Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Letting go with a cheer

Leaving home and living alone can still be problematic for single young Egyptian women, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Seldom does one hear of a young woman cutting loose from her family, or parental home, to live alone or with a couple of friends. Living with a man is off limits in a conservative society such as Egypt’s. Yet, increasingly one hears of women who let go of their families with a loud cheer.

“This is not a widespread phenomenon. There are only a few single young women in Egypt who leave home and go to live alone, or with a friend or two. What is new is that more girls have left home since the 25 January Revolution. It is an exclusively urban thing and is unheard of in rural areas, however,” says Madiha Al-Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

“It is a privilege of the rich. No poor young woman can afford to live alone and leave her parents’ home. Socially, it would be totally unacceptable for a young unmarried woman to live alone or leave her parents’ home. The daughters of the elite can afford to do so, but not the middle or lower-middle classes, and certainly not the poor,” Al-Safty told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The visible shift in social attitudes of young single women who live alone is owing to the fact that they can find accommodation, mostly rented, on the market today. Some buy their own properties, but only in certain upmarket areas of Cairo such as Zamalek, Maadi and Heliopolis.

“It was always acceptable for divorcees to live alone, especially among the elite. Indeed, I would say the decisive factor in whether a women decides to live alone or not in Egypt is the state of her finances. Some women, second or third wives, also live alone or with their children. That, too, is considered respectable, as long as the neighbours note that the husband visits regularly,” Al-Safty says.

But single women living alone may be courting disaster. They are frowned upon in Egypt and may be regarded as prostitutes. Foreign women can live alone, of course, but why should a single Egyptian woman leave her parental home?

“Many parents are fearful of what their relatives and neighbours would say if they found out that their daughters had left home. Some believe that they would somehow have failed in their responsibilities as parents and others that their daughters would never get married,” Mona Abaza, a professor of sociology at the AUC, concurs.

“It has traditionally been socially acceptable for divorcees to live alone when they hail from well-to-do families. For many of the urban poor, and particularly for rural women, a divorcee must return to her father’s home, however. Some also leave the neighbourhood or village altogether,” she said.

One 25-year-old woman told Al-Ahram Weekly that she had left home in spite of the disapproval of her parents. Her father threatened her and her mother was sick with worry. Still, she left the family and refused to go back.

“I couldn’t stand living in Cairo, and I got a job in Alexandria, a much more livable city. Father insisted that I turn the job offer in Alexandria down, and I refused. I went ahead, and he would not speak to me for months,” she says.

“My new job in Alexandria meant that I could actually share a flat, rented accommodation, with a girlfriend. My neighbours in Alexandria took some time to accept that I was from Cairo and that I had moved to the Mediterranean seaside city and live with my friend,” she explains.

“But the fact that I worked for a prestigious institution helped them accept me as their neighbour. They considered that I had a respectable job and after several months of scrutinising me, they were helpful and accepting. No one dared ask why my parents did not visit me in Alexandria.”

Another single young woman from Cairo said that her parents lived in one of Cairo’s satellite cities and that she dreaded the daily journey to work, which she said had taken over an hour.

“My father was at first reluctant about my living away from home, but eventually he rescinded. He finally gave in when he realised that moving closer to work meant a great deal to me. My mother was more supportive and comes regularly to visit me,” she says.

In both instances, the main concern of the single young women was their job, and it seems that work was the main reason for leaving the parental home. Both young women come from moneyed, upper-middle-class families. Both have well-paid jobs and thus could afford to leave home.

“My mother cooks regularly for me and often brings the meals she has prepared to my new place. I also visit my parents regularly, and I sometimes spend the weekends with them. Ultimately, they trust me: in other words, they know I am what is termed a ‘good girl’.

“They have nothing to fear, and no male colleagues visit me at my new home. The neighbours are prone to gossip, but I ignore them. I pretend they do not exist. They stare at me or look sideways when I enter my flat. But this no longer bothers me,” one of the young women says.

The single young women socialise separately from their parents. Most of the young women who spoke to the Weekly said they return straight home from work and rarely stay up late. “That is the main drawback as far as I am concerned,” says one.

In another case, a 43-year-old woman told the Weekly that she had had no choice but to live alone when her parents died a few years back. “I wanted to move because my parents’ home was a constant reminder of them. I also had to overcome loneliness, even though my sisters visit quite often, and sometimes I go to stay with them, especially when their husbands are away,” she says.

An under-explored element is the connection between having the status of a second wife and living alone. “My husband comes to visit me three or four times a week. We do not have children yet, and he has children from his first wife. I suspect that sometimes he yearns for a little bit of peace and quiet,” says one second wife.

“I am something of a refuge as far as he is concerned. I don’t mind living alone. It would have been difficult for me to live with my parents because my husband would not have felt comfortable visiting me in my parental home.”

The accounts of the single young women interviewed by the Weekly were more narrative than analytical. There is a limit to how much a man can delve into a woman’s private life when interviewing them. But many of the young women were open, approachable and forthcoming. They did not hesitate to answer questions, but all insisted on anonymity.

Wealthy single young women from the oil-rich Arab Gulf nations living in Cairo are particularly gung-ho about women’s rights. They left their countries specifically because in Egypt they would have more freedoms as single women living on their own. Moreover, they had discarded the veil in Cairo.

“In my country I would never be permitted to live alone. I am not even allowed to drive my own car. In Egypt, I have the freedom to do so,” a 30-year-old Saudi Arabian woman artist told the Weekly.

Many less-privileged single young women will continue to wrestle with the question of leaving home. To many parents, leaving home for a young woman is tantamount to eloping with a lover.

In several instances, the women interviewed confessed that when they approached their parents about the question of leaving home and living alone, the first question the parents posed was whether their daughter had a secret lover.

In the final analysis, these women have drawn the map for future generations of single young women in Egypt, and in the coming decades many young single women who decide to move into homes of their own will use their experiences to chart their own courses.

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