My Stereotypes About Women From The Middle East Were Shattered When I Went To Egypt

Leen from Jordan. Mariyam from Tunisia. Hannah from Egypt. Hissah from Saudi Arabia. Ezgi from Turkey.

I met the above-mentioned Middle-Eastern women students during a volunteer program in Egypt organised by AIESEC Egypt. AIESEC is the world’s largest non-profit youth-run organisation, recognised by UNESCO, which provides internships and volunteer programs abroad to students from all over the world to develop their leadership skills and to facilitate cross-cultural exchange. AIESEC has its network across 127 countries in the world. Egypt is one such country.

I went for a one-and-a-half-month-long volunteer program called the “Egyptian Backpacking Project”. This volunteer program’s objective was to promote Egypt’s local culture and improve its tourism rates. The women mentioned above were part of different projects of AIESEC Egypt like the “No Poverty project” (for the upliftment of the underprivileged), the “Education project” (for educating children), the “Refugee project” (for the upliftment of the Syrian refugees in Egypt) and the “Egyptian Backpacking project”.

Everyone worked sincerely in their respective projects and I am not going to talk about the work of the projects. I am going to talk about the impact these Middle-Eastern women have on me, my personal relationships with them, their personal choices and what they suggest, and the behavioral, psychological, social and cultural diversity among them. Through this, I will attempt to break the many misconceptions that people in general have about them.

Leen wears a hijaab. She doesn’t smoke or drink, but has tried a drag of smoke once or twice.

Mariyam wears a hijaab. Earlier, she didn’t smoke or drink, but started doing so in Egypt.

Hannah has a boy-cut hairstyle and drives her own car. She doesn’t wear the hijaab, and she smokes and drinks.

Hissah doesn’t wear a hijaab and is a homosexual from Saudi Arabia. Yes, you heard that right – a homosexual from the conservative Saudi Arabia.

Ezgi doesn’t wear the hijaab and has dreadlocks in her hair. She doesn’t smoke, but she does drink.

I met Leen and Mariyam the very first day in Cairo, as I was sharing an apartment with them and three other girls. I reached the apartment at 3 AM in the morning – and saw Leen and Mariyam with other girls chilling in the drawing room. They all seemed to be really delighted as they had just returned from their very first felouka in Cairo. Felouka is a decorated and lit long boat in which music is played in the speakers – and the people in it (the many AIESEC volunteer programme students from different countries, in this case) dance and interact throughout their one or two hour tour in the Nile river.

I had already assumed in my mind that Leen and Mariyam would be really conservative in their views, and that it would be difficult to live with them. Then I got to know that Leen and I were a part of the same project. I had mixed feelings about this, but I prepared myself to overcome my assumption and interact with her.

During our first few days in Cairo before the backpacking project started, we explored Cairo together, with all the apartment girls. It was then that I realised that Leen is one of the kindest and most non-judgmental persons I’ve come across. She was the only one among us who would take the lead and talk to shopkeepers and Uber drivers in Arabic and translate it for us. She would come with us to cigarette shops to act as an interpreter, even though she does not smoke. With her by our side, we didn’t have to care about the directions even while walking, because she was excellent with Google Map directions. Attributing to her effortless interpreting and navigating skills, she became our permanent tour guide in Egypt for free.

Our backpacking project started after a week. We were on our way to travel around 16 Egyptian cities in 17 days. Leen witnessed a lot of students from different nationalities with different habits and interests – most of them more open and more liberal-minded than her. I had this habit of always noticing Leen when she dealt with people different from her, a little pinch of presumption still occupying my mind. But Leen surprised me every time. She had a welcoming attitude towards other people and towards their different habits. Girls and boys used to smoke around her. Even though she used to taunt them teasingly, she was extremely comfortable with it.

Leen was very respectful towards her hijaab. It seemed as though her hijaab was a dignified elder of the family who had to be respected unconditionally. She told us that only women, her dad, her real brother and her husband (if she marries in future) can see her without her hijaab. So, since her dad and brother weren’t there and she was unmarried, no man in Egypt could see her without her hijaab.  Every night, she would take off her hijaab in the room (with women occupants, of course) with relief and sleep soundly.

One night, the room’s door was half-open, and two of our male friends entered the room to call us for dinner. Leen was caught with her uncovered hair. The guys hadn’t even noticed it before Leen made a freakish cry running towards the room’s window overlooking the balcony. She bent forward and put her head down and out of the window – her back towards the guys and her hands over her head, attempting to block the view of her hair. I was standing in the balcony in front of the room with other girls.

As soon as we saw Leen in that weird posture, we cracked up and just couldn’t stop. The guys took time to understand the disastrous situation, and then left with a dazed look. We were still laughing, and Leen was laughing along with us in embarrassment. She confessed that she had freaked out and couldn’t find anything to cover her hair with, which resulted in this comic act.

All of us drew an inference in our minds, which we were not shy to share with Leen. Since both the guys had now evidently seen her hair, she was supposed to marry both of them immediately, considering the norms. She laughed and declared, “Bring it on. I’ll marry both of them and return to Jordan with two husbands, to my dad’s pleasant surprise.” After that incident, Leen became extra cautious and extra-reverent towards her hijaab, pledging to not repeat the error.

Mariyam is a Tunisian girl who found AIESEC Egypt the perfect place to open herself up to the world. She listened carefully to other people’s ideas, imbibed the ideas which she thought were relevant enough to be acknowledged, and gave herself the fundamental right of having a taste of the different colors of life.

She tried a drag of cigarette for the first time – and unlike most first-timers, she didn’t cough or make a disgusting face. She loved it. She drank her first shot and loved it too. From that day onwards, she used to smoke and drink on occasions. She was a girl who was hungry to know new people and to discuss about anything and everything – about religion, politics, love, relationships, everyday problems, languages and so on.

She would ask me to teach her cuss words in Hindi. Then I would learn a couple of them in Tunisian Arabic from her and we would yell them out and celebrate for no reason, enjoying the stupidity of it. She looked like an attractive little witch when she drank and smoked under her hijaab, exuding an enthralling swag.

During her last couple of days in Egypt, Mariyam became more reluctant to the idea of an alert respectfulness towards her hijaab, the idea which Leen became more dedicated to, after the uncovered hair incident. Mariyam would sit inside a room with the women after a day’s long work – removing her hijaab and getting all nostalgic about leaving Egypt in a few days. At this crucial point, a guy would knock and a woman would absent-mindedly allow him to enter. Mariyam, still lost in her deep nostalgic conversation, would look at the guy and would proceed from one reaction to another in a carefree style. She would first give a shocked look to the guy, and then, taking a pregnant pause, she would declare – “Never mind. I’m too lazy to wear my hijaab. Now you are my brother in Islam. Come on, don’t shy away. Sit down.” Feeling honored, the guy and would readily oblige.

It seemed as though Mariyam’s endeavour in Egypt was an emancipating experience for her in myriad ways – some consciously and some subconsciously.

One day, we had a house party in our apartment. Amidst a lot of cross-conversations, a discussion on religion started out of the blue. The dichotomy between religion and individuality was elaborately discussed. Mariyam was quietly listening and sipping her whiskey, when all of a sudden, Leen turned to Mariyam and in a pitch higher than usual, said to her, “Mariyam, you’ve started drinking. You should not forget the fact that you wear a hijaab. And you must respect your hijaab at all costs. What the hell is up with you? Don’t you have any dignity left in you?” Everybody in the room fell silent.

“It doesn’t mean that I don’t respect my hijaab if I drink. Drinking doesn’t amount to disrespectful-ness towards my hijaab”, refuted Mariyam.

“It definitely does. You’re just ignoring the very principles of Islam. You should either stop wearing the hijaab or you should quit drinking at once. Don’t mock your hijaab while drinking under it.”

“Leen, we both interpret Islam in different ways. During this trip to Egypt, I have realised that I shouldn’t forcibly believe in some of the principles of Islam which I find irrelevant. I don’t think that makes me a bad Muslim. Believing or disbelieving in certain dogmas is my fundamental right and I am exercising it unapologetically.”

“Yes, it’s your life after all. Who am I to interfere?” Leen said in a sad voice and turned to the door to leave the room. Mariyam rushed to her and said, “Leen, I don’t want our differences in opinion to act as a barrier in the beautiful friendship we share. I’m really glad that you registered your disappointment without thinking twice. That’s what makes you a true friend. I may disagree with you, but that won’t make you any less good friend of mine.”

Leen smiled, and embraced her heartily saying, “Even though I hate you for this, I just can’t afford to lose you as a friend.” Everyone in the room suddenly started applauding, giving a tinge of dramatic essence to the happy ending of the discussion.

Like Leen, Ezgi (a Turkish national) too, was part of the backpacking project. Her long mighty dreadlocks would always attract people’s attention and – to avoid the usual repetitive questions, she would often wear a t-shirt which said – “YES, I HAVE DREADLOCKS AND I DO WASH THEM”.

Ezgi’s on-point sarcastic comments were quite popular among the AIESEC students. She would embarrass anybody by her little weapon of sarcasm. One of her favorite targets was Leen. Once, Ezgi was caressing Leen’s cheeks for quite a long time. Leen turned to Ezgi and said, “Hey, Ezgi! What you up to girl?” Ezgi quipped, “Why Leen, what happened? Is this ‘haraam’ in Jordan?” Leen figuratively choked her out.

Ezgi would always jokingly caution Leen about the things which are considered haraam in Islam, taking the prospective meanings of the word to an exaggerated level. “Leen, don’t sit like that. It’s haraam dude.” “Leen, don’t watch them kiss, it’s haraam dude.” “Leen, don’t swim in the sea. It’s haraam, dude.” “Leen, don’t watch them drink. It’s haraam dude.” “Leen, Don’t take a shit, it’s haraam dude.” During such moments, Leen just couldn’t decide whether to laugh or get annoyed. Sometimes, she ended up doing both.

Ezgi has a very strict motto in life – “I always date African guys. No compromise.” She told us from her experiences that African men are most likely to have a habit of giving their partners all the personal space they want, and never interrogate them for any reason. Ezgi said that her two ex-boyfriends (both Africans) were always respectful towards her opinions and her comfort zone, and never tried to even feebly force her into something. She bonded with most African men over broken English and dreadlocks. She confessed that her English was not very good – and among other things, this was also something which she had in common with the African men she had met. She found the accent in which they spoke broken English queerly stylish and attractive.

She discussed with me at length about her four-month-long work and travel-youth internship in the US last summer. She worked as a seller in the mornings and as a waitress in the evenings. She earned $7,000 in total – out of which she spent $3,000 traveling around the US, and brought $4,000 back home, to her mother’s delight. She told me that the US internship was like a preparatory glance of the world which she has to step into, after completing her graduation in chemical engineering.

She has tasted the blood of independence through that internship – and hence, can no longer stay in Turkey all her life. The passion with which she told me her US internship story, with her eyes sparkling all the while – the $1 T-shirt she bought, that Ugandan boyfriend she chilled out with, that Las Vegas club, that customer at the restaurant, that bartender, that long solo walk she took and a lot of other things –  really inspired me.

Hannah is a native of Egypt. She joined our backpacking project as a photographer from KITES (a travel agency which partnered with AIESEC, Cairo University, to organize the project). Her job was to capture the entire project on her camera, investing all her creative and artistic energies into it. Her photography reflected her remarkable aesthetic sense. Her boyfriend had also applied for this internship as a photographer but only Hannah got selected. He had come to drop Hannah to the bus stand from where we had to leave for our trip.

During our trip, Hannah became attracted to a guy from Italy, named Matia. Matia and Hannah really clicked and spent a lot of time together talking, day in and day out. Hannah used to tell us about Matia being so open-minded and liberal in his views – unlike her clingy patriarchal boyfriend from Egypt who she really wanted to break up with. We encouraged her to execute her decision of breaking up with her boyfriend.

After coming back to Cairo, she finally called her boyfriend and told him about her decision, clearly explaining the reasons. The boyfriend got anxious – and instead of assuring to not be a domineering orthodox partner in the relationship, he warned Hannah that he would get his gang, find Matia and  ‘teach him a lesson’. Hannah pretended to not be worried by his warning and broke up with him. But in reality, Hannah was extremely worried about Matia and she came to us with a new muddle troubling her mind. We asked her to not worry at all and that he would do nothing to Matia.

Hannah used to drive her own car. One night we, the women, planned a night out in Cairo, with Hannah’s car as the ultimate facilitator of the plan. We squeezed inside the pretty little car and Hannah drove off. We had travelled some four miles when Hannah suddenly realised that her ex boyfriend’s house lay on the route. Hannah got a little nervous and was planning to change the route. But we insisted her to shun away her unnecessary nervousness and continue on the same route.

One of our friends suggested a crazy idea – and we all, except Hannah, were hell-bent on executing it. As soon as we approached the house of the ex-boyfriend, we roared from the window, “Hannah is fleeing to Italy with Matia forever and ever.” Hannah’s high-pitched voice unexpectedly followed ours. “Stuff up your dirty masculinity in your golden ass!” Most probably, nobody heard and it was a childish act – but the amount of pleasure Hannah drew out of it was indescribable. We all guffawed as the car drove off speedily. Hannah completely got over his hollow, rowdy warnings and overcame her own futile fears after this cathartic endeavour.

Hissah is from Saudi Arabia. Even though her parents are Muslims, she doesn’t personally believe in the concept of religion personally. Neither does she recognise herself as a Muslim. It was through Mariyam that I got to know her. Mariyam and Hissah were in the “No Poverty project”.

On her last day in Egypt, Hissah came to our apartment with Mariyam. When she told me she was from Saudi Arabia, I was curious to know about the country. It was the first time I was meeting someone from Saudi Arabia. She was telling me about the ultra-conservative culture of Saudi Arabia. In the flow of the conversation, she said, “You know, I’m a homosexual and it’s so difficult for me to come out of the closet in my own country. I can’t even discuss it with some of my friends in Saudi, as they’re all spoon-fed about their so called ‘Arab world’ and just can’t accept anything that doesn’t fall under the category of their culture.”

I explained to her how I could completely empathise with her because of the similar social and judicial crisis in the matter concerning the LGBT rights in India.  But she was all praises for India and happy about us having the minimal right of registering our protests in our country. I told her about the trend of queer pride parades in the metropolitan cities of India on the last Sunday of November every year, and my active participation in them in solidarity with my LGBT friends. She was delighted to learn that and said she would love to visit India at that time of the year. She made me read her favorite poems by Richard Blanco, Andrea Gibson, Trace Peters and Ocean Vuong.

Among others, the five women I have penned down about became my closest friends in Egypt. In my friend circle in Egypt (where people from so many countries across the world had come through AIESEC pursuing different projects), Muslim women were a majority and each one of them was just as different from the other as can be imagined.

I’m ashamed to confess that, despite being a progressive girl, I had preconceived notions about Middle- Eastern women. I used to believe that most of them were instinctively conservative and were contemptuous towards any sort of progressive thinking. But now, I’m glad to have come out of my misleading bubble and am thankful to this enlightening experience. In this rapidly-changing world, the Middle East is also transforming, socially and culturally – and we must not judge a country or a region by their face value.

Every human is born with a sense of freedom. It’s our own society which constantly tries to trap us in the shackles of orthodoxy and conformity.

There’s an Urdu couplet I simply adore, but hadn’t really found the right occasion to recite it. After coming across a beautiful diversity in the community of Middle-Eastern women, a mention of this couplet by Munir Niyazi is quite befitting:

“Sheher ka tabdeel hona, shaad rehna aur udaas,

Raunakein jitni yahaan hain, aurton ke dum se hain.”

(“The state of transition, the state of being happy or the state of being sad,

All these varied charms and moods of a city can be attributed to the might of women.”)


Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
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