Take our hand and join us on a long and painful journey of the dating life of a young feminist in Cairo, and discover all the men you meet that will have you saying, "Ya Ragel Ya 3erra."
Dating as a young woman in Cairo is similar to what I imagine navigating a minefield is like. You need ample knowledge about various bombs; the closeted narcissist, the mommy’s boy, and the privileged dude in denial are the most obvious, but they’re not the only ones. Unfortunately, things get infinitely more complicated when you’re a young woman who openly expresses feminist sentiments and embodies feminist values.
I’m hesitant to refer to anyone identifying as a ‘feminist’ outright because feminism is an umbrella term under which many different sets of thought, values, and beliefs exist. Perhaps I’m also hesitant because I’m a feminist who is critical of feminism, in an effort to keep myself from becoming rigid in my thought process and further allowing discussions to take place without judgement. However, I use the terms ‘feminist values’ and ‘feminist sentiments’ to acknowledge those differences that various types of feminist women have, and how differently they impact their dating lives.
The core of feminism, all feminism, is advocating for the human right of choice to be extended to women, who are treated as subhuman under the oppressive rule of the patriarchy. To resist an oppressive structure is to demand its abolition, and we strive to topple the aforementioned structure vehemently. It is a woman’s right to choose what she believes in, what she does with her body, and how she lives her life. That being said…dating in Cairo as a feminist sucks, but I’ll take you on a journey or rather, a progression of the dating life of a young feminist in Cairo regardless.
Cairo is chock full of what Egyptian twitter termed the ‘average Ma7ama’; the Egyptian version of the ‘average Joe’. The ‘average Ma7ama’ is usually an engineer with a holier than thou know-it-all attitude, who has a Quranic verse in his Instagram bio or pinned at the top of his twitter feed, all the while sending unsolicited pictures of his genitals to random women online. He could likely be a man who believes that sexual harassment is ‘wrong’ because a woman could be his sister, mother, or wife. However, the likelier option is that he believes that a woman’s clothes are an invitation to harassment, and is susceptible to using the uncovered and covered lollipop metaphor, ironically and unknowingly referring to himself as an insect (to our endless amusement). As feminists, the ‘average Ma7ama’ provides us with enough red flags we could probably make multiple extravagant drapes, numerous large table cloths, several California King-sized bedsheets out of them and have heaps of material left over.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m grateful for the ‘average Ma7ama’, if only because he’s so glaringly obvious, it’s easy to avoid him. Alas, navigating the waters as a young woman who openly expresses feminist values is much trickier, because it gives other, smarter men a manual on how to get away with their misogyny and manipulate us into thinking they’re ‘one of the good guys’.
Somehow, we’ve continued the practice of what is often referred to as the ‘screening process’ with whoever we get to know or date, we just changed the kinds of questions asked. Originally, we’d find answers to a list of matrilineally handed down questions subtly, some of which were:
“Is he a doctor or an engineer?”
“What car does he drive?”
“What does his dad do for work?”
“Where does he live?”
“Has he been engaged before?”
“If he was engaged before, what kind of ring did he buy his ex-fiancée?”
“Is he a member of Nadi Gezira or Heliopolis?”
And so on. A lasting gift owed to Sadat’s infitah, aka his open door policy.
Today, we step into the shoes of Wafaa El-Kilany in Ded Al-Tayar (‘Against the Current’) circa 2007 during every first conversation or date, with whatever (un)lucky guy being the guest of honour. Here we shamelessly ask all the important questions centred around our respective feminist values:
“Are you with or against a woman having a career?”
“Are you with or against abortion?”
“Are you with or against polygamy?”
“Are you with or against child marriage?”
“Are you with or against interfaith relationships?”
Regrettably, this doesn’t always save us, especially now that the slightly less ignorant (not necessarily more intelligent) men learned to easter egg their red flags.
Dating an ‘entrepreneur’ is a rite of passage for every young feminist. He’s a well-educated, charmingly dressed, affluent, pro-girl boss culture, and eloquent young man who seems to be knowledgeable about how the world works…that is, until you meet irl. Many young women have fallen into the trap of believing in and promoting girl boss culture; a white-women led, capitalist, and exploitative discourse meant to make women believe that running themselves to the ground in the name of ‘success’ will make them safer from the patriarchy. Which also means that we believe a man’s support of girl boss culture is a green flag. Unfortunately, it’s only a trick of the light.
So you go out on a date and you meet this seemingly self-made Prince Charming, and then he says, “I am so inspired by Elon Musk,” and you feel like unearthing a copy of Marx’s Communist Manifesto and pulling a post-breakup Grimes. You probably leave the date feeling a bit unsettled, and sometime later hear his name surface with ties to accusations of verbally abusive and exploitative behavior, producing startlingly high turnover rates, which eventually bankrupt him.
The takeaway from this experience is that the fin-tech startup boys are the modern age bad boys repackaged, but so much worse.
So you start thinking to yourself: “Maybe I’m an idiot and I need to go for a nice guy?”
Girl, you’ll learn.
It’s probably as you’re doing a summer internship that you run into him, the cute quiet boy at the office who is more of a golden retriever than an actual golden retriever. He’s positively adorable, tooth-achingly sweet, and seems like the light at the end of the tunnel. He’s the kind of young man you’d tell your mom about over a late night cup of tea; because he prays his forood or goes to church, doesn’t cuss at all, comes from a good family, and considers himself a feminist. The first thing you probably tell your best friend is, “He’s so decent.” That word is cursed, you cannot convince me otherwise. Also, the fact that he ‘considers himself’ a feminist is a red flag the size of China, but you won’t realize that until it’s too late.
What happens is the following: he woos you, asks you out, and you start dating. Up until that point he seems perfect: you wear what you want, he doesn’t ask about where you’re going out or with whom, and he offers a non judgemental listening ear when you have shella or office drama to let off your chest. Then you start dating ‘officially’ and slowly but surely, things start to change. It begins with “rawahty” (‘did you go home?’); an excuse to ask when you’re home so he can ‘make sure you’re safe’. Then it’s, “Do you mind wearing a longer top? I’m just concerned for your safety.” Bit by bit, under the guise of being concerned for your safety, the golden retriever reveals a rottweiler beneath. See, this type has a pattern, their modus operandi is the same; they seduce you with honey and then trap you in a jar. The tools of their game are gaslighting, breadcrumbing, and/or love-bombing. Once you notice the pattern, it will be very obvious in similar men, too.
You live and you learn, baby girl.
The next obvious archetype is what I call the ‘Ahmed Fouad Negm archetype’. In order to protect yourself, you get this brilliant idea to go back to your pretentious intellectual roots. So you enrol in a course at CILAS or join a niche book club that meets in Zamalek to discuss the works of Edward Said, Sara Ahmed, and Lila Abu-Lughod. He may not be devastatingly handsome, but he’s so intensely political, the stimulation meant for your brain automatically reroutes itself to...elsewhere. He probably checks Jacobin religiously, is either a fine artist or a political researcher, fetishizes Marx, and visits Nadi Mohebby El Sheikh Imam (‘The Sheikh Imam Fan Club’) like clockwork. When he really wants to romance you, he probably invites you to sing Etgama’o Al-O’shaq along with him while you sip on a Stella at the Greek Club.
Unfortunately, as you get to know this lovely man, a fellow feminist leans over and hands you a list of abuse or assault allegations beneath the table, and it feels like someone doused you in cold water. You run like the hounds of hell are nipping at your feet and vow to never date again.
The bottom line is much like the opening line, dating simply sucks. But you know what, feminist friend? You need to take a step back and realize that there is no perfect man; your tunnel vision is so intense it makes you put every man with ‘potential’ on a pedestal, which leaves you open to being blindsided. That red flag you see is not the communist flag fluttering with the winds of change heading your way, it is only a sign warning you to run. However, it is also important to differentiate between a red flag big enough that you can see it a kilometre away and another that requires getting up close and personal to be visible.
The only advice I can give you is to gently descend from the moral high ground you’ve put yourself on, and acknowledge that you have red flags too. No human is without flaws, and no human is harmless. We’ve all hurt other people; we’ve been thoughtless, we’ve been enraged, we’ve been emotionally manipulative, and we’ve made others uncomfortable. Coming to terms with the fact that we’re flawed too will go a long way in helping us be less harsh on those men who are genuinely trying to be better, to educate themselves, and to hold themselves accountable. Until you’re ready to go out into the world and date again, I hope you’re surrounded by friends who love you unconditionally, just know that you will find someone special and fall in love, eventually.