Observations of a Woman in Cairo: On Virginity and Patriarchy
In her CairoScene debut, Hana K. explores the patriarchal notion that drive Egyptian society's sexism and our seemingly inherent misogyny.
Having been born and raised in Cairo to upper middle class Egyptian Muslim parents, gender issues and women’s rights weren’t topics typically dealt with in my family despite how 'open-minded' my parents claim to be. A patriarchal culture filters through life’s many aspects in Egypt, silencing the voices demanding the downfall of male superiority and the end of misogyny that has long infected Egyptian culture. To try and understand such matters, one must avoid looking only at the similarities in other Arab countries and their attitudes towards gender and sexuality as they ultimately have defining differences in their historical contexts and the operation of their societies today.
My intimate experience with Cairo compels me to make it my focal point. At only 12 years old, I started feeling the burden of the inherent 'female guilt' and gender expectations of shame, chastity, and modesty. My automatic reaction was defiance of said things. Being so young, my defiance wasn’t a conscious decision founded on an understanding of the consequences of structural misogyny. I challenged various things from the socially constructed concept of virginity – something that the lives of many Egyptians seem to revolve around, to the inherent shame and oppression attributed to femaleness, and giving the upper-hand to a male figure, allowing social powers to control a woman's body.
My unconscious reaction to patriarchal culture and traditions was what one may think of as an act of teenage rebellion; it was only met with rejection by inside social circles. Today, as an Egyptian Liberal Arts Student residing in Berlin, I’m still unlearning the deeply ingrained gender expectations imposed on Egyptian woman. I have chosen to break the silence and free up some space for my female voice to occupy.
By speaking out on the misogyny in my own culture, I’m often condemned for 'making Egyptians look bad', something both Egyptian men and women advise me against. Yet, the men who violate women’s basic rights and bodies are not meted such a hard condemnation. In light of the above, it'd be logical to deduce that perception matters more to Egyptian society than human rights. It is crucial to note that, as feminist activist Mona Eltahawy put it, “my allies are not the group of white conservative men wanting to launch an attack against Muslim men. Neither is it the misogynist wing that wants to silence the woman’s voice to make us look better. There is also a silent left wing around the world that practices cultural relativism and political correctness at my expense and that of women across the world and those are also not my friends.”
I visited Cairo for a couple of weeks during the winter break. Of course, my visit entails that I go see relatives with whom I otherwise would have no contact. The female relatives’ greeting is more or less the same, with slight variations; you’ve grown into such a beautiful young lady. When will you make us happy and be a bride? We want to see your children! The assumption behind their greetings, which are all too common in Egypt, is that a woman’s main aspiration in life is to get married before she hits her late twenties or early thirties and be a good wife. What’s more, the social expectation is that she bears a child within a year of the marriage.
Less than 1% of Egypt's female population use contraceptives before the first child. If she does not conceive, something is perceived to be wrong with her, whether mentally or physically, and hormones must be pumped into her body even before the man is checked for potential infertility. My grandma always said, "everything falls on the shoulders of women. They are held accountable for everything and it is always the man’s fault.”
Most gender studies conducted in the Arab World and the Middle East focus on domestic violence and human rights violations, which are incredibly important issues. Masculinity studies, however, are scarce. While, in a patriarchal society, men are privileged and women are second-class citizens, gender expectations nonetheless negatively affect both. A man’s masculinity is bound to material expectations. He is the provider and is the one who should cater to his family members' needs. A man cannot be weak or vulnerable, his emotions should always be repressed.
A friend of mine once got bullied on his way home from university - he has long hair and wears somewhat tighter jeans than most men his age. The bully’s fragile ego and flawed conception of manliness and manhood were threatened. He didn’t try to mask his homophobia because homophobia is a normal part of the majority of people’s day to day life in Egypt. If you’re not homophobic, then you’re automatically a homosexual yourself, which is not tolerated.
This way of thinking only produces men with fragile egos who have to mask their humanity and their emotions to be 'men', and anyone who doesn’t conform to this notion is automatically excluded, shunned, bullied, psychologically damaged, and, on too many occasions, physically harassed. Other consequences of this conception of masculinity is an increased need to control and subjugate women and their bodies, leading to an inevitable state of female oppression.
My 15 year old sister broke my heart. Or rather the consequences of her culture’s misogyny made her internalise shame for her femaleness, and her guilt broke my heart. She told me she doesn’t want to lose her virginity because she will “no longer be special.” She attributed her value to a hymen. Eltahawy wants to make the words “hymen" and "virgin" obsolete, as should be the case. Something is clearly wrong when a woman’s worth is determined by a tissue inside her body and family honour is intimately tied to it, making it a collective, rather than a personal, matter.
The patriarchal social construct of virginity is nothing but another weapon against women, a means of control and oppression. It also further stresses the idea of a woman giving a valuable part of herself instead of encouraging the understanding of sexual intercourse as a process of equal sharing between partners. A woman’s body should belong to her alone, and the reclamation of one’s own body from the state, from religious institutions, and even from one's family is in and of itself a revolutionary act.
Another way of patriarchal control over the woman’s body and sexuality – be it by the state, religious institutions, or her family – is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). 91% of Egyptian women aged 14 to 49 have been subjected to FGM without consent or warning despite the strengthened legal consequences due to international pressure. FGM is done to control a woman’s sexuality. The perspective held by many of its practitioners is that "if the clitoris is not tamed, then girls, like boys, will seek sexy before marriage, and married women will make sexual demands of their husbands,” Shereen El Feki remarks in her book Sex and the Citadel.
FGM renders her a procreation machine and perpetuates the notion of inherent female guilt. By being born a woman she is automatically guilty of something and therefore should not experience pleasure in her womanhood and femaleness. Although heterosexual intercourse requires both, a man and a woman, it is the woman who is controlled, shamed, and oppressed. This is but one example of how men and women are raised and treated differently.
My father once told me that he wants nothing but his three daughters’ success and independence. His should be a model for parents’ aspirations. It is not just the son’s education and careers that matter; the daughters matter equally. Sons and daughters are, however, never equal. From birth on, the son is treated like a prince. He is the heir to the family's name, home, and family business. The daughter is the unfortunate carrier of the family’s honour who should be preserved so she can be married off later on. Boys will be boys and can therefore do anything they please. Women must close their legs, lower their voices, obey social and religious laws, and be good wives. They must cater to men’s egos, whims, and desires. Men are raised to be served by women, first the mother and sister, then the wife and daughter.
This is also reflected in sexual harassment: The harasser is never blamed. The victim is. She probably seduced him or was asking for it, and she, the victim, a second-class citizen, is to blame, and her reputation is ruined. A relatively emancipated Egyptian woman I know and greatly admire recently decided to file for divorce after over 20 years of marriage. She said it was “10 years too late, but it is better late than never.” I asked why she didn’t file for divorce earlier, bearing in mind that her soon to be ex-husband had taken up a second wife years ago – something that is religiously permitted for Muslim men and perfectly legal in Egypt. She responded, “I cared too much about what people might say [about her, not the man]."
Egypt adheres to an interpretation of Shariaa when it comes to divorce, under which women don't enjoy many rights under this law. She gets nothing out of the divorce settlement even though she finally took the decision that even her husband knew was the right thing to do. She was worried that society would not accept her after reclaiming her freedom and making herself heard. Although divorce and marriage laws in Egypt blatantly discriminate against women, I must note that the divorce rate has been on the rise. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), divorce rates have increased by 83% since 1996.
After Egypt’s ex-president Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011, approximately 17 female activists were taken from Tahrir Square – the epicentre of the revolution – into police custody, where they suffered not only sexual assault and violence, but had to undergo 'virginity tests' to disprove any potential rape allegations they might file against the military. No one was held accountable for this human rights violation. What is the reasoning behind all of this? Virginity tests? It sounds so absurd. Well, the assumption is that only a virgin can be raped and a hymen can only be broken through sexual intercourse. So, if one of those revolutionary female activists did not have an intact hymen for whatever reason, her rape accusations would not stand, for she was not a pure, chaste virgin and was a 'loose woman'.
This image would discredit female protesters and revolutionaries, as virginity proved to be a political matter and a tool of oppression. This incident demonstrates how women are denied their humanity and autonomy as citizens of a patriarchal system. I was once told by an Egyptian male friend that feminism is a western product, and as an African/Arab/Egyptian, it is not in my culture and therefore should not be part of my society. In other words, this is how things are, and you should stop addressing such issues. We want you silent. It is important to note that women's oppression in Egypt is not necessarily always regarded as oppression, because there is a popular belief that the weaker sex, the woman, needs the protection and security of a man.
This can be seen in how it is the norm is that a woman lives under her father’s guardianship until he marries her off and she moves to her husband’s home, another guardian oppressing her in the name of protecting her. The simply stunning Nigerian writer and feminist Chimananda Ngozi Adichie once said that “culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.” To this end, I refuse to be silenced. I refuse to have some institution, whether political or religious control my body. The voices of all women should be heard to change things for the better. As queer feminist Chicana poet, writer, and theorist Gloria Anzaldua says, “I will not honour a culture that harms me in the name of protecting me.”
Artwork by Ganzeer, b. 1982. Urgent Visions, Brooklyn Museum