North Africa, West Asia

Breaking boundaries

The youth of Egypt are changing, but are these new attitudes temporary, or have they penetrated on a deeper level that can transform the next generation?

Aliyah Tarek
17 September 2015
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Adham Khorshed/Demotix. All rights reserved.

As one drives through Cairo’s bustling neighbourhoods, Egypt’s youth stand out. Elements such as attire and behaviour seem to distinguish the emerging younger generation from the rest of Egyptian society.

Egyptian culture is predominantly characterised as conservative. Cultural conservatism is preserved and transferred from older generations to the young through socialisation; the youth are taught and expected to conform to their culture’s value systems, beliefs and norms. Egyptian culture values modesty, respect and the family unit. These values are infused with religious mannerisms, whether Christian or Muslim.

Modesty is especially expected from girls and women. It is considered unacceptable, for example, for a woman to casually walk in the city in a short skirt or revealing top. As for respect, the older generation is placed on a pedestal and expected to be honoured and treated with the utmost respect at all times. Intertwined with one’s reputation, the honor of a younger member of a family if tarnished, affects the honour of the whole family unit. Hence, behaviour in and outside of the family unit should uphold these values to protect the entire family’s reputation.

Things seem to be changing, however. Observation of Egypt’s urban youth today suggests that those born from circa the 1990s onwards are displaying profoundly different behaviour from the standard mould. These individuals seem to hold different belief systems and appear to be more flexible, allowing new and unconventional ideas to take shape.

It is not unusual that today’s youth face difficulties reconciling and seeing eye to eye with the rest of society—this is not unique to Egyptian youth. Egypt's youth of today are rejecting the superlative mould that society has created for them; the mould that dictates what one’s behaviour should be. The question is, why are the youth breaking away and how?

It would be juvenile to propose that this is due to only one factor, as various events and elements have led to this shift in behaviour. However, the first notable event was the January 25 uprising in 2011. The infectious call for change was absorbed by Egyptians who had had enough.

After former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, the youth of Egypt changed. A boundary of fear had been shattered and apathetic attitudes were demolished. Political events reverberated on a social level, leaving the youth fearless of change and in awe of the new-found feeling of standing up for their beliefs. Those who used to blindly conform no longer felt compelled to. Although the link may seem weak, the uprisings gave the younger generation a sense of regained power and control, especially over their lives and futures; this in turn opened the door for change. 

In the four years after the uprising, the youth continue to break the silence around social acceptance and are introducing new untraditional variables. An indication of these changes was portrayed in a 2015 Ramadan TV series, Taht el Saytara (Under Control). The series shocked viewers, especially older generations, with its raw taboo content; drug addiction, sex out of wedlock, abortion, etc… none of which are spoken about openly in Egyptian society. One of the main characters, Hania, who at first is portrayed as a typical 16 year-old 'good' girl is actually the youngest drug addict in the series, disproving the notion that drug abuse is reserved for those above 18 or from a specific social background. Her character runs away from home, gets married—unofficially (without a state or religious institution ratifying the marriage)—to an older man who is also a drug addict. Hania represents the epitome of shame for any Egyptian girl: sex, drugs and an unsanctioned marriage.

With all this in mind, the series was a great success and generated high viewership. This could be a reflection of the youth relating to her character, whether personally or someone they know. The series provided insight to the reality of drug addiction—a huge problem in Egypt—and brought the issue into the spotlight, which had not been done before.

Some reviews have said that Taht el Saytara has “destroyed morality” and normalised drug culture, which reflects the conservative tones of Egyptian culture. Several people refused to watch the series, as they believed it was improper to watch “such material”. However, what the series really did was highlight a taboo topic and raise awareness that such issues do exist in Egypt, whether people like it or not.

The real question is, are these attitudes and this divergence from Egyptian culture temporary and merely topical, or have these bold characteristics penetrated to a deeper level that can transform the next generation?

Before attempting to answer this question, it is important to highlight the sample of the population in which these changes are visible—the middle, upper middle and upper classes. These classes tend to be exposed to other cultures, since many of them have the luxury of travelling abroad or even simply communicating internationally. Furthermore, globalisation has opened several doors bringing 'alien' western mindsets into the web of Egyptian culture.

With urbanisation reaching 45.8 percent in 2015, however, it is very likely that citizens inhabiting rural areas will be exposed to the belief systems of the urban youth at some point in time. Hence, through communication and observation, the rural youth may acquire these behavior traits distorting again the uniformed norms and values that many Egyptians hold. However, it seems unlikely that these classes would be influenced as greatly due to the fact that traditions and cultural norms are still very deeply rooted in their family structures.

To clarify the situation, allow me to illustrate what many of these individuals in their late teens or twenties now consider normal. Young women, who would smoke secretively—to avoid the risk of a family member seeing them in public—can now be seen openly smoking in cafés around Cairo. Clothing has become tighter and more revealing. Many young men and women spend their Friday nights together without a chaperone, sometimes even at pubs or clubs where alcohol is served. The North Coast, one of Egypt’s hot vacation destinations, has transformed from being a family summer holiday spot to an Ibiza-like destination. The social status quo still holds strong values against drinking and “indecent” clothing, however the youth are normalising it.

What is interesting is that in old Egyptian films, from the 1950s up until the 1980s, characters were frequently seen drinking alcohol and women were dressed in revealing clothing that continued to become more revealing as the years went on. This contradicts the religious aspect of Egyptian culture. When questioned about this era, older generations say that it was a different time and that the more religious families still refrained from partaking in “such behaviour”. However, it seems that the pendulum has swung and Egypt is experiencing, yet again, a wave that many believe is spreading "indecency". 

As of today, current trends seem to be changing Egyptian culture and devaluing the norms and belief systems that have been carried from generation to generation. Only time will tell if the if the behaviour and attitudes we see today will be incorporated into the lives of the youth of tomorrow.

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