Women activism and resistance in rural Upper and Lower Egypt

Rural areas in Lower and Upper Egypt have been neglected for decades, and still today are often described as “static,” and thus not worthy of much attention. Struggling also against these prejudices, Egypt’s rural women are moving forward. They don’t represent in any way a homogeneous group; they populate different areas and face different socioeconomic conditions. Still, they are in different ways and forms taking part in a process that, far from being a simple awareness about oppression, aims at finding alternatives ways of “resisting.”

Women activism in Upper Egypt bears a special meaning. Poverty, in fact, is more concentrated in Upper Egypt than in Lower Egypt, in rural areas than in urban ones, among women than men. Despite the failures and the difficulties, many relevant changes occurred in Upper Egypt in these last three years.

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“Before the [2011] revolution,” explains Israa Said Thabet, a 26-year-old mother of two children who lives in Asyut, 375 km from Cairo, “most of the women were ignorant about anything that was happening in the country. After January 2011 they increasingly started to follow the news and to express their political views.”

It is mainly inside their houses that women are turning the “political revolution” into a cultural and moral one. “We are witnessing,” Israa continues, “a revolution against every traditional aspect. We still have a long journey ahead, but we are becoming increasingly aware that there is no more such a thing as ‘a weak woman’.”

This increasing awarness does not imply that local women have experienced practical improvements. On the contrary, women’s growing contribution to the household and their increased involvement in activism did not in fact lead yet to greater power: the harmful aspects of patriarchy have in some contexts worsened and a new patriarchal structure has emerged.

“Women’s conditions,” points out Samah Anwar, a 24-year-old woman from the outskirt of Tahta (Sohag Governorate), 467 km far from Cairo, “were indeed better before 2011. The charitable organizations established by Suzanne Mubarak were perhaps not so big or effective, but were at least able to offer some opportunities.” After Mubarak’s regime fall, according to Samah, “these organizations almost disappeared. People started to look at them as remainings of the regime.”

In rural Lower Egypt as well, chronic poverty and social taboos are major factors that restrain women’s independence. In these areas, however, to engage in resistance and activism is, to a certain extent, easier than in Upper Egypt. The relatively short distance to big cities like Cairo guarantees an easier access to information. Local women learned faster the potentialities of “resistance” and that nobody will fight on their behalf.

“The first thing that comes up to my mind when I hear the word ‘resistance’,” notes Eman Awad, a 23-year-old woman involved in many activities in rural Lower Egypt, “is the struggle against the rules imposed by our society, against flawed ideas and customs, against our parents mentality and the one of most of the people of their generation.”

Dalia Yousif, a 23-year-old woman from the Maadi Suburb, holds similar beliefs. In these last few years she has been involved with the group Nazra for Feminist Studies and worked in Cairo with the teams of Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguards. Dalia’s priority is to focus on rural women and in denouncing the use of religion to justify abuses on women.

“We have to provide them a broader awareness of their rights as well as of the campaigns and the activities that are currently taking place in many villages. Nowadays I am also more aware of my rights.” Dalia says, explaining what “resistance” means to her. “It is a daily rebellion against oppression, ignorance, corruption, and, most of all, any patriarchal authority.”

The most symbolic but also difficult face of resistance and activism have thus very much to do with “private struggles.”

Doaa Salah, a 23-year-old mother from Sandibis (Qalyubia Governorate), represents in this respect another powerful example. She got married after finishing her high school, but soon divorced and started her personal struggle against old traditions and “one-sided rules.” Doaa wanted to regain her freedom.

“I totally disliked the cultural impositions and the routine imposed on me by this society,” she said.

In villages like the one in which she lives, to get divorced is still considered an outrage. “Men”, she argues, “are used to treat me and the other divorced women as if we were public properties.” Despite these traumas and the huge pressure exerted by her family, she is determined to continue to fight for her rights. “I chose what I wanted,” she concludes with pride, “I am a free woman.”

Kamel, Ph.D., is an historian from Bologna University and a Visiting Fellow (2013/14 and 2014/15) at Harvard University’s CMES. The research for this article has been carried out thanks to a fellowship at ‘Ain Shams University, Cairo.Ezzat Elkholy is an Egyptian teacher from Sendbees (Qaliubiya Governatorate). She graduated in English language, literature and simultaneous translation from Al-Azhar University and is involved in research projects related to gender issues and gender-based violence.

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