Picture by crosby_cj / Flickr.com. Some rights reserved (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).25-year-old Sara does not feel secure telling her parents how she feels about myriad things. Having struggled with the concept of religion from a very young age, her proclamation of atheism was not met with much open-mindedness. “They freaked out and insisted I see a family sheikh”, she says. Her father also threatened to cut off funds for her college education. “The whole thing traumatized me which made me—in the end—say that I believe in God,” she adds.
Sara now lies about sexual activity, alcohol consumption, and more. What Sara describes as an 'off and on switch' made apparent the restraints fashioned by a conservative, mostly Muslim society. Based on three indices—the Social Progress Index, the Environmental Performance Index and the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Gender Gap report—Egypt comes at number six amongst the 15 least liberal countries in the world.
The Middle Eastern country was first faced with this wave of Islamism and ardent Wahhabism around Islamic theorist and Islamism figurehead Sayyid Qutb’s time in the 1950s and 1960s. Qutb lead the Muslim Brotherhood group and incited violence. The conservative shift was felt by many in society, except women suffered more than men as a result. And, despite Egypt’s uprising in 2011 against Mubarak’s regime and the injustice it inflicted, Egyptian women still experience malignant treatment and regard. To this day, women remain an afterthought on matters of divorce, female genital mutilation (FGM), sexual harassment, and education.
According to a survey conducted by the International Men and Gender Equality Survey, 86.8% of men think women’s highest priorities should be caring for her home and family ahead of life ambitions afforded to men such as holding a career. Meanwhile, 90% believe that women should accept violence from a spouse or partner without leaving as long as the family stays together. For the same parameters, women did not think much differently (76.7 and 70.9, respectively), reflecting a similar thought pattern amongst women themselves.
The lies Sara told and still tells are part deep love for her family and part convenience, except the emotional toll is hefty, and guilt and shame are overpowering. “I can’t even tell them I was sexually assaulted. I have to deal with paranoia, anxiety and disturbing nightmares,” says Sara who also now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD, panic attacks, and minor depressive episodes. “I feel stuck living under a mask. I believe if they find out, I’ll kill myself,” she says.
Nora shares a similar sentiment, under a harder reality. “Traditions are a whip my parents use against me,” the 28-year-old Ph.D. student laments. “I’d like to be sincere about everything, but every time I envision this I panic over the possibility of violence against me, or worse, alienation. I often resort to [self-harm like] cutting [myself] and trichotillomania (hair-pulling) to relieve my stress,” Nora has even been told by her brother, on a number of occasions, that her bisexuality warrants death. The young professional’s mental and physical well-being is in tatters, with severe migraines and crippling anxiety now a part of her daily life., “Ironically, I pray to the same God, to get me through this or make it all go away somehow.”
Zainab, 32, attributes the differences she has with her parents to their socially conservative worldview. “According to their beliefs, these aspects of my life are not culturally or religiously acceptable and are morally wrong. They also think that I’m jeopardizing my future and putting myself at risk, so in a way, they are concerned,” she says.
This induces Zainab’s anxiety which prompts her to evade their questions rather than lie. “It’s still lying by omission though,” she adds. “It feels like there’s a lot of hostility directed at me and makes it impossible to ever feel completely comfortable. I’m always on edge. I’ve internalized a lot of shame. I’m frustrated a lot, which is tiring,” she adds.
One of the most difficult aspects of Zainab’s double-life is her inability to speak openly about how she feels, even during some of life’s most difficult moments. “I recently went through a difficult break-up, and I had to fake normalcy. Repressing all those feelings took its toll on me, leaving me with more pain to handle as well as exhaustion. My anxiety about it can be severe at times, and this affects my day-to-day decisions. I’m left feeling defensive, irritable, drained, and burned out. I don’t feel financially secure and I feel like my physical safety and health are threatened, which makes me anxious and depressed.”
Sociologist and political sociology lecturer at the American University in Cairo, Amro Ali, has spoken out about what he describes as a “societal disruption”. “Unfortunately, a woman tends to be one of the first victims on the frontlines of societal disruption,” he explains. “Egyptian society has been swallowed into the globalization and consumerism vortex, that has been accompanied with neoliberal dehumanization, that ramps up hyper-individualism, fragmenting society and making people feel lonely. I now see women in some form of internal exile,” he adds
“Egypt has inherited the dysfunctions of modernity that makes it a very paradoxical place on the political and social level: we have elections without democracy, a parliament without representation, we sing the merits of citizenship without acknowledging the citizen,” he adds.
Ali points out how the women who attend his public lectures are often forced to act more conservatively in public than they do on the internet where they can behave more freely. “It is not unusual to see women who are self-conscious (of others observing them) when approaching or asking questions at a public talk, as opposed to the much more direct and confident emails and social media messages they would send before or after enquiring about the talk. However, this gap seems to be decreasing in recent years in favor of a woman's assertive communication in public spaces,” he remarks. Meanwhile, Ali also refers to the dimension of “shame” that steers people to be hyper-aware of the image they project in the Egyptian public sphere.
Egyptians were divided following the release of a video on social media in recent weeks in which a young woman is being sexually harassed while traveling home from work.
The woman in question, Menna Gobran, video-recorded her alleged harasser outside a branch of popular chain store ‘On The Run’ and posted the footage to Facebook prompting people to ridicule her while defending the guy’s lewd actions. “Not only did they cruelly shame her, the victim, but they elevated the harasser to stardom even by some so-called feminists through taking photos next to him,” Ali adds.
He further added that in Egypt, there is an obsession with what other people would say which discourages many women from speaking out. “It’s unmanageable and the latest example is the “On The Run” sexual harassment case.”
Given how 99.3% of women in Egypt have been sexually harassed, normalization around such a horrific issue is hardly shocking.
Following the 2011 uprising which swept the country’s former autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, from power, there was a brief glimmer of hope for many Egyptian women, both conservative and liberal, who hoped for greater freedoms.
“Mubarak indirectly skewed the approach to religion; by suffocating the political sphere, he forced many people into the religious sphere as a compensatory measure rather than as a choice, and this perhaps peaked in the mid-2000s when we saw a sudden spike, albeit it was already steadily increasing, in religious displays of piety in newer social classes, such as women turning to the hijab,” Ali remarks.
In post-2011, a significant wave of women took off their hijabs in a minor cultural revolution provoking a negative reaction to what could be perceived as a seemingly mundane act.
“It is not uncommon for me to hear from Egyptian women who are experiencing a crisis of faith of sorts, that they want to love God and feel a sense of mercy, but this is severely shaken when they are shamed and reduced to two-dimensional characters who must be straitjacketed into fulfilling a checklist of obligations, for example, the hijab or what a woman should be like in society. This type of male power-reinforcing and uniform battering ram approach reduces from the complexities of human beings living in extremely complex times, and it is even an injustice to Islamic jurisprudence which has a rich history of mercifully accommodating nuances and showing compassion to changes in the landscape,” Ali says.
“The religious sermons have hit a tone-deaf level. I think the biggest assault on the Egyptian landscape is mediocrity. There is almost a complete lack of imagination to find viable routes to resolve matters,” he adds noting that publics are born every day and that we need to keep hoping that,” he adds.
However, mental health experts believe that the consequences of living this sort of double-life go far beyond family disagreements.
In a 10-week study conducted by the University of Notre Dame, people who lied less experienced reduced mental and physical health complaints. Additionally, respondents who told fewer lies experienced more positive relationships and better social interactions.
Cairo-based psychologist Sherif Othman says that through lying, these women inflict guilt upon themselves even when it’s carried out for self-preservation or noble reasons. “There’s also a lot of mental stress as they’ll have to keep track of all the lies they tell,” Othman says. “For long-term lying, people can just turn into habitual or compulsive liars and lies become uncontrollable and turn pathological.”
Othman goes on to highlight how keeping track of so many falsehoods can develop psychological disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) which is a state of being constantly anxious, even when there is no trigger. He also goes on to mention additional stresses which can affect the person physically like lack of sleep due to the pressing feeling of guilt, and anxiety-induced heart conditions and fluctuating blood pressure.
When it comes to social interactions and maintaining personal relationships, Othman says that piling-up lies can easily shatter trusts with loved ones. “Losing people’s trust will alienate those who are lying and usually those who are lying tend to be socially withdrawn because they don’t want to face all the anxieties that come with lying or the fear of getting caught. You’ve got to weigh the pros and cons of lying and make an informed decision he adds.
Othman explains in terms of living in Egypt’s conservative society. “Lying should not be the first option. People should communicate with their parents and voice their mindsets instead of sweeping it all under the rug. The first step to get an idea accepted into a society is through voicing this idea.”
Meanwhile, Othman also recommends compromising on matters that are not accepted by families. “We should try using our negotiation skills to demand more rights, and not everything is [set] in stone, which could be a plan to resort to before lying,” he says.
Othman believes that change is coming and that we do not have to wait for generations for a certain cultural upheaval to happen. “Women are more vocal now, and never underestimate the power of social media. We’re not fed what to be or do as before and women are going strong in claiming their rights. With that trajectory, in a few decades, Egyptian women will be free to do what they want to do,” he believes.
On her end, clinical psychologist, Sharon Perry said that these held information from family should definitely be shared with other individuals so that these women wouldn’t have to carry the brunt of these lies. “Most families are adamant about their own opinions and there’s even denial about what their children might be doing or not doing,” Perry says adding that lying protects the families but eventually harms the person carrying those lies. “[It’s] not just about sex. We need to look at pregnancies, STDs, AIDs, things that young people here don’t seem to be aware of,” she explains.
Perry has a rather positive outlook on what to come: “People are slowly opening up and talking to their kids and even providing assistance. We can’t interfere with cultural norms or advocate lying but we can limit the behaviour itself,” she remarks.
Though a number of women do not agree with Othman and Perry’s hopeful projection, Nora believes her family’s love for her should trump any disaccord between them. “I know I sound naive, but maybe it’s my mind trying to cope with the grim reality of things,” she says.