Sunday, September 6, 2009

Letters from Egypt: Twice Branded

After reading my last blog entry, a friend forwarded me this amazing article by World Affairs Journal, “Twice Branded: Western Women in Muslim Lands.” There were things mentioned that well, you might find shocking. There were other things mentioned that made me say, “Oh yeah, that’s why.” 

“Last year, in a poll of 2,000 Egyptian men, 62% admitted harassing women: an activity most of those interviewed insisted was not really their fault as their advances, however intemperate and offensive to their victims, had after all been provoked by the women themselves.” 

The sad truth is that this number isn’t shocking to me, but I view it as inaccurate. Why? That’s only 62% that willingly admit they harass women. What about all the others that don’t admit it because they don’t see it as harassment or anything wrong?

After I posted my last blog, a friend commented, “LeAnne, it’s unfortunate what happened, but that’s only the minority.” Wrong. You see, the minority in Egypt is the upper class – meaning the few that are taught how to properly act. It is the majority. And once again, that blasé attitude is exactly what allows this to continuously increase.

The author, Judy Bachrach, also noted how Western women finding themselves in the Middle East have a “double deficit as women and foreigners.” I loved when Bachrach said, “The more Arabic we learned, the more xenophobic and sexually explicit trash talk we understood.” That was my “ah-ha” moment – perhaps that is why I feel harassment has increased exponentially. Now, as my friend Nancy said, I can tell the difference between those just trying to speak to me and those offering unkind/inappropriate words. And Bachrach’s also correct that the only way to counter these remarks is to insult their mothers. On my to-do list is to learn in Arabic: “Do you like it when men speak to your little sister like that?”

The author also introduced me to Mona Eltahawy’s website/blog. An Egyptian born in Port Said, Eltahawy has lived in the UK, Saudi Arabia, Israel and is now based in NY. She was previously a reporter for Reuters and is a columnist featured in many publications in both the West and Arab nations. She talks freely about her experience wearing the head scarf for nine years, harassment, and gives her views on Arab and Muslim issues citing herself as a liberal Muslim. I have only read the first entry, but snippets from other articles were posted in Twice Branded and I feel that for any female moving or currently living in a Muslim nation, this is a worthwhile read.

So why stay? I can tell you that I stay for my career, at least for the time being. However, I don’t plan on staying here for long-term. There are other women who have married and have children. Under Sharia law (basic law in the Qaran), women basically have no rights so they are forced to stay that is, if they want to see their children.

And everywhere it goes. Sharia travels without a wrinkle on its burqa. It is no small irony these days that those fortunate countries where women have fought, passionately and at great cost, for equal rights—Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, for instance—have become home to certain Muslim immigrants who continue to violate the rights of women, abetted frequently by both the silence of the authorities and an abashed press. Why this silence? One of the least savory consequences of a colonial past is guilt: an insidious remorse that transmutes itself into a persistent reluctance to criticize publicly those who have now themselves taken on the role of oppressor—even against those who happen to oppress, openly and without shame, within the borders of liberal nations. “You hear people talking about the need to ‘respect’ other cultures. You want me to respect this awful behavior?” Eltahawy says. 

My sentiments are this – if I’m able to post anyone’s picture that crosses the line: BEWARE, because I ALWAYS have my camera. I will continue to safeguard myself and offer suggestions and advice to other females living here. However, please note I am not trying to change a culture or country that isn’t my own. Change must come from within. It is up to Arab women to fight back. I can only offer my support in this fight which I hope does happen within my lifetime.

No one deserves to be treated this way and nor should it be a passing thought. This should NOT be considered the norm.
“Well, that’s Verse 4:34, and it can be interpreted different ways,” Hussein Rashid, a professor of religion and political Islam at Hofstra University, demurs. “The verb that is used for hit or beat can also mean ‘to break off’ or divorce someone.” This judicious interpretation of the most incendiary Koranic passage provokes laughter when I repeat it to the Somali-born firebrand Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Allah, she observes, “is absolutely brilliant except when He is speaking about the rights of women—then Allah gets all muddled up, doesn’t really mean what He says, and becomes a very confused God.” In fact, Hirsi Ali continues, “that the husband has the right to beat his wife is in the Koran. That a woman has to dress a certain way is in the Koran, that she must stay in the house is also there. And on it goes.”

Shisha Extraordinaire
Lebanese Nights
Road 206 - close to the Maadi Grand Mall (you can just tell cabbies Grand Mall)
Maadi (Degla)
After taking a brief hiatus from highlighting some great places, I bring you one of my favorite shisha outings. Meet Lebanese Nights – located in Maadi. 

The shisha is good, although I can’t lie – there are a couple of places that I think are better (Pottery Café in Zamalak and Fishawy’s in Khan el-Khalili). However, I think it’s the service and definitely the atmosphere that keeps me coming back for more. The fresh juice drinks are amazing and I highly recommend either the grape shisha or peach mixed with mint. There’s seating that’s basically open-air, but if it’s too hot, don’t fret – there’s an indoor area with a/c. The food is decent, but as featured earlier, better Lebanese food exists. 

One slight problem, English is hardly understood. Some servers speak some basics, but you will more than likely have to point to what you want and move your finger over the the Arabic version.


  1. Nice writing Leanne, but some wee comments and additions:

    1) Cairo statistically is one of the safest countries in the world, without counting sexual harassment as a crime. If you choose to include it, Cairo jumps up to the most dangerous city in the world.

    2) I think your experiences (and the media's) are a bit more biased towards Cairo and/or internal and external tourist places like the North Coast, Alexandria, Hurghada, etc. Since Egypt is highly centralized, the rest of the country, the rural parts, are marginalized. And it is in THESE places that harassment IS a stark minority. You will see that ethics in rural Egypt, say in Rosetta or Minya or Ismailia, are different than in Cairo. When someone invites you, it is not for bakshish, and when someone shows you the way, he wants nothing, and harassment is frowned upon.

    3) Leanne, dear, you HAVE to make a distinction between socioeconomic class and culture. There is NO OTHER PLACE in the WORLD where socioeconomic class has very little to do with culture, as in Cairo. In fact if anything it is probably inversely proportional.

    Edward Said defined a cultured person as 'one who knows everything about something and something about everything' and in my experience, the 'upper class' in Egypt is the most uncultured, and the simple rural say, Nubian in Aswan, is way cultured. The upper class are 'taught how to properly act' ??? Wrong! The majority of the socioeconomic upper classes in Egypt are uncivilized, uncultured, and lack conscience, business ethic, and lack class itself.

    Egypt is a nation of noveau riche, Leanne, where the balance of power was shifted from aristocrats before the 1950's (whom we may call cultured) to corrupt army and police officers and businessmen and NDP, etc., who own most of the country, but are certainly not taught anything proper or decent! :D

    In fact if you're decent in Cairo and respect humanity, you simply will not make it to the upper socioeconomic class! :D Will continue later :) But wonderful article...

  2. I'm sorry but you are saying that Muslim women have 'no rights' in Islam?
    Muslim women got their full rights from Islam, and western women didnt until 70's and 80's.

    Khadija was a very successful rich woman who prophet Muhammad (pbuh) married, and as a 40 something year old woman.

    Its not just the 'helpless vunerable' Muslim women who need the help of the western people to break free of oppression.
    Its not Islam... its culture yes! So instead of just saying Muslim women, we just say the injustice of womens rights everywhere, regardless of faith, and the western ladies who are abused, beaten, raped.. all of that.
    I am as people say a 'western lady' and i also choose to be Muslim.
    Islam is simple religion which annoys me greatly when people confuse such with someones culture.

    Nice website interesting to hear ur view

  3. I find it interesting that the second comment is from a person that has gone through my blog, but only read certain entries. Perhaps Anonymous, it would do you well to read the blog in its ENTIRETY before you started commenting. As you will find I did a whole blog on Hoda Sha'rawi and I've also written on the KSA. However, you seem to only be picking certain blogs that I've discussed Islam, but only the negative views. You apparently skip or gloss over the fun, happy times I've had here or the things I've learned. If you are going to read something, you don't just read what you can twist around. You read the whole shebang. Let me know when you've decided to do that instead of picking and choosing things.