issue 175 - September 1987
Photo: Camera Press
Husbands of the Nile
Muslim men keep their women invisible - veiled from
head to foot or locked indoors. Or so runs the conventional wisdom.
But according to Sherif Hetata, Islam itself is not to blame.
And, in Egypt at least, men are slowly beginning to change.
I sat in the barber's chair. The long narrow room was filled with young men. They gazed at themselves in the mirrors, watching to make sure that their hair was being made to resemble that of the television and movie stars they saw on the screen every night. Above the murmur of conversation, the blowing noise of a hair-dryer suddenly turned on, could be heard a sweet, solemn voice chanting verses of the Quran from a small television set in a distant corner of the room. The voice reminded us of Allah the almighty patriarch, of our roots in Islam and tradition.
Nobody was paying attention to the words of God, except for an occasional ritualistic sigh of appreciation from the young man in the yellow blouse who busied himself over my head. We were preoccupied with other things and yet we all knew He was there, invisible and all pervading.
Here in this small unit of young, urban, male society flowed the two main currents of contemporary Egyptian life; the modem and the traditional - antagonistic in some ways but complementing one another like the two sides of a coin. For tradition and so-called modernization may have quarrelled occasionally but only for a time. Essentially they are allies. Both of them oppose movements for real equality between classes and between sexes. This we learnt in Sadat's Egypt. This we are learning from Iran.
Islam is not the problem
Whether one lives in a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist society, prevailing notions about masculinity are the reflection of a whole range of economic, social, cultural and historical factors, of which religion is only one.
I would therefore argue against the paternalistic notions in some Western circles which dismiss Muslim males as promiscuous, lecherous and domineering, which shed crocodile tears over the fate of Muslim women and view the problems of women's liberation in our countries as a religious problem related to Islam. They tend to forget that the whole system upon which inequality between the sexes is based continues to be maintained by international capitalism, by colonialism and neo-colonialism.
The whole idea of talking about Muslim men as a type is wrong, to my mind, because it makes religion the determining factor and prevents us from making valid comparisons between societies. Is it possible to speak of the 'masculine' comportment of 'Christian' men as against 'Muslim' men? In Egyptian society men, whether 'Muslims' or 'Copts' (Eastern Orthodox Christians), will differ little, if at all, in their concept of 'masculinity'. However the men will differ greatly according to social class, education, or the environment from which they come.
It may be true that the return to 'tradition' advocated by the Muslim political movements can only lead to increasing oppression of women. But it is also true that neither the modernization nor the Westernization we are witnessing in Egypt today are conducive to a real liberation of women and a more humane concept of masculinity. What they really lead to are new forms of gender oppression described as 'sexual liberation', in which the woman's body and the man's mind become commercialized. Young men and women are thus torn between traditional religious values and the pleasures of sensual consumption.
We have much to learn from the women's movement in the West, from its thoughts and its struggles, and also from its shortcomings. But to learn does not mean to copy. Our reality is different.
A trip to my village
My village lies 125 kilometres north of Cairo and is built on a stream at the point where it flows into the Nile. This is where my wife, the novelist Nawal el Saadawi, and I do our writing. When I need to rest, I spend some of the time talking with tenant farmers and agricultural labourers in the fields during the day, or in the courtyards of their houses after sundown. On Fridays we meet occasionally in my garden before the noonday prayer.
Mostapha Taleema tends the young orange trees planted round our house, and cultivates vegetables with his father. He is about 35 years old, and has been married for over ten years, but has no children. When he had his semen examined by a laboratory in the capital city of the province, his sperm was found to be sluggish and reduced in numbers. In his father's generation no man would have agreed to such an examination. The mere idea would have been an insult to his manhood. The only conclusion at that time would have been that the wife had some fault and should be divorced. But Mostapha lives happily with his wife, although there is sometimes a sadness in his eyes and he has unexplained outbursts of anger. After all, children are valuable - they can do so many useful jobs in a village situation and relieve the load on their parents.
Despite his 'impaired' virility, like many peasants in the village Mostapha does not allow his wife to be seen outside the house, nor to do anything but domestic work. This is 'masculinity': to be capable of providing for your woman so that she does not need to work, and to keep her at home. The saying goes 'Nothing shames the man but his pocket'.
A young married woman has no power of decision. Mostapha told me, however, that nowadays husbands and wives discuss things together and make joint decisions. 'Supposing they disagree?' I asked. 'Then the man decides, if he's really a man. But you know women have a way with them,' he added, smiling. 'At home my wife does everything. As you know I have to labour all day. But sometimes I give her a helping hand. The majority of men have not changed. They keep on saying "Girl, prepare my dinner. Girl, push that sack of rice away from the door. Girl, stop looking out of the door."'
Hassan El Nifyaoui owns a chicken farm and can barely make ends meet. He has two daughters. He carries them around and looks at them with shining eyes. His father never touched children, and chased them away whenever they approached him, especially if they were girls. Of course Hassan wants a son but he says 'I like my girls'. He sports a small clipped moustache over his upper lip in place of the bushy whiskers his father was so proud of.
Most young men have migrated from the village to towns or cities, or to the oil-rich countries. But those who have remained behind are changing too. They are mostly clean-shaven, laugh outright even in the presence of elders and address the girls with a few words as they walk down the lanes. Being 'masculine' no longer means beating your wife or behaving gruffly. But with money coming in from those working abroad 'masculinity' is now coming to mean, more than ever, a capacity to buy things, pay big dowries, and keep your wife at home. It means a little less authority, a little more freedom for women but a closer link between money and 'masculine' values.
In villages like this one there is now less conservatism. The women are veiled less often and there is perhaps more freedom in the relations between the sexes than amongst those city dwellers overtaken by the wave of Islamic fundamentalism. In rural areas, after all, to labour in the fields is the supreme virtue. Life is more simple, segregation is more difficult and almost uncalled for anyway since everyone knows everyone else.
The traditional authoritarian man is disappearing and women are coming out. But it is slow, very slow - especially as the pressure of 'fundamentalism' and the money market' mounts up.
Sons of the city
In the city things are different. The sons of the rich, or of comfortable middle-class families influenced by a rather superficial 'modernization', are not very interesting. They have no real culture, not even a Western culture. They are after money, girls, cars and travelling to the US or Europe. Repeated female conquests are their criterion of masculinity. Open and disguised forms of prostitution are rampant even in the University.
But when these sons of the bourgeoisie marry it's arranged by the family, and the girl must be a virgin. Marriage should be a sound financial investment. Amongst conservative Muslim families arranged marriages are an unbreakable rule. There is a lot of money involved, as hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil-rich countries spread like a cancerous growth. The young men may have smooth long hair, wear a chain around the neck and listen to disco music, but they also pray regularly, fast at Ramadan and are very conservative in their attitude to their wives.
The two tendencies of Westernization and fundamentalism are seeping down to the poorer classes of society. Yet out of this mess something new and refreshing is growing - young men and women who want to face the difficulties of life together because that is the best way to overcome them. They have a lot of problems, especially the men, most of whom have been brought up to believe that girls should serve and obey. The process of adaptation to this new way of relating is painful for both partners. And when it comes to the crunch it is probably still the woman who has to make some concession. If not she will end up alone. More and more women are remaining unmarried. My stepdaughter is one of them. She has now reached the age of 31.
Many young couples come to our house or seek advice on the phone. Most of them have read Nawal's books. Reading a book can change a lot of things but it's not enough. These couples, these young men and women, need support. They cannot find it in the political and social movements which exist in Egypt today. At the same time the women's movement is struggling to establish itself.
They ask us how we manage. But unfortunately we're a special case. True, I was brought up to be served. I remember that when I woke up in the morning my slippers were always placed in the exact spot where my feet would touch the ground. But when I met Nawal I was 42 and had already had a hectic life, including 13 years in prison for political reasons. We were both writers and both fighters, I in the socialist movement and she in the women's movement.
Nevertheless I had to learn that if you want a new kind of relation, if you love a woman who has a personality, then there's a price to pay, as there is for everything worthwhile in life. Nawal was not going to give up what she thought was most essential for her - her creative writing, her self-respect and her right to equality. So we worked things out through a long and patient struggle. Moving a step forward each day, helping each other, sometimes fighting, but always facing things and trying to learn.
Gradually many of those who thought that our kind of marriage would not work are beginning to see differently. In many ways they envy us. And the children too have been drawn into the same process. We live as four independent, interacting and creative beings sharing everything, deciding together.
Nawal and I no longer have any division of roles. If I'm writing she cooks, and if she's writing I cook. She washes my clothes and I wash hers depending on who has the time. We share all the domestic chores alternately. If we're both writing or engaged in some activity we do the strict minimum and do it quickly. She travels alone and so do I, but it's best when we're together.
It's a good life and it makes us strong, A real two is almost an infinity. But it took time and effort and readiness to learn, to change and to be flexible. And it is exceptional, at least in our society. Unless things change - unless political movements alter their attitude to women's problems, unless a women's liberation movement grows up and matures - such partnerships will remain the exception.
Sherif Hetata is a novelist and political activist based in Giza, Egypt.