Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 September - 3 October 2012
Issue No. 1116
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sinai new roles for women

Opportunities for Sinai women are expanding, but they still have some way to go before they are equal with other Egyptian women, writes Ibrahim Farouk in the third instalment of an Al-Ahram Weekly series

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From top: the future awaits; a look to the horizon; at this informal nursery, tradition is instilled through song; the sea...; and the mountains

Sinai, a kind of lost paradise, continues to be a mystery for many Egyptians living in the Nile Valley. This is not because it hides its inspiring desert and its magic mountains, sea and sky, or because this historic peninsula, where the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians once lived together and through which later travellers and pilgrims passed, has wanted to remain a secret. Rather, it is simply because many people in the rest of Egypt have not had the opportunity to visit this land of moonlight and turquoise.

Travelling through the peninsula, it is easy to feel that Sinai has been deprived of the familiarity and care that would have enabled other Egyptians to know more about this unique expanse of land. Many people only know the Sinai from what they read in the newspapers about violent incidents, kidnappings or conflicts between local tribes in small regions of the peninsula. They do not know the reality of Sinai because they have not had the opportunity to visit the peninsula.

One aspect of Sinai that is unknown to other Egyptians and many visitors is the tribal and clan composition of the Sinai Bedouin and their outlook on life and the world. The transformations that have taken place in these people's lives, the descendants of the Arab Bedouin tribes that settled in the peninsula after the Islamic conquest of Egypt, are often little understood by others, as are the original customs and traditions of the tribes. There have been great changes in the Bedouin community over recent years, as there have been elsewhere as people have modernised their lives.

Most Bedouin families today live in houses, not huts like in the past. They watch television and satellite TV channels, and they use modern communications technology like mobile phones and computers. Like everyone else, they enjoy modern comforts and the changes brought by consumerism. Despite changes within the Bedouin family unit, it can remain conservative in appearance, with deeply rooted social customs and rituals. A Bedouin girl from Sinai cannot marry a foreigner, for example, meaning anyone from outside her tribe, even if that person is 100 per cent Egyptian.

The Sinai Bedouin household, especially the role of women in it, remains a largely unknown subject to outsiders and one that cannot be easily explored except by those belonging to a family's inner circle. It is not a subject that is readily discussed, although Sinai women participate in important jobs in the family, extended family and tribe. They are very far from being marginalised or idle. On the contrary, ever since a Bedouin girl's earliest childhood she will work and will continue to do so throughout her life.

Young Bedouin girls help with the herding, domestic chores and making the kind of handmade craft items that are sold to visitors and tourists. A girl begins to earn an income early in life that she then contributes to the household budget. Since the world of Bedouin women in Sinai cannot be entered by men, any male reporter wanting to find out more needs a female intermediary, in this case researcher Naglaa Mekkawi, who welcomed the idea of meeting women in Sinai.

According to Mekkawi, the Bedouin women of Sinai are as proud as the mountains of the peninsula, their eyes seeming to reflect the light off the desert sands. They have qualities that demonstrate their civilised character and authentic qualities, and once one has been welcomed into it, it does not take long to find out about their world. Clearly, Sinai is in many respects different from the rest of Egypt, but this does not mean that it is impossible to communicate with its inhabitants. On the contrary, stereotypical perceptions of the peninsula by those who live in the rest of Egypt may be attempts to omit the truth about this precious part of the nation.

Mekkawi met with Sinai women in a simple house resembling what rural houses looked like two decades ago before the introduction of modern architectural designs, eventually destroying a significant feature of Egyptian rural life. Seeing such houses, she said, was like being in a traditional Egyptian village, despite the surrounding desert and mountains. She talked with Fadya, a woman in her 30s, who was nervous at first that the two women would not have anything in common or would not be able to converse because of preconceptions about Bedouin women. As soon as the two women started to talk together, Mekkawi said, she started to feel several emotions at once, including fascination, ease and intimacy.

"I talked with Fadya about everything I talk about with my female friends in Cairo, including the 25 January Revolution and its progress so far and Turkish soap operas like 'Mohannad' and 'The Lost Years' and songs by Abul-Leef and Amr Diab," Mekkawi said. "She was like a woman from the Delta, Cairo or Upper Egypt, and she strongly objected to her husband taking a second wife despite her being the daughter of a tribal patriarchal society. She wasn't interested in the LE30,000-40,000 she would receive if her husband married another woman. 'I don't want the money. I want my husband. If he wants to marry again, he should let me go,' she said."

Mekkawi added that in her conversations with Fadya, the latter had said that divorce was almost impossible in Bedouin society, not only because of Bedouin social traditions but also because Bedouin women will not leave their children. Fadya, the mother of five children, the oldest of whom is 16 years old, belongs to the younger generation, but on this point, too, she felt her duty was to her children. However, according to Mekkawi, the way Fadya dealt with her oldest daughter showed how Bedouin society has developed, shedding many of its rules. Her daughter was getting an education, and her mother was willing to educate her "even if I have to pay my last penny to do so."

Would she go to Cairo to pursue a university degree, Mekkawi asked. "Even if she has to go to the ends of the earth," Fadya adamantly responded. In some ways this was a surprising answer, since educational attainment among girls in Sinai is low compared to the rest of Egypt. However, Fadya's perspective reflects the development of Bedouin society, as well as her own forthright character. Fadya was illiterate, but very intelligent, and she understood the events that were going on around her very well.

Fadya knew that the revolution had to happen, for example, though she said she had some sympathy for the "old man", meaning ousted former president Hosni Mubarak. Fadya, after all, is the product of a society that reveres and respects its elders, despite their faults. At the same time, Fadya was very well aware that Egypt had been wronged under the Mubarak regime, and she said that she had not been treated well in a neighbouring Arab country because she was Egyptian. Today, she is proud and is certain that if she went back to that country it would be a different story.

Fadya, a woman from Sinai, could just as well have been from the Delta or Upper Egypt, Mekkawi said, being no different from other Egyptian women in her attitudes despite differences in her heritage and dress. In Bedouin culture, what one wears indicates social status, with red embroidery being worn by married women and blue embroidery being worn by the unmarried. In all other aspects, the clothes Fadya's daughter was wearing were similar to what girls in rural and working class districts across Egypt wear. She was wearing black as an expression of her social standing, Fadya said.

Ibtissam, Fadya's 21-year-old sister, married right after finishing secondary school. She lamented the fact that she had not had the opportunity to continue her education at university, having married at such an early age, even though this was her choice. No girl in Bedouin society today is forced to marry if she does not want to, Ibtissam said. "No girls are married against their will," she said, though the environment surrounding them may not always encourage them to pursue education, or work, or postpone marriage and starting a family in order to pursue these goals.

Ibtissam said that she regretted not going to college and she said that had she had a stronger and more independent personality her choice of husband might have been different. However, she said, she was not about to surrender to the status quo and she felt an urge to be herself even if that meant moving away from her family and in-laws and perhaps even to the Mubarak Youth Housing Project, which has kept its name despite the end of the former regime. Ibtissam disagreed with her older sister's sympathy towards Mubarak, perhaps because she is a decade younger and from a different generation.

Her desire for education and for girls to fulfil their potential and see the rest of Egypt are characteristics of women across Egypt, though Ibtissam's Bedouin heritage added depth and roots to her character. They confirm one's view that the development of Sinai is a national priority and that it should be on the agenda of the revolution. Sinai is not only land; it is also people. The women of Sinai are the key to the peninsula's development and one way of rehabilitating its image.

The Sinai needs more services, such as infrastructure, healthcare units, transportation, schools and universities, and it needs better human development to manage its human resources, especially its women. The women of Sinai only need guidance: they already have the characteristics that will make them effective contributors to society on the political, economic and cultural planes. There should be efforts made to eliminate the obstacles placed in their paths by customs and tradition, allowing them to participate in the projects that will surely begin in Sinai and to contribute to the peninsula's development. Bedouin women need training in political participation, and they should be encouraged to stand for public office, run election campaigns, cast their ballots, and choose their own representatives.

It is not acceptable that after the Egyptian revolution many people still remain content with what they have learned about Sinai and the women there from newspaper interviews with officials from the former ruling National Democratic Party and members of the women's committees of the former regime. This was a regime that went out of its way to corrupt life in Egypt and to marginalise the people of Sinai, misleading the public about them and distancing the rest of Egypt from them.

Today, it is every Egyptian's duty to tear down the false images of the people of Sinai, seeking not only to change perceptions of them but also to help the people of the peninsula become more than just an image in the minds of others and to interact fully with other Egyptians in the country's new political, social and economic life.

A girl everybody loves

SHADYA, a young girl from the Al-Mazinah tribe in Sinai, is about 13 years old and is well known in Dahab. Foreigners and visiting Egyptians know her well, as does everyone from the Bedouin community. She can be seen everywhere, moving with a smile and affable, lighthearted manner, bursting with energy at the beachside promenade in the Bedouin area of Al-Asala, at the diving area at the Canyon or at Al-Bakhakha or Sphinx and as far afield as Lagoona, Al-Mashraba or Al-Masbat.

Shadya wakes early in the morning and takes her wares of handmade jewellery and Bedouin woolen goods to sell for a few pounds in the town. She makes friends easily, and people ask her to sit or walk with them or come to their homes for a chat or to play with the children.

At the end of the day, Shadya hands over what she has made to her mother, who gives her some of the money to spend as she pleases. In the evenings, she sometimes sits on a tall chair in the bakery and ice-cream shop to enjoy a treat after a long day's work on her feet.

Shadya is a remarkable Bedouin girl who warmly welcomes tourists and visitors, inviting them to experience the life of a Bedouin family from within. She serves tea and Bedouin coffee and bakes the local homemade bread called al-farasheeh.

Shadya is everywhere, a real Dahab news source. Perhaps she should become a journalist, since she seems to know everyone and is able to interact easily with them. Asked whether she would consider becoming a journalist, she laughs. "How much does it pay," she asks.

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