Letter from Cairo: The She-Male


In Egyptian black-and-white movies, a woman who stands for her rights, demands equality with men, or stays unmarried beyond the socially accepted age is portrayed as not very different from a man, only with the exception of a few bodily parts that indicate otherwise. She usually has her hair pulled back, wears dark colors, and dresses almost exclusively in pants. She has a stern look, a military walk, and an expressionless face.

She is, therefore, not only depicted as man, but an unpleasant one for that matter. It is only when she starts dressing in those strapless, fluffy dresses with flower patterns—which seemed like the only outfit the female body is designed for—and wearing her hair loose and adds a few sexy gestures and a couple of seductive smiles that she is officially retrieved into the world of women and that she is able to attract the men who were previously put off by her “manly” attitude.

I recall the 1956 movie “Daughters of Eve,” the title being indicative enough of the way all women were grouped under one category whose members are expected to abide by certain rules in order to deserve becoming the daughter of the progenitor of all females in the globe. In this movie, a strong, career-oriented woman is placed in sharp contrast with her pretty, hyper-feminine sister and while the former is constantly reprimanded for scaring away men and not wanting to settle down in marriage, the latter is lauded as the perfect example of the female who does not attempt to surpass the role assigned to her by society. Only when one man decides to take up the challenge of snatching her from that world to which she does not belong and bringing her back to where women should, does this woman become what she is expected to be. The movie, therefore, concludes with the happily-ever-after ending and the moral of the story is too clear to be stated.

More than half a century later comes the movie “Taymour and Shafika.” This time the approach is different for, unlike Eve’s daughter Essmat, Shafika is already attractive and elegant and sexy. So Taymour, who is not very different from Wahid who triumphantly tames Essmat, does not have to go through the hassle of “feminizing” the “unfeminine.” He faces a bigger challenge, though. Ambitious Shafika becomes minister and macho Taymour is appointed her bodyguard, thus dealing a fatal blow to his ego and initiating a flagrant disruption in the globally recognized, Arab/Egyptian-emphasized balance of power. A fierce struggle for dominance ensues with Shafika vehemently unwilling to give up her professional future and Taymour relentlessly opposed to her assumption of a position higher than his. He eventually asks her to choose between her career and their relationship, and they reach a dead end… not quite dead it turns out, for she finally decides to quit her job and the movie ends with the same happily-ever-after scene—the wedding that could finally materialize now that the bride abides by the groom’s rules and wisely decides to recoil back to where she originally belongs. Do you still want me to state the moral of the story?

It saddens me to admit that the change that took place on the ground as far as women’s rights are concerned is as meager as the one you can trace in the two movies and the 51 years that separate them. In fact, comparing those two movies unravels how superficial any improvements in the status of women in Egypt have been. Many people might disagree with what I say and would start citing a long list of the various positions woman are now capable of holding and which were previously reserved for men by way of tradition.

“Women have become ministers and judges,” one friend once told me. “What more do they want?” Forgot to tell you this friend is a “he” in case you haven’t guessed already. “We’re all over state institutions and the private sector,” another friend said in response to my complaints about inequality. “We are much stronger than men now.” That was a “she” of course.

I listened to both of them and to several others who adopt the same view and I wondered how on earth can’t they see that having a couple of female judges here and another couple of female ministers there does not by any means indicate that women have become equal to men and does not make the government very different from the mother who while shopping at the mall buys her daughter a pack of M&Ms to distract her from asking for the more expensive Barbie doll.

This was clearly manifested in the quota system that reserves a specific number of seats for women in the parliament. While the decision to apply this system was hailed as a huge step toward gender equality and emancipation of women, it is exactly the other way round. In fact, the quota system is demeaning for women because it implies that forcing voters to choose female candidates is the only they can ever have access to the parliament. It is also quite intriguing that very few were able to detect the condescending nature of this system in the sense that it makes the political future of women contingent upon the government’s “benevolence,” and gives minority status to a group that makes up more than half the society.

Most important of all, the quota system, like the M&Ms, was supposed to offer the perfect distraction for activists who, like the little girl, keep “whining” about how unjustly they are treated. The kid won’t stay a kid forever, though, and one day she will realize how deceived she was. When that happens, the doll won’t do and nothing less than a tree house would satisfy her.

The controversy that raged last year about the appointment of women judges at the State Council offers a miniature example of how women are still seen as unfit for specific kinds of jobs. I am not going to go through details of the disputes between members of the council’s General Assembly, who ended up issuing a ban on the appointment of women, or of the lawsuit filed at the Supreme Constitutional Court, which eventually ruled that the ban is unconstitutional. I would rather like to take a quick look at the reaction of Egyptian women, yes women, to the issue and I want you to imagine what men would think—I personally did not attempt to find out for fear of the horrendous responses I would get—if they were asked.

“A woman is jealous by nature,” one woman, an academic if that helps in understanding where she’s coming from though I doubt it does, said. “If she is presiding over a court session where the defendant is another woman and this woman is wearing nicer clothes or looks prettier, she will definitely hand her one hell of an unfair sentence.”

“What if she is PMS-ing during one of the sessions?” a friend of mine wondered. “Would she be able to think straight and make wise decisions?”

Now get ready for the most memorable of them all: “What if she has a session and her husband orders her not to leave the house that day?” a female lawyer asked in a TV interview. The host, interestingly a man, seemed so baffled by his guest’s argument that he stayed silent for a few seconds while she stared at him waiting for an answer.

If this is the case with court appointments, can you imagine how it would be if a woman runs for president? In fact, you don’t need to imagine because the case is closed before it is opened. A survey conducted recently by a local NGO revealed that 100 percent of Egyptians interviewed—40 percent women and 60 percent men—were opposed to having a woman for president. The reasons might sound diverse, but they all boil down to one single thing: women are not fit for positions that require strength of character, decision-making skills, and physical and mental effort.

The reason for this is not, God forbid, because women are inferior to men in any way. On the contrary, women are of course equal to men and should have the same rights. “They are just, by nature, too delicate for such tough jobs,” they say. This reminds me of another back-and-white Egyptian movie when two women had to disguise as men to work in a mining site and prove that they are capable of doing the jobs seen as too “strenuous” for a creature that fragile and that incapable of enduring hard work and adapting to harsh environments.

Men who argue that a woman loses her femininity when she takes “manly” jobs have all the right to believe what they want, and women who agree with this argument are encouraged to hook up with these men and they can make the perfect couple for the “just married” postcards you find in Hallmark stores.

As for women who have a different take on femininity and who would rather be independent than “cute,” it is now time for the kid to stamp her feet until she shakes the ground beneath her and to scream at the top of her lungs that she will no longer be fooled with a pack of artificially-colored candies until everybody around runs to see what the deal is.

The mother might finally be convinced and buy the Barbie doll and might only want to avoid making a scene and still buy the Barbie doll. And as the stamping grows stronger and the screams get louder… the tree house it is then.

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Sonia Farid

I teach for a living... write for a life!

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