(First published on Gal-Dem.com – November 2017)

Depending on your source, anywhere between 83 and 99% of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment, with the majority saying they experience it on a daily basis and that it frequently involves assault. Last month an international survey conducted by the Thomas Reuters Foundation found that out of 19 cities, each with a population of over 10 million, Cairo was the most dangerous megacity for women. Other survey results show that the majority of Egyptian men have no problem admitting that they harass women and some even go as far as to say that women “enjoy the attention” and often provoke the harassment by how they behave and what they wear.

In light of this, maybe it comes as no surprise that in a televised debate that aired last month on Egyptian television, lawyer Nabih al-Wahsh said it was a patriotic duty to harass and a national duty to rape women who wear revealing clothes. This comment reveals deeper levels of misogyny and ignorance than I initially thought were present.

The debate was around a draft law that would for the first time explicitly outlaw homosexual acts as well as any behaviour that might be seen as promoting homosexuality and actually attach jail time to it. In the past, these “offenses” were swept under umbrella laws that banned any behaviour that contravened “public morality”. That is why during the show, the onscreen graphic made no specific mention of homosexuality. Instead, it read “discussion around proposed law combating prostitution and inciting debauchery”–the implication being that individuals who engage in these acts are in fact corrupting the whole country. Ultimately, the topic is still too taboo to be discussed as anything other than perverse or in relation to deviant sex work.

According to some local Egyptian media outlets, the country is suffering from a crisis of morality. Others will argue that like a lot of Muslim majority countries, there is an internal battle being waged between liberal and conservative forces in Egypt. What started out as some fans carrying the rainbow flag at a concert by a Lebanese band with an openly gay frontman quickly turned into a witch-hunt on both a social and official level against members of the LGBTQ community. Since the concert, at least 70 people have been arrested and around 20 people have been handed prison sentences for inciting debauchery. It’s an easy win for a government that considers itself the “guardian of morality” with a population that sees homosexuality as a sin, a crime, a disease or an attack on Egypt itself.

So, how does a TV show discussing a proposed law that criminalises homosexuality turn into a call for rape? The simple answer is because women have traditionally been the staple and easiest target of laws that are concerned with morals and values, especially when a society feels like its “values” are being threatened.

Recently, a number of Egyptian universities have banned their female students from wearing ripped jeans on campus. Apparently, women’s virtue, including their daily outfits, is where the entire country keeps its “honour” and “good reputation”. And, according to al-Wahsh, raping them is how that virtue can be kept in check. So although the televised debate (which pitted two liberal pundits against two conservative ones) started out with a discussion of the pros and cons of this law and what it means for society, the conversation always boiled down to “preserving morality”. In a patriarchal society that genuinely believes women are to blame for their own harassment and assault, it’s not difficult to see how this lawyer arrived at adding the proactive “duty” part.

This isn’t a man that sees rape as a crime, he sees it as a form of correction or punishment for the kind of “immoral” behaviour (wearing ripped jeans in this case) that he feels will bring about the destruction of society. This, of course, stems from the view that women are not full and autonomous human beings, but are more like minors that must be policed and controlled. This particularly rings true with governments that prioritise their own image and “good reputation” over the personal safety of their people. It’s the same reason why my family members respond angrily when they hear me discussing sexual discrimination and harassment with non-Egyptians. To them, how the country looks is more important than my personal experiences with sexual assault.

I was at least relieved to see the wave of public outcry that followed al-Wahsh’s heinous comments which ranged from the National Council for Women filing a complaint against him to other media figures accusing him of being a terrorist and calling for him to be disbarred. But I was still dismayed to see some chalking it up to a sensationalist TV channel and a controversial lawyer simply looking for extra publicity because that belittles the harm that is inflicted by these comments. Whatever the consequences are, I’m hoping that the backlash will go some way to preventing this brand of vile misogyny from ever making its way to the airwaves again, even if it’s just out of social pressure rather than legal repercussions. I’m not sure I’ll hold my breath.

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: with the exception of maybe one or two insightful scenes, this was a bit of a letdown. Read The Unbearable Lightness of Being instead.

The Vegetarian by Han King: you’ll enjoy it for a lot of reasons not stated on the back of the book but that will also depend on your personal empathy levels and need for satisfying conclusions.

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak: it was my own fault for having such high expectations, but with this kind of subject matter can you really blame me? Better suited for Western audiences.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: good for a holiday read, no lasting impressions.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami: excellent mindfuck of a book with elaborate characters and the kind of twists and turns you’d expect from Murakami.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons: great for non sci-fi fans such as myself, the multiple story lines kept it interesting but also put ALL the author’s strengths and weaknesses on full display.

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan: this was his first and it’s dark in an uncontrived way. Not for those who only like playing on moral high ground.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King: another blah holiday read.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: the best example I’ve seen of not needing elaborate prose to fully convey strong meaning and emotion. The ending left me in awe for a while.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche: insightful is the best word for this. A realistic and intimate portrayal of a Nigerian immigrant in America that should be read by most, especially these days.

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh: a long and winding road that can sometimes be tiring but worth it for the window into other worlds. Can also just be read for the story.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale: a delicate rendition of one man’s place in the history of homosexuality. Very enjoyable to read and easy to get through.

The Bees by Laline Paull: excellent plot development, you’ll be surprised at how invested you can become in a bee’s tumultuous life.

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla: a very much needed, multi-perspective view of race and racism in England. Ranges from the funny to the horrendous but always important and relevant.

A Room Of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf: excellent combination of scenery and social analysis. Good, short read on the makings of a female writer.

The Return by Hisham Matar: painful but incredibly profound story about Libya. Written by a man who is incapable of separating the personal from the political and reminds us why we shouldn’t either.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: a good mix of personal anecdotes and struggles with feminist theory and racial commentary. Could be an excellent introduction for those who are unsure about those topics but probably won’t appeal to seasoned veterans.

Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka: don’t let the flippant style fool you, Kafka hits hard. Was (almost) equally struck by In the Penal Colony as Metamorphosis so both of those are highly recommended.

Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman: thirty-something year old white man with a large vocabulary and an interest in pop culture thinks he has something to offer the world, he doesn’t.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo: it’s not easy writing through the perspective of a child then an immigrant teenager but it is done well in this book. Sometimes feels like it’s checking boxes for African and Immigrant Literature, so will definitely have more impact on Western audiences.

The list excludes some wonderful Arabic books I read this year but I’m ashamed to admit that’s only because my laptop doesn’t support Arabic.

 

 

 

I am fully aware that I am an imperfect, incomplete project of a human being but for some reason I go fucking mental every time my mother feels the need to remind me of this fact. One of her favourite aspects to tackle is my aesthetic. Now instead of simply getting angry at how the comments have negatively affected my self-esteem or offended me with their casual and inherent sexism like I usually do, I’m going to try and understand her perspective. I’m hypothesizing a multi-faceted approach which could be a million miles away from her actual perception of reality, but this is a purely selfish endeavour so I’m going to go ahead with it anyway.

First, there’s the inherently egotistical aspect of creating what is supposed to be a genetic extension of yourself. This being should have, or at least display, some of the best features and characteristics the two procreating partners have to offer. This means that to my parents – I have real potential for perfection, or at least their highly subjective version of it. As for their definition of perfection – what I’ve been repeatedly told is the ideal balance for a woman is a combination of beauty and brains. It is the woman with higher education but also the one that is beautified enough to not be intimidating, the woman who is smart enough to organise her time in a way that allows her to do both with ease. She is strong and independent but not so much that it interferes with social expectations towards her (read as: attracting and securing a worthy husband). It is through this lens of social cohesion and apparent concern for my future wellbeing that these comments can vaguely pass for constructive criticism.

My parents didn’t create these rules, they think I’m beautiful regardless, they just want everyone else to also think I’m beautiful and for that we have to play by their rules. A knee jerk reaction I’d recently developed but never vocalised was ‘why do I feel like my parents are more concerned with my appearance than my mental health?’ This is a a particularly valid concern considering I have experienced some mental health issues that largely went unaddressed. But in light of our family dynamics, I can’t entirely blame them. We’re an Arab family, I am a really private person (at least when it comes to my parents), and they were going through too much of their own shit to give my childhood and adolescent mental health the attention it needed. Consequently, as an adult, this issue is rarely discussed.

Due to this deliberate omission, comments on appearance may have been delivered on the assumption that all the other variables were constant. In fact, I actively affirmed this most of the time. Professionally, I’ve been pursuing my personal ambitions with my parents’ full but distant support (again I made sure that was the case). In terms of relationship status, they know better than to bring it up with a feminist who is very happily single and what’s more, very happily divorced. They’ll occasionally hope-out-loud that I “find someone someday” but it mostly stops there. That only leaves my appearance, which in their eyes touches on some of the aforementioned issues that I do not openly discuss with them. Arguments also cover how certain looks aren’t appropriate for work and how appearances can have a large impact on first impressions and subsequent social interactions (light hinting at attracting a mate again). It is the idea that not making a concerted effort about my appearance sends the message that I simply don’t care – in general.

I’m fully aware how superficial humans can be and of the countless studies that unfortunately support the idea that we are more swayed by appearance than we like to admit but the truth is, I genuinely don’t care, at least not in the way they want me to. What adds to the frustration is my mother’s suggestion that my taste and style sets me on the path of becoming repulsive to other people. Nobody wants an angry woman who has “given up”. I don’t think you have to choose between feeling beautiful and literally anything else – they are never mutually exclusive. I had to explain that to me, being beautiful is more about a mental state of mind, self acceptance, confidence, just being comfortable in your damn skin after being told for so long that there’s something wrong with it.

But mostly I’m just mad because this is a conversation I still need to have when there is so much other shit I’m mad about. I’d rather spend that time and energy discussing the things that are holding both my attention and hers, learning more about each other and the worlds we come from. That’s probably why I had to write this, I’m forcing a learning moment on myself, it’s one she may have given me unintentionally but it definitely betrayed a fundamental difference in views over what a woman owes herself and others. So although she might not think that she’s saying my right to exist and flourish in public is determined by abiding by “proper” and “ladylike” style rules, but that’s unfortunately what I hear and I wholeheartedly reject it.

So how do I perceive and shape myself differently knowing that this is my mother’s views on women like me? Was my lack of interest in shopping and pearls an act of subversive rebellion or is this how I actually feel? That’s a differentiation I can’t make anymore, and ultimately it makes no difference – because this is my truth now and she has to put up with it, the very same way I have to listen to her ideas about me and accept that as her truth. Her truth, not mine.

On October 12th 2007, Nour discovered the true extent of her husband’s stupidity. This Steve-Jobs-obsessive, Douglas-Adams-reading, self-proclaimed smartass had called evolution “just a theory”. There were a number of external factors that could have contributed to this egregious slip of the tongue. First of all, Nour had been making him feel inadequate by spending most of her mornings working on her PhD applications. She had also been pointing out to him that someone who only reads science fiction couldn’t possibly call themselves well-read. There was also the two and half grams of coke they had consumed over the previous six hours, a quantity that was supposed to last at least two weekends but this had turned into an unusually fun evening.

The boys had started arriving around 10pm, minus one girlfriend and a satellite drunk. They let Nour choose the music and she sat in her usual barstool over her favourite black plate as she watched the circus monkeys compare gym routines. Once the excess testosterone had subsided, Nour successfully steered the conversation towards political satire. While they were not completely clueless, she managed to lead the discussion with ease. This in turn led to a game of replace a word in a movie title with ‘ass’ – A Few Good Asses, Good Ass Hunting, Ass Park: The Lost World. A few belly laughs were had and as the boys began to leave and the sun started to rear its ugly head through the windows, the scientific discussion began…

 

That’s the problem you see, nobody told me who I was supposed to be. I saw and observed and absorbed a thousand definitions that were never meant for me.

A stretch mark and a beauty mark – happy neighbours on a bumpy landscape. The difference in images was so stark but they never could escape. Beauty abound as my breasts ran around, just a quick jog around the block and they were no longer mine. They never were, mind. But from a longer line of feeders and nurturers and women who gave no mind to the sex of their breasts and a vision so divine.

I hear the echoes of every word uttered in the dark between her legs. The millennia of screams and still her eyes gleam for an offer of kindness. Instead, her chains glow crimson – running rivers of red – her flow and violence. Neither instigated nor demanded, but reprimanded all the same.

Lips and legs, a love for every age. A few years young she thought, with all the happiness she bought and the wisdom of no sage. She and I are intertwined with every woman of our kind, who was never told who she was supposed to be – because the deafening roar of marching men simply paid no mind.

Having the love of another woman is a currency I can live on for eons. We’ve been kept apart for so long, you see, and now that we have found each other I’m starting to understand why they were so intent on dividing and conquering. The validation of everything your being has to offer becomes your fuel. You start realising that this is what you were craving all along, that gaze of unconditional love, no underlying power dynamics, just naked and serene in its self containment.

These are the women who are strong enough to lay their hearts bare and bend with the wind but never break. The ones you respect for being all the women you wanted to be when you grew up. They are the women who will help in the collective healing of what we suffered at the hands and egos of the physiologically discriminant. You’ll know if you have this love because your spine will stand a little taller and carry all the pride it was too ashamed to show. You’ll feel safe and unburdened on your heaviest nights and over the longest distances.

I will forever be in debt to these powerhouse women who loved me when I didn’t love myself, who taught me that kindness comes in myriad forms and strength in every shape and size. I am a woman, I am whole, and you are all a part of me.

Tell me what it’s like, with the valleys and protrusions. Do your clavicles catch the rain? Can I see the sunshine pouring through your legs?

How limited can my peripheral vision be?

Can you imagine yourself on the cover of an album, naked and glistening on exposed rocks? Maybe little particles of sand will cling tightly to the tiny crease that only goes halfway across your ass.

Do you ask all the same questions I do?

Do they worship at the altar between your back dimples?

Are you the recipient of the affections of every leading man?

Maybe you just don’t know your hipbones’ worth.

I want to know what it’s like – whether you wake up groping at the extras, hoping they were willed away in your sleep.

Do you cross your arms when you’re sitting down?

Little spoon, big spoon – is it all the same to you?

The shortest of shorts, only the best. Is there ever any friction?

Do you feel their eyes? As the batteries start to run out.

How many have fallen in love and between your hips?

Do they trip over or are the steps slow and steady? Do you love it as much as they do?

How are you enjoying that full stop after

You’re beautiful.

Tell me what it’s like.