Archive for the ‘gender’ Category

One Club, Two Groups

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Two weekends ago, I attended the Help Reception, which is an even that the Help Club, which is community service oriented, puts on every year with different skits, short films, speakers, and photos. Pretty much all of it was in Arabic so I had a friend translate that big ideas for me. While the show itself was very excellent and brought up many interesting criticisms into the Palestinian issue and Egyptian politics, what struck me the most about the evening was the glaring gender divide.

The club is entirely segregated into male and female groups. All the pictures of club events and activities either featured either all girls or all boys. The entire show itself appeared to be entirely made by the boys. All the skits featured male actors, all the movies features male actors, all the speakers were male. The only girl on stage was one of the announcers and even she spoke less than the male counterpart. A majority of the pictures too were of the boy’s group and their activities. As I watched the program progress, I was constantly wondering when the girls would appear. Also, while I didn’t realize it at the time, the audience seating was segregated, or at least it was strongly encouraged to be segregated with guys on one side and girls on another. I asked my friend why it was like this, why was the club so segregated? She told me one reason was for the girls to feel comfortable. If they are doing some project and want to dance or something, they can be more free and do not have to worry about unwanted attention or being inappropriate. After the program was over a little celebration by club members took place. The boys in the club and their friends all swarmed the stage. They began clapping, cheering and chanting, carried each other on one another’s shoulders, and threw some members in the air. After they calmed down, they gathered near the front of the stage for a group picture. The girls, meanwhile, were in quiet, happy group by the stage. They received flowers and were hugging or taking pictures with each other…a big contrast from the boisterous and exuberant time the boys were having.

It seemed that boys were having a lot more fun, had more energy, and creativity. If I were to participate in that club, I would want to join the boy’s group, since it seemed much more lively and engaging than the girls. I began wondering why they even were in one club together, why not just make two separate clubs since they seemed to be doing different things anyways.

After the program had ended, the club members and audience had the chance to mingle, eat food, and drink coffee. I saw another one of my friends there who was a member of the club and she invited me to a service project the next day at an orphanage. I agreed to it and she told me that they would be meeting at the McDonald’s in Tahrir Square. Although I came on time the next day, I arrived well before anyone else did. Eventually, I saw a group of young adults gathering a little down the street. “Are you the Help club?” I asked two girls. They looked at me with surprise, and appeared almost offended. “Uhhh…are you helping out at an orphanage today?” I asked. They said that they were, but they were not Help, they were VIA or Volunteers in Action. My friend is in several clubs and neglected to tell me that it was VIA nor Help that we were joining that day. The reason that they seemed offended when I asked them they were Help is because there is some dislike between the two groups. I began talking to the girls about the Help Reception that I went to the night before and brought up the gender divide that I had seen. They were very critical of that divide and that was the biggest reason that they did not like that club and did not participate in it. They said that there are several other service clubs on campus like that. Also, since the majority of the girls in those clubs are veiled, they were perceived by the VIA girls I was talking to as being less accepting and critical of unveiled girls in their group, especially if they were Muslim. Then today, I saw that my friend had a Help folder and asked her is she was part if the club. She emphatically said that she was not. They were too religious she said. This comment was really interesting since she wears a hijab and normally is clad in a black abeyya (robe). Anyone that looks at her would probably assume that she too was very religious.

“Man on the Floor!”

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

“Man on the Floor!…Man on the Floor!…Man on the Floor!” The second or third day after moving in to my room in Zamalek, I did not know why in the world a woman was yelling in the hallway. I could not hear the words clearly through the door and didn’t want to open my door to see what was happening since I was in a comfortable position. Later, I discovered that she was yelling “Man on the Floor!”. No, a man had not fallen on the floor, but was present on the floor. Whenever a man is in the girl’s side of the dorms, a female guard escorts him. She will notify the entire floor of his presence by yelling. She will close the bathroom door and bedroom doors as well. Once, a girl who was in the bathroom when the door was shut could not get back out. It had apparently locked and she had no way to unlock it from the inside. She was in there for quite some time calling for salvation until a passerby heard her and freed her. That girl was me…Just kidding! But it could have been.

In the beginning I found the whole warning system highly amusing and slightly ridiculous. It felt like the entire floor was going on lock-down. My dorms at home were co-ed and last year my RA was male. If there was a man on the floor, who cared?  But, the warning is very useful and welcome to many of the girls who wear hijabs. Since they normally do not wear them when they are in their rooms or hanging around the floor, they would feel extremely uncomfortable if a man were to appear without warning and saw them unveiled. It is nice to for those who have just come out of the shower and are walking back to their rooms with only a towel.

Whenever there needs to be some mechanical maintenance done to the room, a man is normally sent up. The woman guard will then supervise the job and the door will remain open. This was interesting. Do I need to be protected from the maintenance workers? Should I feel threatened, vulnerable, or uncomfortable being in a room alone with them while they do their job? If there was a women worker in a male students room, I doubt there would have to be a male guard watching over. I had asked some of the boys if there is ever a “Woman on the Floor!” warning on their side of the dorms. Nope, any work that needs to be done there is done by women.

Al-Qahira Al-Qadeema

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Old Cairo.  This part of the city goes back almost 2,ooo years and is a very holy area.  Here my group saw a synagogue, a few churches, and a mosque. All of them played a significant role in their religion’s history and they were all very beautiful.

Here are some examples:

~Ben Ezra,  a synagogue, was built where baby Moses was supposedly found.

~The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga) is claimed to be the location where the Holy Family had lived during their flight to Egypt.

~The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As was the first Mosque in Egypt and point from which Islam was spread all throughout Africa began.

It’s so hard to imagine the layers of history and humanity that lived and worshiped in buildings that I just walked into with little knowledge of their significance. We would pile in, look around, take pictures if it was allowed (often it wasn’t), sit down, and then complain of the heat. This is one reason why I do not like being a tourist. It is deeply unsatisfying and seems shallow. I can marvel at carvings, ask questions, and touch things that have been around for ages, but never really experience the place for what it is. But of course, if given the chance, I will be that tourist, gleaning whatever snippets of a place that means/meant so much to people that I may never meet.

Fortunately, in the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As I was able to have a conversation about the mosque and Islam with a fellow AUC student who was a Muslim from Yemen. Our conversation started when I picked up a copy of the Qur’an in an attempt to read it. He walked over to me and told me what it was (though I already knew).  “Okay, thanks!”, I said, then continued looking through the pages. When I was done, I looked towards the ceiling and noticed that there was something written in cursive Arabic on the lamps. I walked over to him and asked him what it said. He didn’t know, explaining that it was too small and in an old Arabic script. After that I began talking with him about other features of the mosque and its history.  The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As once had a university and was also a place where the military was kept. Indeed, this was a not just a religious center, but also a military and political center set up by Amr ibn al-As (the founder of the mosque) as he set forth to spread Islam throughout Africa. I was told that he would conquer cities and give the residents the option to convert to Islam. If they didn’t then the only penalty they faced was a tax. They were treated respectfully regardless of their religion. When I asked if many people converted, he replied that they did since they could see the benefits and solidity of Islam and the benefits of its government. Since I have not studied Islamic history, I cannot attest to the validity of his statements. Conquerors write history, but people that feel threatened by an opposing ideology also spread their own rumors (e.g. some Christians). If anyone knows more about the spread of Islam, please feel free to share it with me.

To continue, I also asked him why women have to enter through a different door than the men. He replied that it is a matter of organization. The men pray in the front, the children file in behind the men, and the women are behind the children. By having the women enter the other door, it makes this process easier.  (The segregation of the sexes is not limited to Islam. For example, in Ben Ezra, the women used to have to sit on the upper level. I would have liked to go up there, but it was not allowed.) When I asked him why men did not have to cover up as much as the women, he just shrugged apologetically and said that he didn’t know. He was apologetic because at this time I was wearing a green hooded robe and it was obvious that all of us girls were roasting. However it wasn’t too bad, I was just excited to be in a mosque and see what it was like. Plus, I really did not have much to complain about; he was fasting for Ramadan and had not been able to drink anything all day despite the terrible heat.  We kept talking until it was time to leave the mosque and head back to the dorms. The rest of the day was pretty relaxed and I got to wander the neighborhoods more.

There is so much more I could write and want to write, but alas, that will have to wait for another time.

Ma’a salama

P.S. I’d like to give a shout out now to all the Muslims reading this who are fasting right now, I admire your devotion and I hope your experience is spiritually fulfilling.


Robed and Smiling in the Mosque of Amr ibn al'As

Welcome! Ahlan wa sahlan!

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Hello Everyone!

As I will be leaving for Egypt in just a few days now, I am tying up loose ends, savoring moments with friends and family, and busily packing. The hardest thing to pack is clothes. Since Egypt is 90% Muslim and a more conservative society than the U.S., I’ve been searching for clothes that would be appropriate. Shirts with the combined elements of high necklines, longer sleeves, and loose fabric are rare creatures in the U.S. Now whenever I see women in a restaurant, a store, or at the library, I’ll find myself mentally labeling their clothing.  Oftentimes the clothing is “Not Egypt Approved”. Yet, regardless of the way women dress in Egypt, they are still subject to sexual harassment (mainly verbal). Seeing and experiencing this will probably be one of the biggest shocks for me. However, AUC will teach me and the other students how to deal with it. Of course, this is only one aspect of Egyptian life. They are better known for their great hospitality, sense of honor, and lively sense of humor. Interacting with Egyptians, navigating the boundaries of gender, and relying on my limited Arabic will be  both exciting and frustrating.

On a more material note, I am also beginning to anticipate all the places that I will see. Most people immediately think “pyramids” when they hear “Egypt”, but there is so much more. There are Roman ruins, mosques, Coptic churches,  slender TV towers, dense apartment buildings, and bustling coffeehouses. With buildings spanning centuries and even millennia literally casting shadows on each other, what relationship does Egypt’s antiquity have with its modernity? Perhaps I’ll find out once I get there.

Ma’a salama!