|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
15 - 21 March 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The prodigal daughter
From obedience to rebellion: name the challenge, she'll rise to it
Profile by Fayza Hassan
When Mona Qurashi's name came up as a likely candidate for a profile, those who knew her ventured the opinion that she would be a great subject. She is different, they said. "Different how?" I had asked suspiciously. "Special," was the best they could do. "Tell me more," I insisted. Here, the outlook varied slightly, but they were unanimous on one point: Qurashi had a rich personality. I had met her a couple of times and I tended to agree with this judgement. She seemed like someone who had a lot to say. It would be interesting to see how she would say it.
It took me some time to track her down. Her answering machine could have been out of order, or she was having a hate week and simply not returning calls. Finally one morning I was brutally awakened by a shrill ring that I mistook for my alarm clock. Noticing that it was only 8.30am, I grabbed my cell phone, expecting the worst. "It's Mona Qurashi. You've been looking for me, I hear." The deep voice on the other end of the line did not seem to be bringing bad tidings; it took me a few seconds to recover nevertheless. Misinterpreting my silence, she added: "You thought I was a man, didn't you? All these cigarettes are playing havoc with my voice." She did not wait for a comment and I felt it would be foolish to offer one. We made an appointment for the following day. "A more civilised hour, maybe," I ventured. "Would 1.00pm suit you?" she asked, with only the slightest hint of irony.
I made it a point to be on time and followed her detailed directions thoroughly. They landed me on the ground floor of a turn-of-the century four-storey building, typical of Garden City, occupied by a small, deserted art gallery (Friends of the Fine Arts), where I had time to contemplate a number of heavily framed classical landscapes of mixed origin before someone finally showed up. She had told me that everyone knew her on the street. She was right. No sooner had I mentioned her name than I was ushered out and through a narrow side alley, to the back door of the building. "Go up, you will find her," was the only other indication I received. There was no elevator.
The stairs, featuring an old-fashioned cast iron railing, were of worn, graying marble. They caved in slightly in the middle, making the climb particularly uncomfortable. On every landing, gaping front doors allowed the visitor a good view into the apartments' reception rooms. Raising my head, I saw Mona leaning over the banister. "All the doors are opened," I managed to gasp, trying to catch my breath as I reached the top floor. "Yes," she said, "I never close the doors. I was raised in the country and the dawwar's door was always wide open." She felt completely safe, she argued, although she admitted to having been robbed a couple of times. She shrugged. "They only took a few knickknacks -- who cares?"
Her apartment was crammed with beautiful old furniture, the walls covered with valuable paintings; precious objects crowded every surface in a devil-may-care fashion; the colours were warm and welcoming, with deep reds and browns offset by some bold greens. It was obvious, however, that there had been no attempt at decoration. No special effect had been sought: the house belonged to her family and the furniture and ornaments came with it.
Very quickly I became aware of Qurashi's sense of belonging and her respect for the family's traditions, which she has made it her mission to uphold. Proud of her origins, of what her forebears stood for, her greatest ambition was always to follow in their footsteps. Her drive may stem from the fact that she grew up in a predominantly patriarchal family, where her male siblings were by definition favoured over her. From an early age, it became necessary to emulate them and, if at all possible, to go one step further. She had to prove her worth; she did it against the odds, and with much energy.
Her father, a leading landowner of Upper Egypt, was a nationalist political figure in the 1919 Revolution. "He was even sentenced to death, but got a reprieve when the witnesses contradicted themselves," comments Qurashi with visible satisfaction. She seems to derive great self-assurance from this unimpeachable proof of her family's love of country, whose roots are "pure Egyptian, of Bedouin and Saudi origin," although the incident happened long before her birth.
Her father was over 50 when he married her mother, who was the same age as his two daughters from a previous marriage. "He married my mother because he wanted a boy, and Mohamed [currently a member of the Shura Council] was their first child." Having mentioned her brother, Qurashi is launched on one of her favourite crusades, the eradication of differences in the treatment of boys and girls within the Egyptian family. "When Mohamed was born," she recounted, "there were celebrations in the village; they saluted his arrival with gun shots and the festivities lasted 40 days. When I was born, on the other hand, the notables of the village practically offered their condolences." Clearly, she still feels the sting of such crying injustice.
Two boys followed Qurashi's birth (one is now a member of the People's Assembly). Thus surrounded, she grew up isolated -- "marginalised" is the word she uses -- by the cultural traditions of her milieu from all the political discussions and activities that she deemed interesting and exciting. She was married off at an early age, "at the first possible opportunity," and barely out of school, she comments resentfully. She had never seen the doctor in law from Minya that her parents had accepted on her behalf. Fourteen years her senior, he had married her on the advice of his mother, who considered the alliance with the Qurashi family beneficial. Although she admitted that he was a kind, well-mannered gentleman, she noticed that most women of her age had been trapped in marriages dominated by male figures, in which they were regarded as beings of lesser value. "This is when I adopted the cause of feminism," Qurashi explains forcefully. Qurashi moved to Maadi with her husband. "I still had the mentality of a child and waited for his departure every morning to run downstairs and play with my bicycle," she recalls. He died a few years later, in 1970, leaving her with a son who was 11 at the time.
It is difficult to assess the influence of Qurashi's married years on the rest of her life. She has little to say about them except that she went to university then to complete her education. Nationalisations and sequestration by the Nasser regime had taken their toll, and many women of mature age were pursuing a higher education, which, like hers, had been interrupted by marriage and childbearing. She chose the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University, where she studied English Literature. She graduated with a BA in 1966. It is during those years that she came to realise fully that her "lofty father and regally-treated brothers" had created a challenge in her life which she was fully concentrated on meeting. She had to succeed on their terms. In the conversation, rebellion against women's lot is often mentioned, immediately followed by the description of one of her father's numerous achievements. Extremely active in local politics, he was hailed as the founder of the modern Dairut governorate of Assiut. The building of the new district by this apparently formidable man shortly before the 1952 Revolution decisively marked Assiut's superiority over Mallawi, explains Qurashi, still basking in the warmth of past glory.
She has fought long and hard to equal such high feats. The road has been scattered with successes followed by painful setbacks, but she has never given up, she says with great pride.
Her very first challenge was to reconcile "the grassroots Sa'idi upbringing with the Western education that was also part of the conservative cultural traditions of my socio-economic class." She was sent first to the American College for Girls and then to the English Manor House School, "in preparation for the social role I had to fulfil as a married woman, not for a career," she adds rather bitterly.
Qurashi denies, however, that she had become a feminist: she regards the word as a foreign import, its concept opposed by the Shari'a. She prefers to see herself as a human rights activist.
I was beginning to see how "different" she was. Steeped in politics from an early age, straddling the divide between East and West, she considers herself first and foremost a Muslim conformist whose faith is based on the scrupulous observance of the five pillars of Islam ("I have made the pilgrimage twice, as well as several Omras") and respect for her family and country's traditions. This may be the reason she chose from the beginning to make her mark in the field of volunteer work rather than embracing a full-time professional career.
Qurashi has never bothered much with material possessions, "except to sell them when I needed money." Most of her mother's jewellery is gone, she comments carelessly. Some pieces were priceless, but she asserts that she has no regrets. She raised her son single-handed, and there were some hard times. "I do volunteer work first and foremost, I don't want to do anything else," she explains. "I only work for a financial reward if I absolutely have to. You cannot do both well, you know."
In her elegant electric-blue pantsuit and practical olive-green polo neck, she looks like a top executive whose natural habitat would be the boardroom of a bank or a multinational corporation. Her ambitions are only political, however, and the list of NGOs she belongs to or heads would fill an entire page. They span the gamut of activism, between the oldest women's welfare organisation in Egypt (she is board member of the Huda Sha'rawi Association) to those involved in the protection of the environment. She has also attended countless conferences, presenting papers on subjects as varied as "the obstacles to equality presented at the IAW Congress in Australia" and "the role of public relations in the development of domestic tourism."
She never cared to derive any financial benefit from the positions she has occupied, however. She entered the Wafd Party because, again, "it was in the family tradition." Hailed at first as the party's golden girl by Fouad Serageddin, she soon showed that she had no intention of playing the role of obedient daughter. She was there to make a difference, not to play politics, and made that clear by disregarding his advice at the time of the 1995 elections. He dismissed her from the party. Undeterred, she ran for the following elections as an independent.
It would be pointless here to offer a more detailed description of Qurashi's volunteer activities, which are fairly common knowledge. More interestingly, the achievement she is most proud of (although she does not admit it in so many words) is her son Mustafa. "I threw him out of the house when he tried the family's patriarchal style on me," she confides. "I took it from my father; I had no intention of taking it from my son!" Indignation still lingers in her voice as she recalls instances when he tried to impose his will. He is now living in the country and is quite happy. It would be foolish not to understand that she is hoping he will follow in the footsteps of Ahmed Qurashi, his maternal grandfather. Mustafa is not married. "He cannot find an old-fashioned girl to his liking," his mother concludes with a twinkle in her eyes. Pride at her son being so like the men of her family? Rebellion at yet another male's attempt at domination? It is hard to say.
At any rate, she intends to proceed regardless of the difficulties ahead. Women's illiteracy is our biggest problem, she says, and begins a long description of efforts to eradicate this evil spearheaded by one of the many associations to which she belongs. Suddenly I remember. I met her for the first time at a conference on city planning. Is she interested in that too? Stabbing out her cigarette, Qurashi smiles. "Anything that improves my country is my business," she says.
Recommend this page
© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time