14.06.2012In Dialogue: Charlotte Wiedemann & Mansoura Ez-EldinProspects for Women in the Arab Spring
Cairo, 5 June 2012
Mansoura Ez-Eldin, born in Egypt's Nile Delta in 1976, studied journalism at the University of Cairo and worked until August 2011 at "Akhbar al-Adab", one of the nation's most influential literary magazines. Her novels have been translated into numerous languages. She was named as one of the best Arab-language authors under 40 in the year 2010. The same year, she was the only woman to be nominated for the "International Prize for Arabic Fiction". Firstly, I'd just like to say how pleased I am that we're beginning this exchange!
In your first letter you mentioned the differences and similarities between us, at least the most obvious ones. I can only agree with you, yes, I'd even go as far as to say that the differences between us promise to fuel our exchange with even more meaning and a quite deliberate vitality.
Your experiences of the situation of women in other cultures and your first-hand knowledge of this will, I hope, spare us numerous misunderstandings and will ensure that your view is not clouded by prejudice or clichés, and that you don't force anything into pigeonholes with fixed labels.
Just like age, direct experience also guards against "hypocrisy and presumptuousness in dealings with non-Western societies."
Personally, up to now I've not had the opportunity to live in a nation other than Egypt. But I've visited many western countries when taking part in literary colloquiums and festivals. This gave me the chance to enter into in-depth discussions with a broad spectrum of women representing various generations and schools of thought.
As far as my experience in Egypt is concerned, I have been fortunate enough to experience different spheres of life. I was born in a small, remote village and at the age of 18 went to study in Cairo, where I lived alone. This meant I could observe and draw direct comparisons between the various aspects of women's lives in rural areas as well as in the city.
During my first years in Cairo I was a member of the city's underclass, sub-letters sidelined and only able to gain a foothold among those in the same predicament. After completing my studies, starting work as a journalist and setting out to become a writer, I gradually became a proper "city dweller" or to be more precise, I found an apartment, a job, and eventually started a family.
I'm only mentioning this to introduce myself, just as you introduced yourself to me by mentioning your travels and your books, and by telling me the remarkable anecdote about how you wore trousers for the first time in 1960s Germany.
However, unlike you I don't believe that this interesting detail is simply a reflection of personal experience. No, it's much more than that. It shines a spotlight on the social history of a small European town in the 1960s and the situation of women there. I wouldn't of course wrongly simplify things by saying that the anecdote provides a complete picture, but it does represent a significant fragment of a large whole.
And lastly, I would like to join you in asking the question: What has happened to the women in the Egyptian presidential elections?
Allow me to answer by thinking aloud: Should we only be pinning our hopes on women in the upper political echelons? It is of course important that women are represented on this level, after all it would guarantee a long-term improvement in the situation of women, even if this is not happening everywhere all the time.
But maybe we should now look to ordinary women. I am absolutely convinced that ordinary citizens and individuals on the margins of society can also write history. The Arab rebellions can, despite intellectuals being involved to a greater or lesser extent in each nation, be described as popular revolutions.
It is evident in Egypt that aspects of public life that are "taken for granted" are mostly being challenged by women who would normally be described as "quite ordinary". Especially notable here is perhaps Samira Ibrahim, a woman who has confronted outdated traditions and social hypocrisy by persisting in her debilitating battle with the military, which forced her to undergo a virginity test together with other detained women.
Just like you, I would also have liked to see women standing for the presidency and just like you, I would not have expected a woman to win. Until we get to that point, the path ahead of us is long and arduous. But had there been a woman among the candidates, it would have meant a great deal, symbolically speaking at least.
There was one woman, Bouthaina Kamel, in the running as a possible candidate at the start of the election campaign, but she didn't succeed in winning the necessary 30,000 votes or securing the support of 30 parliamentarians, and had to exit the race.
Perhaps she failed because she is a woman, perhaps because she herself does not enjoy broad public support, perhaps both reasons played a part, alongside other factors associated with the complex context of these elections. But that's another story requiring lengthy explanation.
With warm greetings from Cairo,
To read Charlotte Wiedemann's reply, click on "3" below.