Happy International Women’s Day! اليوم الدولي للمرأة

Well, it is actually next week but it’s time to start getting revved up.

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This is a chalkboard from an all-male Qur’anic school (Islamic theological seminary) in Morocco. History or English class; I didn’t understand which. I was with a group of Americans and Europeans visiting the school on March 8, IWD in 2010. And this was on the board.

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The International Women’s Day, March 8th

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We didn’t discuss the chalkboard. As visitors, we were just popping in to say hi, but I found myself compelled to take a quick picture. A class full of future Imams and Islamic scholars were studying International Women’s Day and feminism. Hmmm. I didn’t have enough information to determine if this was awesome or sad. I lean toward the side of awesome. (But this is the same school in Morocco where the headmaster told me no young women are admitted because in order to progress to a certain level, the young men have to memorize the entire Qur’an; and the female brain does not have the capacity to do so.)

The list of can nots, should nots, and never coulds is long in many cultures, especially for women and girls. I admit it: I’m a stubborn gal and these irk me.

While chatting with my good friends from Saudi Arabia last year in Chicago, I mentioned how much I was interested in visiting the Gulf country. To “paint the Riyadh town red” while avoiding arrest. Knowing cars were out of the question, I joked and asked them if women could drive Vespas there, or even electric bicycles. They said probably not, but confirmed that women could drive jet skis. Awesome. I would love to drive a jet ski in Saudi, wearing a sassy little burk-ini.

People ask me all the time, “What is life like for women in the Middle East nowadays?” Firstly, it is difficult to generalize. Every life is unique. Every culture and family is unique. Saudi is different from Egypt which is very different from Lebanon. In addition, my experience as a white American female is not comparable to that of a contemporary Arab female. Egyptian women seem always ready to speak out in a stronger, more direct voice then mine own. They have a powerful character, yelling out against injustices, demanding the things they desire. Yes, even the more conservative, veiled Egyptian women I have met step up and speak their mind. Demure being only one trait in a multi-faceted lifestyle.

Then there is the way Egyptian women can dance.

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Samia Gamal (Zainab Ibrahim Mahfuz). Courtesy of rakscandi2.

I ask you to click here and promise to watch at least half of this video. Go to  anywhere in Cairo, from a nightclub, to a children’s cancer ward, to a seedy cabaret, to an esteemed ballet institute; and you will see women and little girls boldly shaking their hips in intricate patterns and flirting with their eyes and hands. I was told it was mostly about the hands. Some women dance for tourists, some dance socially with men, some whip off the niqab at home and dance for their husband,  and some dance freely but only with other women or children. Men also bellydance but more often hop, kick, clap, and in those cabarets, shower the lady in cash money.

Last night, I and a large number of my friends watched Makers: Women Who Make America on PBS. Loved this program. It swept me up in inspiration, and reminded me of the revolution already in my lineage, as an American woman, a fine woman says my boyfriend. I’m dating an Egyptian man and am certain to do no more than 50% of the housework. And to be honest, I probably do less than that; closer to 40/60. In love and life and dishes, we agree to meet each other half way.

My belief is that the Arab Spring and the Arab Women’s Liberation need to be simultaneous, not sequential. As new constitutions are drafted around the region and coalitions created around shared values, now is the time to address the issues that effect all of society: an end to sexual harassment at the workplace and on the street, legal and socially-accepted age for marriage, healthy family planning, abortion, equal pay for equal work, desegregation, equal opportunity and more choices, the right to sexual enjoyment, legal and physical support for women abused, divorce, adoption, education, mobility and freedom to travel, campaign support for female politicians, education, women in the police force and active service in the military, transgender and homosexual rights, microloans for female entrepreneurs, on and on.

What we in Cairo undeniably share is a problem with harassment. Mostly verbal, but in many cases devastatingly physical. To the point of sexual assault and rape as weapons of intimidation both to the individual women but also to the movement. We can take this on together. We must.

It’s a balance between respecting culture and religious choice, (for me, agreeing to not touch a man in the Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a picture)…

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and taking charge of your sexuality and your self.

Fearless.

Have a Happy International Women’s Day! اليوم الدولي للمرأة

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A group of friends: Egyptian young women and myself.

 

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