To be 20 in the Mediterranean: Young Women In Egypt
Eman S. Morsi - 05/03/2008
If there is one thing that unites young Egyptian women in their twenties today it is that they are generally more articulate in expressing themselves than their mothers' and grandmothers' generation. Other than that, opinions on relationships, work and life differ with the difference in personality and socioeconomic make up. They also reveal the growing schisms as well as efforts to synthesize between conservative and liberal trends of thought.
For most young Egyptian women, the mother has the most effect on them. Ingy Taha, a 21 year old under-graduate student explained in detail how her mother, a housewife, helped her overcome much of her self doubt. She insisted, for instance, on putting her in situations that brought out her inner strength, like sending her to England on her own.
Like Ingy, Dalia Mohsen's greatest influence came from the women in her family, her mother, grandmother and aunts. However, since her mother, an English language teacher is the sole bread-winner in the family, she does not get to spend as much time with her as she would have liked. "My mother is one of the closest person in my life." She said adding, " However, lately, we don't really do a lot of activities together, she is busy most of the time and I have my studies; but when we do we discuss books, watch Grey's Anatomy together and every once in a while go to see museums, photo galleries, etc."
For Yassmine Mahfouz, a 20 year old student whose mother is an assistant professor at the National research Center and father a CEO of a brokerage company, as is the case with Dalia and many Egyptians, the family gatherings are disappearing. "Me and my mum are not friends but she is a wonderful mother and I'm trying to be a good daughter. I do not tell her about everything I do in my day. I have my studies and she has her work…Our conversation is therefore limited. Nowadays, every one of us has their own life and time for family talk is very limited. When we meet and talk we avoid personal matters, we do not express our personal feelings." She explained.
Entering the professional fields
Just as relationships within families are beginning to change so is the position of women in the professional fields.
For Samar Ali, a 26 year old dentist who will soon open her own clinic and publish her first collection of English poems, work is what identifies her. "For me work is important and necessary while marriage may or may not come. My parents however disagree and this leads to a lot of disputes in the house especially when I get proposed to." She said
Unlike her mother, who got married at a young age and has been a housewife ever since, Samar believes that women nowadays have more opportunities and choices in work and study.
However, on the social level, she is aware that women of her mother's age who grew up in the seventies, had more social freedoms than today. "There were no stereotypes of what a behaved girl should look like at the time and no such obsession with outer religious appearances as today"
Unlike Samar, Sara, the 24 year old mother and language instructor, does not believe that work should be the main concern in life, though she still upholds that women should work.
"My mother has always been a busy woman doing more than one job besides raising her kids. At times she would do 3 things simultaneously, have a baby, teach at university and write in a periodical. This is not my type of life style. I find it tense. I prefer the traditional life style of having one simple job and then going back home for my son and husband." She said.
Like Sara, Yasmine doesn't want to become the "super mom" that her mother is though for very different reasons. "I'm determined not to be like my mother in the sense of doing everything…My mom does everything, she goes to work, cooks, cleans the house and helps us with our studies. During her time being a career woman was still new and so women were expected to work and still play their role as housewives. However, I don't see myself repeating that pattern of life. My husband will have to be more cooperative. Fathers and husbands have very limited roles in raising their children, in fact they are usually confined to their financial role and that is not right." She complained.
Unlike their mothers almost all the girls interviewed stated that they have a better social life and move in wider circles. According to Mariam, a 24 year old freelance journalist, "I go out a lot and might sometimes stay until quite late. I also went to Germany which was unthinkable for my mother who got married at age 23. Compared to her at this age I have more experience because of living in Cairo, the capital. My mom grew up in Sohag, in Upper Egypt which is a very conservative place. My grandfather was a very conservative man and she was not allowed to go out as often as I do. I am more exposed to the world and to the other sex. I have male colleagues and friends but she never did."
When it comes to the position of women in society there is some disagreement. While most see that women can do what they want and that society has become more tolerant towards the idea of career women others believe that women's achievements are amputated and incomplete. For Samar, the problem lies in the growing judgmental society which forces liberal women who have achieved a lot to make concessions in order to be accepted by society.
On the other hand, Sara believes that women are making a big mistake by insisting on taking up the two roles of career woman and house wife. She believes that since most men are not cooperative in the house, women should focus on their children and household until the children are grown up.
Amongst middle class 20 year olds today, the English expression "boyfriend" has become normal though it does not in most cases mean anything more intimate than holding hands and going out together. Thanks to the invention of mobile phones and the internet, today's youth can have more space to meet and develop a relationship that is not as constrained or supervised by parents and other adults as it used to be. And though it might be a huge break away from tradition, issues of modesty and virginity are usually observed.
Ingy Taha has a boyfriend that her mother but not her father knows about. "When it comes to relationships my mom does not approve because she is worried about my reputation. She tells me not to go out with him too often and keeps referring to one of our neighbors' daughters who is too liberal with her boyfriend and shows affection for him in front of other people. Of course I tell her I'm not bad like her. We never do more than hold hands and maybe kiss the hands or the forehead, won't do anything more until I get married. She also doesn't believe that our relationship has a future and I don't agree with that." She said.
Nowara Magdy, a 21 year old student, who just broke up with her boyfriend after he made her promises of proposing, concluded that the reason behind their relationship's failure is her ex-boyfriend's inflexibility.
"He was very secretive, even with me and it never changed. In our society girls are more ready to change and make compromises; we see that as power, men see that as weakness." She said
Compromises aside, one thing all Egyptian girls interviewed said was that they would never take the first step in declaring their love or liking for a boy because it would be misinterpreted as being morally loose or desperate.
However, not everyone has a boyfriend, or accepts this new phenomenon. While some girls disapprove of having boyfriends for the reason that girls at such an early age are too immature to make the right choices and the boys too superficial, many others are totally against the issue for social and religious reasons.
24 year old Rania Yassin, a bank accountant, is strongly against it, "It's not part of our culture to have a boyfriend and it is against religion. We are living in these circumstances because of movies and video-clips. Not to mention that almost all the time girls take it seriously while boys don't. Boys these days are really shallow they consider relationships a type of entertainment, something you do in your spare time" she said. Sara also agrees though she supports the idea of early traditional marriages since these are legitimate relationships started by responsible young men unlike the boyfriend/girlfriend relationships.