The author, Mette Toft Nielsen, who's from Denmark, was inspired to write the book during her time pursuing a masters in Egypt.
Oftentimes, when Western scholars or academics study Egyptian women, their focus falls on one of two categories: well-educated women who speak perfect English and also tend to be civically engaged, and poor women who live in rural areas and are portrayed as dependent, and to a degree, submissive.
Mette Tofte Nielsen set out to challenge the extremes that those portrayals display, and wanted to undergo a diverse study, to speak to and examine women across all backgrounds in Egypt. The end result is her book, Women in Post-Revolutionary Egypt: Can Behaviour Be Controlled? (Political and Social Change).
The author, Mette Toft Nielsen (second from right) with Sharine Atif (third from right), and Nora Labib (second from left).
Another issue Nielsen found with most academic studies of women in Egypt is when they did portray these well-educated women, “They usually focused on their activism, their role in the revolution, for example, and things of that nature.” She wanted to know about, “Their daily life, their struggles, and their dreams.”
On the other hand, lower-class women often featured in academia as illiterate, submissive to men, and victims of female genital mutilation. Nielsen wanted to know what they thought of the revolution, whether they participated in it, and take a deeper look into their aspirations and woes.
The book is divided into three parts. The first examines the perspective of Egyptian women with respect to the revolution, the political environment in their country, and the many changes it has witnessed in recent years.
“The second part is about the daily life of women,” Nielsen said, continuing, “The issues they face, what are the things they’re proud of, what are the things they value, that are important to them.” The third and final part is about the women’s hopes and ambitions for the future.
One of the most interesting things Nielsen found is that the Egyptian society is a very collectivistic one, unlike the more individualistic societies of Western countries. “In the West we think democracy equals a better life, but this is not necessarily what people want,” she said. “They want to feel safe, to be able to fulfil, on an individual, level their own safety, like being able to feed their children, being able to dress the way they want, which also includes wearing the hijab, for example, to be able to pursue careers. They want their children to have opportunities, that’s something really important to them.”
She also expressed dissatisfaction with the way most Western scholars examine democracy in a country like Egypt, from an individualistic-focused lens. “It’s very important to have awareness that collectivistic values are important to women [in Egypt]. So it’s not something you can change, or downgrade, it’s something you have to respect because it is actually important to them.”
The author believes that what Egyptian women want is to reach a compromise between their innate individualistic desires, and their conviction of the importance of collectivistic values. “For example, a woman wants to move out of home but she doesn't because it would make her family sad,” Nielsen said. “Another woman, however, recounts how her sister eventually convinced her parents to let her go on a trip to Alexandria with her girl friends, and contended that it would be possible for her to discuss with her parents the opportunity to live outside of her their house.”
Thus, Nielsen believes that a compromise can be reached where the woman can achieve what she wants without compromising her family values.
One of Nielsen’s biggest takeaway from the whole experience was, “to see what came out of these workshops. That all these women had these strong, powerful messages that they wanted to express, even though some of them had never held a pen before, they were all so eager and enthusiastic,” to express their feelings through drawings.
She was also impressed by the strong sense of community, which she believes is a result of Egyptian society's strong collectivistic values. She said that, "Everybody was so eager and willing to help and join forces with us in this project. That was truly overwhelming and touched me deeply, even when I think about it today!"
Not only that, Nielsen said, "It also really impressed me how interested and grateful the women were for sharing their perspectives, experiences and opinions on all different kinds of matters that were of importance to them, and how eye-opening these interactions seemed to be for our assistants. I feel so privileged to have been part of such a great collaboration that spans so broadly across the society."
Some of the women's expressive art: