Gender in Cairo

I wrote this post in the summer of 2007 when I was living in Cairo. Much changed soon after and my “resistance is weak” line seems horribly naive. Much was building, even then, but I was too out of touch to see it. Still, I’m leaving this as it was written at the time.  


Its life in a dictatorship here, but one that exerts a pretty soft power on the parts of the city I inhabit. I work with the most privileged people in Cairo, highly educated and generally pretty well off, and I live in one of the most international part of the city. My perceptions therefore are obvious skewed, but in the coming weeks, I’ll try and write about some of the main issues I see here from the vantage point I have.

Women’s rights here is, like everything everywhere, a very class based issue. If you’re without a veil in Zamalek (where I live) or Doqqi (where I work), it’s not a problem. I work with a pretty left/progressive Muslim woman (whose mother, b/t/w runs one of the biggest women’s rights groups in the mid-east) and she doesn’t wear a veil and shows up to work in an above the knee skirt fairly often. But when she is trying to get a cab, the cabbies will hassle her about the way she is dressed – expecting more money because only a rich girl would dare to dress that way. And they’re probably right, and that makes me sad.

A number of my friends from g’town are working in non profits, two of them in women’s rights groups. The stories they tell are pretty harrowing. Abuse and rape that go unreported for fear of retaliation. Rocks thrown in the street for a violation of the sense of decorum. Women followed for blocks by packs of young men. Women divorced and left with nothing. All the things you read about in the west. My understanding is these things happen to women across the economic range, but the worst of it is felt by Cairo’s poorest women. And God help you if you’re a female refugee – that is a horribly bleak scene.

As will be a common theme in these political posts, resistance here is pretty weak. Mubarak is a smart guy. When western funding countries start complaining about the plight of women here (like after the notorious assault on women in the marketplace last year) he just goes out and starts his own NGO to solve the problem. The biggest women’s rights one is run by his wife. But, surprise, surprise, the situation doesn’t get any better.

And I don’t know what place we as Americans really have in this. I am opposed to women being forced to wear a veil (duh.) but what if anything should I be doing about this in a foreign country? I don’t have a problem with kids from g’town coming and providing skills to organizations they believe in, but I am also not so naïve as to think that all the brouhaha in the states about women’s rights in the Middle East is really about the women here. Its about power, and about displacing the focus from the problems we have in our own society (and me, as an American male gripping about the sexism of Egyptian men could easily fall into me avoiding dealing with my own sexist behavior). If I’m going to do work internationally (which, In Shallah) I hope to do, I am going to have to come up with better answers of how to deal with these contradictions that, “I don’t know what place I have”.

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