Yesterday after our visit to the Pyramids of Giza, we met Raheem, who talked to us about women in Egypt. She shared about her own experience as well as the role of women in society.
This was part of OAT’s “Controversial Topics.” Unfortunately, one member of our group made it far more controversial than it should have been.
Sadly, I didn’t get a photo of Raheem. The photo above is just a random internet picture of Egyptian women.
Raheem wore a head scarf and started her talk by discussing why.
There is certainly no requirement or expectation that women wear head scarves in Egypt. Many do. For Raheem, it is a matter of personal choice. There is no obligation or pressure for her to do so. The Qur’an does not require women to wear the head scarf or hijab.
And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigour, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness.Muhammad M. Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an
When Raheem met her husband, on their first date he asked about her hair. As they got to know each other, he was anxious to know if it was straight or wavy or curly, short or long, even if she had hair or was bald. She answered his questions, but told him he would not get to see her without the scarf until they were married.
When she asked if there were any questions, things got derailed pretty quickly. One of our members, rather than asking a question, went into a lengthy tirade about how the wearing of the head scarf is degrading to women. Others among us were clearly becoming frustrated by his need to express his own opinion. Raheem was extremely generous, listened openly, and did not become defensive or get pulled into a debate. But when she responded by saying she didn’t disagree but reiterated that there is no requirement in Egypt regarding women covering their heads, he continued to argue, referencing the burqa, the fact that in Judaism there are similar rules requiring modesty from women, and how other countries have used the Qur’an to subjugate women.
Finally, others got a chance to ask questions. I wondered aloud if the hiding of beauty, as the above passage from the Qur’an loosely suggests, says more about men, and their inability to control their sexual desires, than it does about women. Raheem agreed.
I think both Judaism and Islam have institutionalized rules to make women less attractive so men won’t rape them. By doing so, they have put the responsibility of preventing rape on women instead of on men. (Of course, the other thing these religions do to lessen men’s baser impulses is circumcision…)
Education and political representation
Both men and women have equal access to education in Egypt, but the literacy rate is significantly higher among men. Male literacy is about 80%; female literacy is about 67%.
Women have equal access to the political system as well. The constitution has a provision that reserves at least 25% of the seats in parliament for women.
When Raheem told us this, our outspoken member chimed in again. “Why only 25%?” he wanted to know. Raheem shot back, “What is it in America?” But he kept going on again, and a few people started asking if we can get back to the topic. Finally, Mo said, “We’re here to listen and learn, not to judge.” That pretty much shut him up for the rest of the talk.
Sex outside marriage
Sex outside marriage is contrary to Sharia law and therefore illegal in Egypt. But even worse than that, there is tremendous stigma attached to being “unvirgin.” This is the word Raheem used; she said there is actually a word in Arabic for this. And men cannot become “unvirgin.”
There is almost no sex education in Egypt. Or there wasn’t when Raheem was younger. Now there’s the internet.
Raheem was married when she was fairly young, and her husband was also young. Because she knew nothing about birth control, she quickly became pregant, and they had a son.
Her husband told her he didn’t want her to have other friends, because he became jealous. So she gave up all her friends. She was completely subserviant. She didn’t know any better.
Then, after she had broken ties with everyone outside her marriage, her husband told her he felt he was too young to be a father. And he just left.
Divorce and remarriage
As a single mother, Raheem thought she had no hope of ever finding another husband. But she did meet her current husband, and for him her previous marriage, her son, and her “unvirgin” status weren’t an issue. They have a son of their own, and he treats her older son like his own as well. The children are 16 and 6.
Raheem tells her husband he needs to have “the talk” with their older son, but he is struggling to do it. They are more open-minded and modern than their histories would suggest, but it’s stil hard to talk about sex.
I asked her if pre-marital sex is illegal, why not just wait until he is ready to get married. And she acknowledged that just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
Raheem previously worked in the tourism business. She and Mo went to college together. But she gave that up when she got married the first time. Now she works as a teacher.
It was both inspiring and tragic to listen to Raheem talk about her life and, by extension, the lives of women in Egypt. There are surely many stories like hers, and probably many with a much less happy ending.