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Posts from the ‘Women’s Rights’ Category

Sex and Politics

Spring has arrived in Cairo and the weather has been glorious. Warm, but not too hot; I wish it could stay like this indefinitely. Of course, I’m ignoring the khamaseen, the sand-filled southern winds that for two weeks left me constantly rinsing grit out of my irritated, itchy eyes, but they seem to be behind us now. We’re headed to the Red Sea soon for some sun and sailing lessons, and I can’t wait.

We had parent-teacher conferences at school. Once again, I’m disappointed in the lower school but completely wowed by the middle school. T has grown and blossomed here more than I ever could have imagined and that’s primarily due to the school. The administration and the teachers are fantastic. Some of his favorites are leaving next year, including the principal, who is the best school administrator I’ve seen anywhere, but I think it’ll be okay. The vice-principal is taking the helm and he’s terrific, too. It’s X in the lower school I’m concerned about. We’ve started making him do Khan Academy work at home because he just isn’t getting the academic challenge he needs.

Also in the positive column, the blackouts have been decreasing. They were nightly for a while, and occasionally we even had two in a day, but we’re down to one or two a week. It’s a nice relief.

Our shipment from New York has supposedly arrived in Egypt. It’s expected to clear customs in the next few days. I’m hoping we’ll get it before we leave for the beach, but that might be wishful thinking. I’m not sure where we’ll put everything since we’re still woefully short of furniture, but I sure am looking forward to having a dining room table, and the boys are excited about having all their stuff again.

While I may be feeling upbeat about life in Cairo, it’s been an abysmal week when it comes to women’s rights and societal attitudes about women. First, a student at Cairo University was sexually harassed by a group of fellow students who whistled and shouted at her as she walked through campus, some of them trying to remove her clothes. Afterward, the dean of the law school, where she studies, essentially blamed the incident on her for what she was wearing—a figure hugging, long-sleeved pink sweater and black pants. Then a British woman was raped by a security guard in a hotel in Sharm el Sheikh and the local governor basically said she was asking for it because she’d been drinking.

It’s probably not a huge surprise to hear that men’s attitudes about women here verge on the Neanderthal. Perhaps more surprising is how much women contribute to those attitudes. They, too, often see the victims of sexual harassment as somehow culpable—even the members of a Facebook group for expat women in Cairo were questioning the actions of the Sharm rape victim—even when they themselves are the victim. Until attitudes in Egyptian society change, and on a large scale, harassment and sexual assault will not stop. Women here need to be part of that change.

There was big news on the political front: Egypt’s defense minister, General  Abdul Fattah al-Sisi finally declared his candidacy for president this week, after first resigning his cabinet position. He is now officially a civilian, although he announced his intention to run while still wearing his army uniform.  Now that he’s formally declared, he’s fair game. We’ll see how long the near-universal adulation of him lasts. The Egyptian papers have already started publishing articles critical of him.

Sisi’s widespread support comes from the belief that he will be able make Egypt more secure. We’ll see. In the short term, his candidacy is just as likely to invigorate already angry Muslim Brotherhood supporters and Islamists and spark a new round of instability. Five people were killed on the Friday after his announcement in skirmishes with security forces, including a young female journalist. It’s all quite sad.

It’s easy to understand why Egyptians are looking for a little respite from all the turmoil. Even in our protected little bubble we’ve seen a recent spike in crime. Earlier this month a woman walking down the street with her two children just after nightfall was held up at gunpoint and, just two days later, three teenaged boys were abducted by five men in a car and robbed. They were unhurt and let go on the outskirts of the city with enough cab money to get home, but both incidents occurred relatively early in the evening and on the well-secured streets surrounding the school, so they’re a reminder that we should always be careful.

 

 

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Holiday Cheer

Phew! I am always so relieved when Christmas is behind us. Usually we have a crush of holidays in December—X’s birthday, Sinterklaas, Christmas, Orthodox Christmas, New Year’s Eve. By the time my birthday rolls around in January I’m too exhausted to want to do anything. This year, though, we’re down to two holidays—Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and we’ve already made it through one.

T opening presentsChristmas was nice. O came in from NY—he’s here for good now—and brought all the presents with him.The boys were so happy. We had a mellow day, and just cooked dinner at home. The next day we drove to Ain Sokhna, a resort on the Red Sea about a 90 minute drive from Cairo, with two other families who have kids in X’s class, one from South Sudan and one from Bangladesh. It was quite the cultural mélange.

The weather in Ain Sokhna was about the same as in Cairo—in the low 60s, but somehow on the beach it felt much warmer. The kids had a blast playing in the sand—they made a giant sand castle—and it was warm enough for me to swim in the sea, although not for too long. Still, it was a great getaway. I think we’ll go back pretty regularly. The roads are good, it’s an easy drive and it’s such a nice break from Cairo that I imagine we’ll go at least a few times a year.Sand Castles

I’ve been running around Cairo doing interviews for the book, which is always exhausting. I had a meeting yesterday in a neighborhood called Shubra, which is about as far north of downtown as I am south. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper the whole way up there, and the entire round trip, interview included, took nearly five hours. It’s hard to get much done when a single meeting can take up your whole day.

Still, I’ve been venturing out of our little bubble pretty regularly. I’m going a bit stir crazy down here. We met a friend of X’s at the Gezira Club last week, which was lovely. They have absolutely everything there—playgrounds, restaurants, tennis, squash, gymnastics, soccer, golf….you name it. I was hoping to do some shopping while we were up in Zamalek but, once again, traffic was so bad that just getting there took it out of us.

Now that O is here there’s a new round of annoying banalities to be dealt with, and they’re even harder this go around. I’m an Egyptian citizen so, by comparison, was able to do things with relative ease. He tried to get an Egyptian cell phone number yesterday and couldn’t because he’s currently here on a tourist visa. They told him he would have to establish residency or get a letter from his employer to be able to get anything other than a prepaid phone. I can’t wait to see what happens when he tries to open a bank account or get added to mine.

I am becoming increasingly exercised about the position of women in Egyptian society. The sexism is everywhere, and so corrosive. I make weekly objections to both of my Arabic tutors about their curricula (which neither of them is responsible for, but who else am I going to complain to?). The rich men are always married to beautiful women and the poor men have fat, ugly wives. Today we were learning vocabulary around one’s daily routine. The man got up, ate breakfast, got dressed and went to work. The woman woke up, fed her family, cleaned the house and then visited with her friends.

But the truth is, the women in Egypt are as responsible for the state of affairs as men are. When I complained to my teacher today, he told me that he talks about this issue with his colleague at the university. His female colleagues just want to get married—to pretty much anyone. And these are women pursuing graduate degrees. I’ve noticed this here before. The women believe it is their duty to cook and clean and take care of their husbands. Men are held responsible for very little. The old attitudes hold and traditional gender roles are entrenched. Until the women themselves push back against them, nothing will change.

Things are going downhill on the political front. There have been several bombings over the past week and there is no reason to think we’ve seen the end of that. The government crackdown on the Brotherhood is more repressive than anything I saw when I was living in the Soviet Union. It’s gotten so nuts that they’re now arresting journalists for reporting on the Brotherhood. These new policies seem destined to backfire.

But the boys and I are about to have a temporary reprieve. We’re flying to NY in a few days and will be there for a week. We’re all looking forward to seeing our friends and being able to enjoy a city that functions for a while. I just hope it’s not too cold.

Wacky Weather

I was emailing with a good friend who recently moved to London, and we were remarking on how different our lives are at the moment. I was saying that while we love it here, when I was in Amsterdam a couple of months ago I realized that I was completely relaxed there in a way I never am here. I’d forgotten what it was like to be able to go anywhere, anytime and not have to worry about curfews (which we no longer have to do) or running into a Muslim Brotherhood demonstration, or just getting into trouble because of the language barrier. Just taking a taxi can be stressful because most of the drivers who hail from other parts of Cairo don’t know their way around our neighborhood, and with my pathetically limited Arabic I have a hard time directing them. I have to study more.

As an aside, I also noticed when we were in Amsterdam that X had forgotten how to cross the street. There are no traffic lights in our neighborhood so crossing the street can be a challenge. If you can’t find a gap in traffic, you have to brazenly walk out into the street and hope someone will stop. We have found women rarely will—I guess they have enough BS to put up with in this male-dominated society that when they get behind the wheel of a car they don’t want to take any guff from anyone. X has developed the habit, as have I, of putting one hand up, policeman style, in the hopes that drivers will see that as a sign not to run us over. So far, it’s worked. But when we first got to Amsterdam, X would just step into traffic and hold his hand up. He’d forgotten there were such things as crosswalks.

While we’re on the topic, I might as well mention that there are virtually no sidewalks here, either, so you wind up walking in the middle of the street. A friend of mine told me that someone she knows was back in the U.S. walking Cairo style. A police officer asked him why he was walking in the street. He said: “Where do you expect me to walk?” Apparently, he shared X’s organized traffic amnesia.

Anyway…back to my friend in London. She had a bunch of questions about what day-to-day life is like here, and asked me to write about them in the blog. So here goes, one by one:

Would love to know if you meet up with friends for coffee and while doing so, what you’re looking at or overhearing.

I do meet up with friends for coffee. There’s only one place whose coffee I like, Café Greco. They have two outposts, one on Road 9, which is the main shopping street in my neighborhood, but it’s on the other end of it so I don’t get over there too often. The other one is in the Community Services Association, which is kind of a hub for expats. They run welcome programs and tours and have classes and a gym and a library and a little store and pretty much anything else a foreigner in Egypt would want. And a Café Greco, which is where I get my coffee when I’m not brewing the La Colombe that O ferries over from New York for me.

The conversation is pretty much what you would find in a NY coffee shop. Post drop off, it’s mommy chat. Later on you’ll see business meetings. People meet for lunch. They talk politics. I’d estimate at least half the people I see there are Egyptian. I know some of the memberships—the video library, for instance—are limited to people with foreign passports, but I don’t know about general admission. It’s possible all the Egyptians I see there have second passports. Whoever they are, they’re a pretty cosmopolitan bunch. And everything there, from menus to posters to the monthly magazine, is in English.

Okay, this is post getting to be long. I am going to save the rest of her questions for the next one so I can do them justice.  On the home front, well, we had a lovely Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. It was perhaps the most American Thanksgiving I have ever had. The food all came from the club affiliated with the U.S. Embassy here, so the turkey was, I’m sure, Butterball and the fixings were as traditional as can be. The desserts were made by an Egyptian-British woman, but I must say they may well have been the best damn apple and pumpkin pies I have ever had.

We are working on a Christmas tree. That’s trickier. We’re deciding between the fake tree and the little live tree that isn’t really a fir and the branches are too flimsy to hold ornaments. It’s a tossup. I’m hoping to get the boys to decide this weekend. If we manage to get out of the house. I canceled our planned trip to the pyramids today (yes, I was trying again) because it is so cold here that it was snowing in parts of Cairo. I figured it’s no fun riding camels in the freezing rain, and the monuments aren’t going anywhere. The weather is going bonkers here. Yesterday we had a rainbow, which I was told was rare in Egypt. Today, snow, reportedly for the first time in more than 100 years. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

I didn't take this but it was too good not to share.

I didn’t take this but it is too good not to share.

We had a little domestic drama this week. T was in his room when all of a sudden the light fixture came crashing down out of the ceiling. There was glass everywhere, and he kept yelling that it could have killed him. Maybe it could have. So I got a new electrician in—this one recommended by the lovely manager of the aforementioned American club—and he checked all the fixtures in the house. Apparently none of them is safe. But he didn’t have time to finish, so he’s coming back Saturday. I’m going to ask him to take a look at the still-electrocuting dishwasher, too. Maybe we can finally fix that thing.

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