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The following is a guest post from AUA Mosaic Scholarship recipient Laura Mills. She is currently volunteering with Hands Along the Nile Development Services, Inc. in Egypt. To find an amazing opportunity like this one, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today!
It’s hard not to get to know someone over shisha, but that statement couldn’t be more true in Cairo, where your chairs are tucked up close to one another between parked cars, the crazy Cairene nightlife happening in real time around you. One night during our trip we met with a group of American University of Cairo (AUC) students, and were starting things off like college kids usually do, swapping favorite movies and music recommendations (mingled with more than a little talk about politics and the revolution).
But when I stopped to look around, there was one thing that struck me: our group of American students was mostly female, but the Egyptian group was almost exclusively male. I shrugged it off, putting it down to coincidence—these were, after all, supposed to be the most progressive, westernized representatives of society, and both their travels and their knowledge of American chain restaurants far outdid my own. But the next day, during an English-language conversation club at the American Embassy, it was the same case again, with one or two girls in a crowd of twenty men.
So where were all the ladies? I knew that in coming to the Middle East for the first time, one of my greatest shocks would be encountering gender roles I personally opposed. I also realized that I would have to conform to these roles myself in whatever small way, even if that just meant pulling on a long-sleeve shirt and jeans instead of shorts on a hot day full of pyramid-climbing. But the mere absence of women in my trip to Egypt meant that, as much as I could infer or read up on women’s issues today, I couldn’t simply sit around a table and get an honest, personal perspective—I couldn’t understand those problems as real.
On the eve of our departure we met with Gihan Abou Zeid, human rights activist and an expert on women’s issues in the Arab world. She talked to us about what women are demanding in post-revolutionary Egypt, and about the tenuousness of their position. For example, women were elected to only 8 out of 508 (or less than 2%) of parliamentary seats. Gihan explained to us that the majority of these 8 seats belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, and that these women often resided in “the most traditional wings of the party,” spearheading calls for conservative measures like the reexamination of previous legislation with regard to Sharia law.
Perhaps these statistics underscore something else—the fact that in a democratic Egypt, these numbers are an honest reflection of the barriers to political entry many women face around the country. Gihan explained to us that, while quotas had enforced female representation in parliament before the revolution, these seats were so easily controlled by the ruling party that they had virtually no political force. In essence, the system was dishonest and representation was virtual. And therefore, as disillusioning this lack of representation may be in the short-term, it is perhaps this stark absence of women in the newly elected parliament that can teach people the most about the reality of women’s rights in Egypt, and enable them to finally discuss and address the issues.
But what really struck me in our meeting with Gihan, the first Egyptian woman I had really interacted with throughout our trip, was her kindness and care for each member of our group. We were sitting in the lobby of our hotel, and more than half of our group was coughing violently in rounds like some kind of sad, sickly chamber orchestra. She stopped several times in the midst of a discussion on women’s rights to ask us if we were all right or to sternly but kindly advise us to get better before our flight home. Most of the Egyptians we met were absurdly generous and almost overwhelmingly kind, but I was struck by Gihan’s particular, almost familial care for each member of the group. Meeting Gihan, both on a personal and a professional level, made me hope that if I ever get the chance to come back to the Egypt (and I do hope this trip was not my last) that I will make an effort not only to talk about women’s rights issues more openly, but to interact with more Egyptian women who—if Gihan was anything to go by—were capable of so much kindness and so much care.