isn’t as easily accessible to expatriates like myself.
I was being manicured by a new employee, and invariably we began talking about her family. She had a boy and two girls. Her son was about to get married to a girl he met a year ago. His future bride is young and sweet, she told me. Does he love her, I asked. Of course, she replied. He loves her because she listens to what he tells her. What do you mean? I asked. She’s obedient, she replied. He told her "wear the hijab", and she obeyed, he told her "no more school", and she obeyed, and when he tells her not to leave the house on any given day she doesn’t dare leave the house. She listens to everything he says, and is worried she’ll upset him, the manicurist told me, "I’m really happy my son found her - it’s so hard to find obedient girls these days". I tried to maintain my shock and just nodded; but I was quietly realizing here was patriarchy in action - what drove a woman to raise a son who values subservience and insecurity in a wife? What did it say about her own beliefs in her own power?
Egyptian women are hardly a timid people; historically they have led women’s movements in the Middle East, and the country boasts some of the brightest Arab female brains in the region - doctors, lawyers, politicians, extraordinary social activists. When I first moved to Egypt, I defensively told a new friend "I don’t know why so many people think Arab women are oppressed- look at how strong and fearless they are". Sure, my friend replied, but how many of them can read and write? In the huge portion of the lower and working classes the answer is: not many. Here, 80 per cent of women are circumcised, and it’s women who defend the practice and are resistant to changing their attitudes about it. A volatile topic in Egypt is the Islamic headdress (hijab) which has seen a resurgence in the past ten years; instead of defining what the hijab means for them personally, many girls will wear it out of social pressure by other women warning of hellfire or sexual harassment on the street. On the other hand, some women ridicule those who have chosen to take the hijab, calling them backward or brainwashed.
Some of the strongest women I interviewed were in Baghdad. I remember two vividly - female candidates running for the provincial government, one from a religious background covered entirely in a black abaya, the other secular with a full face of makeup. Both had fought hard against the status quo and literally risked their lives to participate in a new and tentative democracy. They were criticized for putting their faces on campaign posters, taking on roles that should be left to the men, and they admitted that some of their hardest sells for votes were to women who believed a woman’s voice counted for little and it was only the men who could defend their rights. And the West isn’t without its own issues: how many times did the media bring up Hilary Clinton’s pantsuits during the elections, why is that gender gap earnings are still so huge in the United States, and why is it still so hard for women to juggle careers and motherhood without feeling utter guilt? Egypt calls itself a democracy, and so does the United States. But from a woman’s perspective, is the way democracy functioning today really working for us? How do we redefine it to make it happen for women of all classes, from all kinds of economic backgrounds? And in such patriarchal societies, what role should men play in redefining democracy so that it’s fair to both sexes?
As a journalist, my job is to observe and recognize trends, and many times in my work I am left wondering what it means for a society when women help to perpetuate their own suffering. Women seem to be socialized to feel shame and guilt for wishing to receive more than to give, to second guess their abilities, and mistrust the power of their own voices. From reading the biographies of women like Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, and Betty Williams, and after interviewing women activists in their communities, I’ve observed one main characteristic that binds them - a sense of entitlement to their human rights, rights such as education, the vote, and fair treatment in court weren’t optional, they were a given for these women. And once this entitlement is realized, it seems their purposes fall into place. I am excited to come so close to some of those power houses of change in Antigua. I want to ask them how women can be taught to regain that sense of entitlement to their rights and how democracy may be redefined to ensure the fairness it was meant to provide to all people living under it.
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