Who are these Egyptian women who abandon tradition and move out, free from the patriarchal home-structure that's so embedded in our culture, and what can we learn from them? May Mansour interviews five ladies who live alone to find out more about one of our society's big taboos...
Egypt has always been a place of tradition and cultural principles. Certain conventional customs, specifically those targeting Egyptian females, remain evident amongst families of all classes, no matter how liberal we tout ourselves to be. Rejecting these values stirs public controversy and condemnation from the majority of people embodying our environment. Premarital sex is probably the number one conflict a liberal Egyptian female faces in life; having to maneuver around the concept without the potential slut shaming that remains persistently ingrained in the idea of a woman being sexually active as far as the Egyptian society is concerned. Women remain discreet about it. However, we’re not here to discuss the delicate matter of females being sexually active in a Muslim society, we will leave that to another day when I’m fully raging against the degenerate patriarchy that fuels our country. No we are here to discuss regular women, sexually-active or not-at-all, who have decided to move out of their family homes and live by themselves, or among friends, that are still being discriminated against and discerned for choosing to be independent and in some cases, are disowned by their families, or are considered “sluts” anyway for simply taking the decision to live independently. It’s becoming more frequent for Egyptian females to exit the family home while they're single, and I’ve come to meet five women who were willing to share their stories of independence or unfortunate reproach which they seldom have to deal with. To respect the wishes of the storytellers some names have been changed to maintain privacy.
A 30-year-old teacher, conflict manager and private tutor based in Maadi, Marian has lived outside her family home since she was 19-years old, got married at 25 for four years, then continued to live independently after her divorce. “When I became single again, I lived with friends. My father begged me to move back with him saying he’ll respect my freedom, which only lasted for about a month before an incident happened where he hit me on the street. So I packed my bags and moved out again and my financial situation at the time forced me to move in with roommates I met on Dubizzle. They were guys from Mansoura and Tanta; one of them tried to sleep with me every time he saw me drinking and when he realised this wasn’t going to happen he kicked me out. Now I’m staying with a very good friend of mine till I get back on my feet and able to live on my own again.”
Marian is a pretty straightforward, liberal Cairo girl; she likes to travel when she can, you’ll find her hanging out at cafes, pubs and the occasional house parties. “I just live in my own little bubble with my kind of people”. Her father however somewhat disowned her for choosing to live independently, and at one time emailed her threatening to put her in jail and get her fired of her job and didn’t speak to her for three years afterwards. “My step mum, who’s been like a mother to me since I was 7, kept in touch throughout the time only to tell me that I’m a whore and that no one will ever marry me, that I was hurting my father by doing what I’m doing. It was a bit stressful at first but I managed to ignore her, and them.” Marian could never afford living with an abusive father, and according to his patriarchal measures.
“My way of thinking was very different from my family’s. My sister managed to adjust to it, but I could not. I see things differently and I believe it’s important for me to be selfish in that sense and look after myself and do what I think is right. It’s my life not theirs.” Family issues aside, Marian struggles with her surrounding environment for being a girl who lives on her own. As with most cases, she has to tell her bawab her guy friends were relatives so he wouldn’t look down on her, and she’s been subject to several cases of harassment and sexual assault. Her sister’s ex who supposedly came over her place to reach out to her, seeing no one else was around, decided to force himself on her after consuming a bottle of wine, and failed, because she can still look after herself. A much worse incident included her bawab, who seemed sweet at first, and was offering her food and asking her if she needs anything, only to eventually start going all around her apartment on the first floor knocking on all her windows for hours a day when she wouldn’t answer. Alarmed from the ongoing situation, Marian decided to invite two of her guy friends to sleep over and confront her bawab when he knocks on her door again, which he did, only to inform the guys that their car was on fire. “I woke up later in the evening and I got raped by the bawab who broke into the house through the kitchen door. He later on denied everything, accused me of being a spy, stole my Egyptian ID and insisted I had to marry him. Fucked up.”
Despite of all the suffering she’s been through, Marian challenges society’s harsh backlash at her decision to be independent and insists she would never consider moving back to her family home no matter how bad her situation ever gets. Inflicting pain, in whatever shape or form, on female individuals in Egypt who desire to gain control over their lives forces them to think twice. “Maybe they fear they won’t get married based on what their parents or other people tell them, maybe they just worry men will automatically assume they are whores, which does happen, because they live alone, but they need to figure it out for themselves, learn how to survive. The problem with most Egyptians is dependency, and I think it’s wrong and unhealthy. What I would like to tell anyone who isn’t okay with it is that they should learn to accept and respect other people’s decisions. Allow others to grow and flourish in this world to become as extraordinary as they ought to be”.
Habiba is a 21-year-old social media professional who lives in Dokki with a roommate. For four years she’s been living either alone or with friends and outside of her family home. Habiba is a pleasantly unpretentious girl, whose lifestyle mostly revolves around working, doing yoga, reading books and watching movies. She also solely supports herself. “I moved out because I needed more personal space and time for myself, on my own, away from family drama. I also needed to live closer to where I work." Habiba’s parents never gave her a hard time for deciding to move out and at such a considerably young age for our society to accept. “At first, and everyday, my mum would ask me when I’m coming back, but eventually she got over it and they were totally understanding, I think it’s a necessity to move out after you cross a certain age, to me it was right after high school when I was 17.”
But even for a conservative girl, the porters and neighbours pose as a nuisance in her everyday life. “I currently don’t have a bawab, thank God, and I actually picked a building that has no security whatsoever. One building I lived in before, the bawab would ask my girlfriends where they’re going what floor and apartment and so on, but when I had guy friends come over the bawab would ride with them IN the elevator and start asking them weird questions.,He would even recite prayers or talk to them about religious stuff that’s just completely irrelevant, so living without one is a blessing really."
It’s not the first time I hear a story as such and it's almost as though security, bawab, neighbours, and even landlords, want women to be nervous all the time. Luckily, Habiba never really faces discrimination from her family or friends. However, guys at times would ask her to go back to her place assuming it’s alright and she would bluntly reject. “Just because I live alone doesn’t mean anything is going to happen between us.I don’t even have people over that often anyway,” she states. “I don’t think women are taught to be independent in Egypt. Most parents are overprotective, they don’t treat females as normal human beings; to them they’re just girls who can’t act on their own so they grow up that way, unless they were lucky enough to just have it in them to be independent, regardless.” Ever since she moved out, Habiba has become more organised, cleaner, and her necessities are always under control, because no one else is doing it for her. “I think living alone is great, you get to appreciate your time alone, throw summer parties, cooking sessions with friends, it’s a lot of fun and I don’t think dads or parents in general have anything to worry about. Girls don’t wanna move out to have lots of sex and drugs; if they wanna do that, they will anyway."
Pauline is a 30-year old film editor and bartender who lives in Maadi. She’s lived alone for six years and has been supporting herself for the most part, when the times are rough she’s blessed with a mother who helps her out. Pauline describes her lifestyle as “mostly unstable” although her convictions and independent stance remain solid. “I was always impressed with the idea of 16-year olds being thrown our of their homes and forced to become independent in the states, and so when I turned 24 and had some family drama at home I seized that chance, packed my suitcase and left for the first job that I came across. My family didn’t take it so well though - my brother isn’t talking to me to this day - but my mother got used to it with time. I had to do it. When you move out you are forced to face the real world, you face challenges every day, you become responsible for yourself and your wellbeing and your home. No safety net. No going home to a cooked meal. You become a grown up.” Pauling never had trouble with her surrounding environment or faced harassments for living alone. “I have been fortunate to come across good people on my journey. Also, being a paranoid person by nature makes me very picky with whom I deal with and decide to rent from, and which areas to live in.”
However, it is usually men who discriminate against her once they find out she lives independently. “At work they would ask me questions that lead to ‘so you live alone?’ and be being an honest person would reply with a very casual ‘Yes’. They would then give me that look, the one that says ‘this isn’t normal’ or ‘you should be married to do that’ like I just took away their manhood. I get that all the time. So instead I started saying ‘Yeah it’s great I’m an independent person and I take care of myself and this experience made me grow up and its very liberating you should try it.'" Pauline believes that once you live alone there’s no going back, you value the things you gain from that experience too much to give it up again. “Your freedom, your privacy, your alone time, the silence… and in my case, my relationship with my mother got better. We talk on the phone everyday, we actually talk! When I used to live back home I’d shut myself in my room for days and we weren’t really friends.”
Pauline also believes it’s the parents fault who abide by “the backwards culture” that stop their girls from gaining independence, along with the 'what would people say' phenomenon. "I advise moving out to anyone. It’s necessary to feel like you have other options other than your husbands home. Have your own home experience, your own place, decorate it the way you want, learn to be responsible for you and only you before you have to take care of someone else too, because it’s tough just doing that. And to the families, I say get over it, it’s not a crime, everyone’s doing it now, it’ll make your daughters stronger. And be supportive of their decisions because it will matter to them, and later in life you will be proud. And to the men, I only have one thing to say, if you have a problem with it then you are not real men, and these independent women are blessed to not know you or have you in their lives in the first place.”
Mona is a 33-year old writer from Alexandria who’s based in Zamalek, Cairo. She’s been living alone and independently since 2011; a sophisticated and rational lady who leads a transparent and uncomplicated way of life. “I tried to move out when I was very young in, in 2006/07, and it caused a trauma to my family. Although they are liberal, they for some reason felt weird about it. I didn’t move out in the end but I did go away to Sinai for a year in 2007. I kept moving around a lot, then there was this time in 2010 when my family didn’t exactly know I moved out, but I just said I’ll stay at a friend as she lives close to where I work in Maadi when I had actually moved in with her. I was a freelancer then for a couple of years and when the revolution happened in 2011 I decided I was done and moved out for good.”
Mona says she moved out because her lifestyle and values were different from those of her family’s; when she first moved to Cairo she stayed with her much older grandparents and “they couldn’t comprehend my lifestyle, mine was so fast for them and theirs was so slow for me. They were the kind of people who would get shocked when I leave the house at 10PM so it was no longer feasible. I was growing older and when that happens you need your own space, you want to have your own home, your own kitchen, your own belongings. I also always wanted pets and they were forbidden in both my homes, so I moved out and got a dog!” Her parents were also very supportive at that point in Mona’s life “When human beings reach a certain age they have to lead their own lives by their own rules. There are things you can’t do in your family home. And why do I have to be married to move out? Does that mean that if I don’t get married, I don’t get my own life?”
Mona was never exposed to trouble due to living alone, although, as is the case with most girls I talk to, it’s the men who misinterpret the situation of a live-alone lady. “Sometimes… some guys… when they know I live alone, they immediately try to abuse that, as in sexually. They think that it’s an automatic right that they have regardless; that if I live alone then I must want to sleep with them. However it’s a good thing because it filters the guys in my life; when he immediately makes that assumption, I realise he’s not the one for me.” A few more factors also pose as a threat to Egyptian girls who would consider living alone, says Mona. “Emotional blackmail from the parents, inability to support themselves, low income, high real estate prices and the social stigma surrounding the concept, fear…” are all reasons Mona believe get in the way between a woman and her independence. “But they should do it, and as soon as possible! And others who have a problem with it should just get over themselves.”
26-year old Suzie is an Operations Director based in Maadi who's lived alone for three and a half years. At first Suzie lived with her grandma as her parents live abroad, then she moved in with her brother and wife at the time before she decided to move out and support her own fully. “I didn’t feel like it was my own home with my brother. For example I always had to ask to bring a friend over and stuff, and when I decided to move out my mother would always try to urge me to go live with her or move back in with family but I refused. My father and I weren’t talking for the last five years so he only found out a couple of weeks back that I know live alone, and he wouldn’t have accepted it easily had he found out from the beginning. He always wanted to know what I’m doing 24/7.”
Suzie always more or less lived on her own even back at her brother’s place, and she’s never been harassed for living alone entirely since “I’m very lucky to have the bawab I have and his wife. I love her, she always checks on me, sometimes I get low blood pressure and feel ill so whenever she sees that my car hasn’t moved for a day she would come up and check on me. She helps me clean, she never leaves a plumber or anyone coming to fix something in my house by themselves, and she’s very protective of me, although they never ask who my friends are or questions my visitors.
"Some acquaintances who don’t know me very well would automatically assume I’m partying it up just because I live alone, which never happens!” Suzie is quite the collected individual and understands the responsibility that comes with choosing to live independently. “Paying rent and bills... It’s not easy! Ever since I moved out, I even changed my circle of friends, they’re mostly married couples or relatively serious people, it’s one of the biggest reasons I asked my flat mate of six months to move out; she was into parties and tends to be reckless and I don’t want or even like to bring that lifestyle into my home. People who automatically assume the worst about a girl who lives by herself are just sick, very sick!”
Regardless of her convictions, Suzie only cares of what her parents think of her living away from family, and not what society will dictate for her. “Parents always want to know what you’re doing, they always set the rules when you’re under their roof and we care about their opinions. To me personally, that’s all that matters or would get in the way of my choices. Otherwise I don’t give a shit; my brother actually wants me to move back in with him since he just got a divorce recently. He won’t make me pay rent and will give me back my room but I don’t want to now. I worked hard on my house, I painted everything, I handpicked and upgraded my furniture over and over and since Ikea opened here I’ve going every single weekend to add bits and pieces to my home; even my landlord is super impressed with what I’ve done with the place I can’t imagine leaving it all behind!" Suzie leaves me with a message for girls who consider moving out and their families: “It’s not as easy as you think, you need a decent job to afford the rent. Sometimes it’s a hassle as people who don’t know you well will most likely have a negative attitude towards you living by yourself, so you have to be careful of how you present yourself. And families, you know your kids; if you raised them well, you’ll know they’re responsible and know what’s wrong and what’s right. They’ll only be doing the same thing they’re doing under your roof.”