x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The women of 'once upon a time' are still here

The strong, intelligent Arab women of 'once upon a time' are still here, even though it remains tougher for women to live in Egypt than men.

The first thing I am asked about my life in Egypt when I go back to a western country is what is it like as a woman living and working in Egypt. When I first moved to Cairo, I still carried a very post-9/11, North American attitude - I felt it important to break stereotypes about the Middle East and was defensive about the misconceptions attached to Muslim women living in this part of the world.

I would quickly answer that life was very normal for me in Cairo as a woman; I didn't feel as though it was tougher for me than for a man, and that I was surviving very well, thank you very much. Four years on and having travelled throughout the Middle East, I am more honest about my experience - it is without doubt tougher for women to live here than for men. From the daily sexual harassment on the street, to the fact that the presence of a man is needed to carry out certain errands, to guarantee a fair price or garner respect, in many way everything has remained patriarchal. The Arab world has progressed at a snail's pace.

Just this month, a decision by the state council courts to forbid women from being judges saw newspapers rehashing the same arguments about the ability of a woman to hold such a position: What will happen if she leaves the home? Is she too emotional to work in such a profession? Does her menstrual cycle make her too crazy to pass judgement? Not only are they arguments from the Stone Age, they were already debated seven years ago when the first female judge was appointed to the supreme court, and then again in 2007 when the first batch of women judges arrived in the constitutional court.

What is surprising is that Egyptian women are hardly a timid lot. Historically, they have led women's movements in the Middle East and have worked in the legal professions for 100 years. In addition, the country boasts some of the brightest Arab female brains in the region - doctors, lawyers, politicians, extraordinary social activists. I remember telling a friend once as we sat in traffic in downtown Cairo: "I don't know why so many people think Arab women are oppressed - look at how strong and fearless they are."

"Sure," my friend replied, "but how many of them can read and write?" In the majority of the lower classes, the answer is, not many. Here, 80 per cent of women are circumcised, and it is women themselves who defend the practice and are resistant to change. The hijab, which has seen a resurgence in the past decade, is still a volatile topic in Egypt. Instead of defining what the hijab means to them personally, many girls wear it because of social pressure from other women warning of hellfire or harassment on the street. On the other hand, some women ridicule those who have chosen to take the hijab, calling them backwards or brainwashed.

When I interviewed Hissa Hilal from the popular show Million's Poet, her calm passion about her work and about being a woman with a message sent shivers down my spine. She was strong in her conviction and art - while causing a stir with her poetry lashing out at clerics who spout incredulous fatwas against women, non-Muslims, and to whom "killing is an easy option". She told me that through her poetry she was reviving the real voice of the Arab woman - that she was part of a rich tradition of poetesses and female scholars who lived at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and were allowed to express their intelligence.

And while, yes, it can be difficult to live in the Arab world as a woman, I also see examples of Hilal everywhere, be they judges, doctors, house cleaners or nurses - women trying to bring back that female Arab voice they are taught existed once upon a time and that they can feel still inside their chests. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo.