A Woman’s Right to Independent Adulthood

I’m feeling angry. And when I’m angry, I write. It’s the only way I know to release my frustrations out onto the world.

The topic for today is societal control. I know of no way to get to the point of what I want to address other than by giving an example or two.

Example number 1: I have a couple of friends who wore the hijab (a scarf that covers the hair) and then decided to take it off. Both describe very uncomfortable situations where they were criticized and judged for this decision. Yet at the same time, if a woman decides to wear the hijab in Egypt, she will also in many circumstances find herself judged by other members of society for becoming too conservative. And yet other women who never wear the hijab find themselves sometimes criticized for being loose or without moral values. And still other women who decide to cover their faces are labeled extremist by many members of our society.

What is this obsession with what women wear for goodness sake??

Example number 2: I also have some girlfriends who are in their 30s but because they are not married they live with their parents. It is almost unheard of for an Egyptian woman, no matter how old she might get, to live outside of her parent’s home unless it is in her husband’s home. Although it is nice that women are taken care of – to an extent – in our society, the downside is that the woman’s independence is seriously compromised. Even if the families allow the woman to be independent, society and its harsh judgments will affect the woman’s decisions and actions. A single Egyptian woman will find it difficult, for example, to come home too late. This is not necessarily because her family prevents her. It could very likely be because she doesn’t want the neighbors or the doorman to talk and spread rumors about why she stays out late. A woman’s reputation in Egypt is everything.

There are so many examples one could give.

My question is: At what point is an Egyptian woman considered an independent, mature adult who has the right to make her own decisions and live her life the way she sees fit?

Why do I even have to ask this question?

And as I continue in my angry, emotional rage, I’ll ask more questions:

Why is it that women in particular are so strongly judged for almost any action they take by the society they live in? Even more infuriating is that these judgments are made both by men AND women.

Why is it that a woman’s reputation can be so negatively affected because of her personal decisions about how she wants to live her life or what she wants to believe?

Why is it that once this reputation is affected, all aspects of her life – including her career and her relationship with work colleagues – might also be negatively affected?

When will the day come when a woman’s personal decision is left at that: a PERSONAL decision and it is no one else’s frickin business!

There are also much simpler examples, but also very telling. After I returned from my Kilimanjaro trip, many women told me that they would love to go out and do something of their own but that they can’t because their husbands would not allow them to. Would not ALLOW them to?? What kind of a shame is it for our society that a 40-something-year-old woman is either being “allowed” or not to do something she feels she needs to do? I am not in any way suggesting that spouses should not discuss things over. But there MUST be an age when a woman is mature enough to make her own decisions? There MUST be!

A woman is more than capable of considering all the issues at hand, the advantages and disadvantages, the impacts of her decisions on her family and how to put in place the mechanisms that will keep the family strong and happy even as she allows herself some degree of independence.

So what if a woman – maturely and independently – makes a decision that others find to be non-compliant with their religious values? It is that woman’s decision and it is her right to decide what her values are. You stick to your values and your religious beliefs. I’ll figure out what mine are and try to stick to mine. Or I’ll change them as frequently as the leaves change on trees. It is no one’s business.

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21 comments

  1. I think the core issue here is our society’s perception of privacy. People should not bother look at what you wear or what you do in life. I remember when I was in London and no one would look at anyone or what he/she wears. That sense of privacy doesn’t exist here.

  2. What about the elephant in the room. Sure skewed social standards are to blame, but these hindering views would’ve never thrived if it wasn’t for religious bigotry.

    1. Haisam, this goes beyond religious bigotry. The judging does not only come from conservative Muslims. It comes from the whole spectrum of Egyptian society.

  3. On that doomed day I atteneded a friends reunion.. I was SHOCKED to hear one of my friends asking me “Did anyone say anything about travelling alone?”..
    She got an offer to go US for work trip and she’s considering not going because of what people may say.. I told her, you should never refuse such an offer because somebody may say something.. only when I found another girlfriend is telling me.. “actually it is impossible to leave alone.. especially if you are married”.. I told her why so?.. she replied “and who will take care of ur kids and husband”..

    Then someone blamed me loads because I refused a marriage from someone who asked me to stay home after having kids :S

    Nadia, I was puzzled and about to slap some of them.. I was totally on rage, despite not showing.. because, if women themselves don’t believe in their own independence, then no one will ever do… they will live enslaved to their fathers, brothers, husbands and ALSO sons..
    And I just hate it.. hate it like I can never explain..

    7aga f3lan te2ref

    1. If x is Muslim and If Islam permits x to do something, x should do.
      If x is Muslim and if Islam doesn’t permit x to do something, x shouldn’t do.
      WE as Muslims have rules, Hijab not personal decision, as parent; my daughter should wear it, as husband my wife should do as well.
      Islam rules say don’t enforce someone to marry someone. marriage is personal decision
      About travelling
      http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?pagename=IslamOnline-Arabic-Ask_Scholar/FatwaA/FatwaA&cid=1122528610316
      follow whatever (don’t, it’s ok, etc..)
      بس علشان الموضوع يبقى عقلاني!! زي ما هتروح المرأه لزوجها و تقوله انا من حقي اسافر اتفسح مع صحباتي و ده حلال و اهو الدليل و تجبله الفتوى! هو ساعتها يقولها هتجوز عليكي 3 وتبقى جدعه انها ترد و لا تقول مش من حقك اصل انا معملتكش حاجه وحشه! نفسي اعرف ايه الي فالدين بيقول ان زواج الرجل اكتر من واحده لازم يبقى ليه سبب!!

      1. Ramy, the whole point is that adults should have the right to personal choice. You and I might not agree, for example, on how something should be interpreted in Islam. And I might follow one interpretation and you another. You should not judge for being a bad person because I have chosen differently than you. Taking this even further, if a person decides to do something you deem as completely un-Islamic, again, it is that person’s free choice and the fact the person is practicing free choice does not make him/her a bad person because their choices are contrary to your own.

        In Arabic, you say: “Let’s be logical. Just as a woman can go to her husband and tell him that it’s her right to travel on holiday with her girlfriends and that is permissible in Islam, he can also respond by saying it’s my right to marry three women. And I dare her to respond to him or say it’s not your right… I really wish I could understand what in religion says that there must be a reason for a man to marry more than one woman.”

        Ramy, I’m not sure I see your point here. Are you saying that if a woman does something that might bother her husband (even if it’s permissible in Islam), that he has the right to retaliate and do something in return that will bother her? I think it’s quite disturbing if conversations between spouses go along these lines to begin with. And I’m not sure how one (a woman traveling with friends on holiday) relates to the other (a man wanting to marry a batch of three women for no reason).

      2. Regardless you do something right or don’t, me as neighbor masln! can’t even talk about you, my comment was totally about who is responsible on you, father, mother, or your husband enshaa’Allah.

        “he whole point is that adults should have the right to personal choice”

        From where this point came?! Islamic rule? and what’s the personal decision? marriage? Hijab? what to study? be smoker? please be specific, we don’t want it be generic.

        it is that person’s free choice and the fact the person is practicing free choice does not make him/her a bad person because their choices are contrary to your own

        tb3n!! of course! totally right… did I protest that?

        Ramy, I’m not sure I see your point here. Are you saying that if a woman does something that might bother her husband…….

        NO! it’s just for you personally as a writer you just see your right, and when people or “Shioukh” talk about polygamy, you -not personally- come with some strange “fatawy” not legal… wy not in Islam… wife should know.. man should ask before….

        Another point… woman should obey her husband as he doesn’t ask for what opposes Allah, need proofs?
        Father, mother, or your husband; Allah will judge them about your actions 2la lw 2tbro menk

        عن عبد الله بن عمر – رضي الله عنهما -: أن رسول الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم – قال: ((ألا كلكم راع وكلكم مسؤول عن رعيته، فالإمام الذي على الناس راع وهو مسؤول عن رعيته، والرجل راع على أهل بيته وهو مسؤول عن رعيته، والمرأة راعية على أهل بيت زوجها وولده وهي مسؤولة عنهم، وعبد الرجل راع على مال سيده وهو مسؤول عنه، ألا فكلكم راع وكلكم مسؤول عن رعيته))

        you, your etc… doesn’t refer to you personally, Nadia

      3. Ramy, I only have one reply:
        Yes, there doesn’t have to be a ‘reason’ for a man to marry more than one, but there has to be an ‘approval’ from his first wife.
        And very simply if a husband comes to his wife and says, alright then, I don’t like what you do and I’ll marry 3, she can tell, fine indeed, good bye amigo! :))
        If that is how relationships in Islam should go, and THANK GOD THAT IS NOT THE WAY IT SHOULD BE!
        1. Islam restricted the marriage to 4 when it was totally open for men before Islam. See the bible for example.
        2. Islam restrited the marriage of more than 1 by requesting total fairness otherwise only 1 wife is recommended.
        3. Islam that ‘allowed’ more than one wife, did not ‘request’ it or ‘encourage’ it. As a result, what was allowed and corresponding to social traditions years back, does not necessarily fit in our society today. And since it’s ‘just allowed’ under restrictions, not even ‘recommended’ then it’s something that we can take or leave.
        4. Islam gave the woman the right to refuse that her husbands marry other women as we were taught by the prophet pbuh.
        5. Islam gave the woman the right to file for divorce if she no longer wishes to live with her husband.
        As a result the man who thinks he will ‘punish’ his wife by marrying more than one, needs to understand, that his wife is not in a weak position to accept this ‘punishment’. His wife can allow or not allow this marriage. And if he wants to marry more than one, he might as well lose his first wife. So he’ll be ‘punished’ as well :)
        And as I said, this is not the way marriage goes in Islam AT ALL! I’m just going along with your comment.

        Finally, I understand what you mean by what Islam requires we do, and what it doesn’t we don’t. I understand that parents and partners (men or women) want their husbands or wives or children to do the right thing. But force isn’t an Islamic requirement, there’s no compulsion in religion, remember? One can only teach, advise, and pray for the beloved ones. But trust me, if you force your daughter to wear a head cover, or pray or or and she is not convinced, the minute she leaves your house, she’ll do whatever she pleases. And you might be accountable for making her dislike God’s orders that were forced on her, while God never asked anyone to be forced.
        Same thing, a wife or a husband might like or appreciate the encouragement, but trust me orders and force aren’t a good attitute towards a wife or a partner at all. Because I come from a different background I on the other hand decided to cover my hair in order not to be in such a situation with my partner some day that I would want to be modest while he ‘forces’ me not to be! I learned that i SET my rules before having a partner. So my partner would understand exactly who I really am and not try to change it. So I equally don’t accept my husband to force me to be modest if I feel I can’t do it. I would however always aprpeciate a positive encouragement. And I can bet you that most women would think the same ;)

  4. Nadia, i agree on every sngle word you wrote but i have acomment. When you say “there MUST be an age when a woman is mature enough to make her own decisions”, i have to tell that in my modes view, a female doesn’t have to reach tha age to make her own decisions. of course the nature of decision itself will vary according to her age. But if she doesn’t learn and/or is not raised to be independent, chances are very small tha she becomes independent later on. I watched your interview with Yosri Fouda and you mentionedhow your father and family were supportive of your independence. This is how a female can be independent AND responsible, in any age.

  5. Your post reminded me of something i thought of doing once then i didn’t; starting to blog about life as a divorcee and a single mother IN EGYPT .
    Ah ya Rabi! i have a lot of stories to tell about what happens almost on a daily basis.. not just to me, but to my poor kid as well..
    Following your example, I will mention two examples:
    1- One day my mom came telling me our neighbor is at the door and needs to speak to me.. I came smiling, and guess what? she was carrying a message from her husband! (who usually doesn’t reply my salam if i pass by him AND who are not religious at all btw) the message is as follows: my husband asked me to “advise” you that you shouldn’t be talking on the phone in your car after you park.. and i was like i thought it’s the opposite :) she said (without smiling of course) he saw you the other day in front of the house, staying for a while at your car to finish a phone call before you come up and as a divorcee you shouldn’t be doing that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I think i will not write the other example, cause it came from a close a friend and just reminding it hurts!
    Anyway, may be i’ll start this blog after all! who knows!

    1. Lobna, I really think you should start that blog. You can make one using an anonymous name. But it’s important that we get these issues out and discussed from our real life perspectives and not from philosophical perspectives alone.

  6. the first obstacle for women to obtain freedom of choice is of course the fact that our society has not yet advanced enough to hold this freedom as a non-negotiable right! and since we’re using examples: In Egypt, there is an actual Parliamentary quota on the # of women MPs, and the official stand is that this quota will actually help further women’s role in the political arena and not the opposite.
    The only reason i am citing politics as an example is to show that the idea of having women as equal decision makers is practically non-existing in our society. Its probably *not* too harsh to say that women in egypt are second-rate citizens. think about it, there are no decision makers in egypt who really think about what women want ;)

    Second most dangerous problem: our concept as a society of what honour is. There is no doubt that honour is directly related to the idea of “El 3ard”. The crisis stems from the idea that a man’s honour, and a family’s whole honour relies on their daughters, wives, mothers’ “3ard”! El 3ard is something physical of course, not an abstract concept. A women’s sexual choices affects the honour of every male member of her family.
    Because of “el 3ard”, women cant live alone, travel alone or make most decisions on their own. They just can’t be allowed.
    To put it crudely, just for fun, if a girl can’t even decide what to do with her own vagina, how can she decide what to do with everything else in her life? (sorry)

    The fear of being cuckolded, what this whole 3ard thing is essentially, is age-old and has manifested in most societies before.
    Its only a fear however, irrational like any other. Our main problem is that we don’t yet have any societal mechanisms to put this fear in check.
    Until Egypt develops an organized system that ensures women wont be oppressed because of the reproductive power they have, women in Egypt wont ever reach the age where they are free to make their own decisions.

    it will happen naturally when the standard of living improves.when we improve economically we will be able to improve intellectually too :)

    1. Merna, you make a valid point. A lot of the issues women face in Egypt and many other Arab and Islamic countries – at least those related to freedom of choice and action – boil down to protecting “the purity” of her vagina and thus the honor of her close male relatives, her family (and as a friend recently joked, her neighbors, the general neighborhood she lives in, her governorate, and the country as a whole…everybody owns a stake in the purity of that one girl’s vagina). The funny thing is: quite frankly it takes two to have sex. That vagina isn’t going to be penetrated all on its own. So why isn’t this whole concept of honor also linked with men in our society? Do we not also need to protect the purity of their penises? Excuse me please, dear readers, for being so blunt. But do you not all see how illogical this situation is that we are in?

  7. Nadia, on behalf of all the good people left in this miserable place, I’m sorry. Hearing stories like that and story like Lobna’s makes me realize how discriminant and distorted our man controlled society has become. A society that only looks to women as sex objects that are “loose” by nature with only the issue of “virginity” holding them back from “satisfying their needs”. A society that blames rape and sexual harassment victims instead of the criminal just because of the way they dress! A society that thinks that considers absolute control of a womans right to do what she wants a threat to their “manhood” which is not anymore related to good manners.

    I had an experience too with a friend of mine who recently took off her veil and how people looked at her after this decision. What surprised me the most is the opinion of some of my own friends whom I considered “enlightened” and how to them this decision turns her to a degree even lower than whores because she encourages other girls to do the same!

    You all have the reason to be extremely angry indeed. God bless!

  8. This is thought-provoking and timely; thanks for this!

    Yet at the same time, if a woman decides to wear the hijab in Egypt, she will also in many circumstances find herself judged by other members of society for becoming too conservative.

    This is not my experience. The higab has become almost as ubiquitous as Manoofi exceptionalism in modern Egypt, outside of AUC circles that is. Is it really the case, therefore, that women choosing to wear it, perhaps when they’re in their twenties, are considered to be taking a conservative path? After all, as we are all well aware, wearing a higab or even the niqab is no guarantee or arbiter of good morals.

    As regards womens’ right to independent adulthood, I think Egypt and Egyptians in general should be wary of going to the extreme as Britain, to name but one example, has done. There must be a happy medium struck between living in a society where women’s rights are frequently ignored and one where serial single motherhood, and all the social problems that dovetail with this, is fast becoming the norm.

    I wish all Egyptians a big ahlan and saba7saba7 from the UK and may the Manoofi dictatorship pass quickly inshallah. Yalla byebye

  9. It appears to me that the position of women vis a vis Islam in Egypt is not significantly different from that adopted by other revelled religions at various times. Speaking as an atheist, I regard all religions as constituting a system of social control.

    Almost all religions have subordinated the position of women. Only last year the catholic pope described the notion of women priests as ‘The most grievous of sins’.

    Education is the way out: but the peddlers of revealed religion have a lot to lose which they will not give up easily.

  10. Nadia, your blog is amazing. It teaches me a lot about Egypt and its culture. I completely agree with you. I can’t believe God makes different between women and men. In my opinion, the most important thing is the character of a person, not his/her sex. As I am brazilian, sometimes it is difficult to me believing on all this discrepancy in Egypt. But, even here, women are treated in a different way in some situations. It is women’s struggle all over the world. We should be evaluated to what we are inside, not to what we have outside ( u know).

    Um abraço carinhoso!

  11. Alright, my comment: A Muslim women should study Islam and follow it. Whatever is just a ‘traditional behaviour’ it’s up to her to accept it or refuse it and rebel on it if necessary.
    Sometimes we do things in order not to upset our parents for example or so, but at some point, it will be time to think of ourselves! We can’t live our lives pleasing people. Accordingly, whatever is our right, we should grab it!

    Finally, society will remain to judge women as you described above, whether they cover or uncover, work or not work, travel or not travel…
    so I put society on the shelf for a bit, look into what Islam requires, and do it.
    What society ‘feels’ about it, isn’t really my concern, they can deal with themselves as long as I know I’m doing what I believe is right!

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