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Egyptian Spinsters

Written by Marwa Rakha On 20 December 2008 @ 19:21 pm | 8 Comments

In Arabic, Citizen Media, Development, Digital Activism, Egypt, English, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Ideas, Media & Journalism, Middle East & North Africa, Weblog, Women & Gender, Youth

The outcasts of the Egyptian society – the spinsters – are raising their voices in an attempt to change how society views them.

Khokha – the anonymous author of The daily diaries of a sinister spinister [1]- says:

انا عشت حبة كل ما اقول رأى ولا كلمة … يردوا فى سرهم ” دى عانس و غيرانة”
طب ماشى بقى … شوفوا الدنيا من عين هذى العانس الغيرانة
و تابعوا يوميات العانس الحقود
There was a time when every time I opened my mouth or voiced an opinion, they would look at me and say “ah … yes … she is a jealous sinister”. Ok! Fine! Let me show you the world through the eyes of this spinsters … follow my blog… the daily diaries of a sinister sinister.

 
Abeer Soliman, an Egyptian writer and the author of The Journal of a Spinster [2], wrote:

ليه احنا عوانس؟
طرحنا السؤال وكانت الأراء كثيرة، والأسباب العرجاء أكثر، واستفاضت كل واحدة منا في عرض تجاربها في الحياة، وتكهناتها بأسباب كونها عانس حتى الان.. في نهاية المطاف وضعنا أيدينا على النقاط المشتركة بيننا جميعا وتأكدنا أنها سبب عنوستنا.. جمعااااااااااء.
هذه الصفات هي: الاستقلالية.. النجاح.. الذكاء، واستطعنا من خلال تحليل بعضاً من علاقاتنا السابقة أن نكتشف “المصيبة السودا” ألا وهي أن الأنثى الناجحة المستقلة الذكية شخصية مبهرة تجذب الأنظار.. تخلب الأللباب.. تستفز الرجال للتقرب منها لكونها غير نمطية ..ثرية وشيقة.. يعيش معها الرجل سعادة لا توصف لكونها الحلم المفقود، ولكن ماذا بعد؟؟؟؟؟
الفرار.. نعم الفرار هو الخطوة التالية حيث لا يملك الرجل الشرقي مع أمثال هذه الشخصيات التي تهدد ذكورته.. تهدد سي السيد بداخله .. سوى الفرار، خصوصاً وإن كان هو ذلك المثقف المطلع.. فبداخله تكمن الطامة الكبرى (شيزوفرانيا المثقف المصري أو العربي) الذي وفقا لقراءاته واطلاعاته وأحلام يقظته- لكونه مختلف عن جذوره- تستهويه الشخصيات أمثالنا- أنا وصديقاتي- لكن يبقى بداخله ذلك الرجل الذي يريد أن يثبت على الدوام “لذاته وللمجتمع” أنه هو.. الرجل.
ولكن ماذا تعني كلمة الرجل في أذهان هؤلاء العجزة ؟
- صاحب اليد العليا.. اللي بيصرف على البيت ..صاحب العمل الأفضل.. صاحب الدخل الأكبر، والأكثر وعياً.. الدليل للحياة.. السند..المرشد.. الموجه.. إلى أخر هذه المهاترات.
ومن هنا.. نحن لا نصلح للرجل الشرقي، فكلنا صاحبات وجهات نظر قوية فيما يتعلق بذواتنا.. صاحبات تاريخ طويل في تسلق صخور الحياة.. ومن هنا.. وبعد الانجذاب، والانبهار، وأحلام واهية في ليالي صيفية حارة، يفر هؤلاء الرجال بعد أن تسقط عنا الأهلية كزوجات، وربات بيوت، وأمهات.. لنبقى عوانس.
Why are we spinsters? We posed the question and there were many opinions followed by many more lame excuses. Each one of us went into the details of her experiences in life and our guesses on why are spinsters. Finally we managed to nail down a few common factors that lead to our “miserable” situation.
Independence, success, and brains were our stigma for we live in a society here the smart successful independent woman attracts and challenges the man; he peruses her with adamancy and enjoys being with her and around her for what her rich character has to offer. But what next?
Escape! Yes the typical Middle Eastern man is intimidated by such a character that he is left with no other option but to flee. It gets worse if the afore mentioned man is cultured and well-read for he is the victim of a form of schizophrenia unique to the Egyptian or Arab male who due to his wide readings and exposure is drawn to women like us but deep down he still hides the Alfa male who always has to have the upper hand, the better job, the bigger income, the clearer vision, and who constantly plays the role of savior, guide, and counselor.

Hence, we are not suitable for our men; we are all very opinionated women with a history of strife and achievements. Having said that, it only makes sense that after the attraction, the fascination, the day dreaming, and the sandcastles, those men decide that we are totally unfit for being wives and mothers leaving us to face our destiny as spinsters.

Ethat ElKatatney of Muslimah Media Watch wrote an elaborate post [3]on the issue confessing that she is a 21-year-old spinster.

Yes, a spinster at 21. In my country, although many many Egyptian women are delaying getting married until they’re in their mid-to-late twenties, society still looks at them with a critical, disapproving gaze.

“Men and women were made for one another. You are a sinister spinster.”

“Better a man’s shadow than that of a wall.”

Both are Arabic proverbs reiterated by mothers, aunties, grandmothers and even friends, the former meaning that women who don’t marry are labeled “spinsters,” and the latter meaning that any man is better than being single.

I hate the word spinster, as I’m sure any woman does. It’s definitely no female equivalent of bachelor. Wikipedia [4] tells us spinsters have a reputation for:

Sexual and emotional frigidity, lesbianism, ugliness, frumpiness, depression, astringent moral virtue, and overly-pious religious devotion.

Nice. And in Egypt, where according to the latest statistics there are approximately 9-10 million spinsters over the age of 30, unmarried women are (alternatively) rejected, stigmatized, mocked, gossiped about, pitied and constantly reminded of what they’re missing out on.

Which is why 27-year-old Yomna Mokhtar’s facebook group Spinsters*/ Old Maids for Change [5]is such a breath of fresh air. Mokhtar is a journalist at Al Yom al-Sabe’, a weekly Arabic newspaper, and she set up the group in May ‘08. True, I don’t know how successful a Facebook group of 600 (and counting) trying to change the Egyptian mentality of “spinsters” is going to be, but at least it’s an effort. The group has a media spokesperson, a social advisor, a religious advisor, and a psychologist. Impressive.

Discussion topics on the group include When spinsterhood is a choice, We won’t wear hijab or pray taraweeh [supplementary] prayers for the groom, Latest list of the groom’s demands, etc.

Ethar, a journalist herself, tracked down the media responses to Yomna Mokhtar's group

The first articles about the group were written in October within days of each other at Al-Lawha Online [6] and at Al-Arabiya [7] (the latter with hundreds of fascinating comments that offer great insight into Egyptian psyche and an interesting choice of picture. Though I disliked Mokhtar saying she is against semi-arranged marriages, which she says turn women into “cheap commodities.”)

A couple of days later, an Egyptian forum posted [8] a Q & A with Mokhtar. She told them:

My goal is to change the image of the spinster in our society, encouraging the woman not to isolate herself from it, and ingraining [in her] the idea that making the world a better place is not only through marriage and producing babies, but in improving your community through the abilities God gave you.

Unfortunately, the Q & A wasn’t exactly the best I’ve ever read. The reporter (who happens to be a man) asked her: “Why do you have such a negative idea about spinsters?” (duh, it’s not her, it’s Egypt), “Why did you use the words ‘for change,’ which are used by political movements?” (conspiracy theory much?), “Does your movement rebel against the the idea of marriage?” and most infuriating of all:

Why don’t you try changing the image of the spinster by trying to fix the behavior of some women who have helped give spinsters a bad name?

Thankfully, she pwnd him:

Your question encapsulates exactly the view of society towards women whose marriage date was delayed, who look at her as the girl with a bad reputation, and this is the viewpoint we are fighting against. Especially since a lot of [unmarried] women […] hold the highest educational degrees and the highest positions. But no, society begrudges them their success and considers it a way of compensating for delaying marriage.

A couple of days later, The Daily News Egypt picked up on the story [9] from the Arabic media. In the article, Mokhtar said she used the label ‘Spinsters’ in the group title though she’s against it, because “it is the term people use.”

I also believe that using a different label for unmarried women would just be ignoring the reality of the term. By using it, they’re trying, in some small way to “take it back.”

Two weeks after that article came out, the story made the Los Angeles Times [10], where the author interviewed Mokhtar and brought up two great points. One, that men are also joining the Facebook group, and two, that this is not the first time an Egyptian woman discussing the issues surrounding marriage does so online, with the first woman being the author behind the satirical blog wanna-be-a-bride [11].

[And I''m being kind of catty here, but this article's translation of the group's mission statement needs some serious work].

Then two days ago, The Agence France-Presse wrote about the group, finally snowballing it onto the global sphere. (English [12] version and French [13] version).

The article was pretty inclusive, and I particularly liked the fact it mentioned that marriage is an obligation for all Egyptians—Christians and Muslims alike. The author also interviewed a well-known sociologist, which gives Mokhtar’s opinions added weight, and stops anyone from brushing off her comments as the rantings of a bitter spinster. The author also pointed out that the group isn’t asking for the right to be single or crossing any of society’s “red lines.”

(Though I’m sure the fact that Mokhtar is veiled was very important to mention—you know, to prove that she’s not one of those morally decadent spinsters. As was adding that mass Islamic weddings are held with the aim of preventing “deviant” behavior (a.k.a., homosexuality and premarital sex), and not simply with the aim of helping those without funds get married).

Another French interview with Mokhtar was also published on the same day at Lepetitjournal [14]with the title Spinster Girls: Objects of Mockery. My French is a little rusty, but as a journalist I loved the lead:

O la la! The poor girl! She’s still not married? But why? When will she start a family? She risks living the rest of her life alone, the poor girl!

And the comment: “Not getting married is an unforgivable mistake; refusing to marry a punishable crime!”

It was also a Q & A interview, and Mokhtar explained that Facebook is not enough for what the group wants to accomplish. In the future, they will be holding seminars to raise awareness and meetings where spinsters can talk about their experiences to their family in the presence of a psychologist.

ElKatatney messaged Mokhtar on Facebook and asked her what she though of the media coverage thus far. She said:

I liked the western coverage more than the Arabic coverage, which I only dealt with superficially. [There's been] other coverage in other print newspapers like Al-Masa’ and Rose al-Youssef. One reporter asked me if the role of the movement was to improve the behavior of unmarried women who don’t get married because of their bad behavior. I think the problem is not about the media outlet as much as it is the journalist. A good journalist, whether western or eastern, produces a good article.

The 21 year old spinster concluded her post saying:

I am feeling so inspired now. My new title = empowered spinster. Hmm, not really working for me. Bachelorette?

*The Arabic word used, ‘Anis, has several meanings in Arabic but is socially understood to mean spinster/ old maid.


Article printed from Global Voices: http://globalvoicesonline.org

URL to article: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/12/20/egyptian-spinsters/

URLs in this post:

[1] The daily diaries of a sinister spinister : http://3anes.blogspot.com/

[2] The Journal of a Spinster: http://yawmiyat3aness.blogspot.com/2008/03/blog-post.html

[3] an elaborate post : http://muslimahmediawatch.org/2008/12/18/egyptian-spinsters-and-old-maids-sitting-happily-on-the-shelf/

[4] Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinster

[5] Spinsters*/ Old Maids for Change : http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=20713498857

[6] Al-Lawha Online: http://www.lahaonline.com/index.php?option=content&sectionid=1&id=15003&task=view

[7] Al-Arabiya: http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2008/10/26/58949.html#001

[8] posted: http://masr.20at.com/newArticle.php?sid=18343

[9] picked up on the story: http://www.thedailynewsegypt.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=17871

[10] Los Angeles Times: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2008/12/egypt-facebook.html

[11] wanna-be-a-bride: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2008/05/the-wanna-b--a.html

[12] English: http://www.metimes.com/Politics/2008/12/16/egypt_no_country_for_old_maids/afp/

[13] French: http://www.orange.cf/actualites/?p=217558

[14] Lepetitjournal : http://www.lepetitjournal.com/content/view/34552/1291/

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