"Weren't There Any Men Left?"
The office of Sheikh al-Balad, the village mayor, is a widespread phenomenon in the rural regions of Egypt. The head of a larger rural community, which may have a population of up to 20,000, is called Omda.
A large community such as this is divided into smaller villages, called "sheikhat." Every sheikhat has its own village mayor, who is responsible for routine work and for taking care of the villagers and their problems.
The office of Sheikh al-Balad was previously only open to men, but in 1994 Egyptian law changed to allow women access to the position. But since the new law was enacted, only one woman has made use of the statute allowing women to hold this office.
Her name is Suheir Ismail and she observes her duties in the village or sheikhat al-Barda'a, which belongs to the administrative district al-Qalyubiyya north of Cairo.
All villagers, from the youngest to the oldest, may ask for the help of the village mayor or the Kabir al-Qarya, the village elder. He takes part in most decisions made by the village community, where the people's problems and worries, and their habits and rituals, are very different from those of city dwellers. In olden times the office was elected, but now it has become a government position that is appointed.
Are all the men dead?
In an interview for Qantara, Suheir Ismail recounted how she applied for the position of Sheikh al-Balad when the previous mayor died in 1999. She was 38 years old at the time and was familiar with the duties and tasks of the office because her uncle had held the position for many years in her village. She often watched him do his work and wished she could do it, too.
She emphasizes that as soon as her appointment was announced, many villagers, both men and women, reacted with the usual skepticism found in Oriental societies when women take on important offices:
"Were there no men left, or why did it have to be a woman? But not all the men are dead!" She answered such questions by saying that time will tell, and time will show that she is suitable for the job—of this she was sure, especially because her husband and her family stood behind her and supported her new appointment.
The requirements to qualify for the position of Sheikh al-Balad are proficiency in reading and writing and the possession of a piece of agricultural land. The applicant must also have excellent moral standing, and may not be in legal trouble or have questionable integrity.
Suheir was educated at the Institute for Administrative and Secretarial Work. After finishing her education, she did volunteer work from 1993 to 1999 to promote literacy in her own village. The Organization for Literacy and Adult Education took her on as a lecturer after they realized how committed she was to her work in improving the literacy rate, which is a problem in many Egyptian villages, particularly for women and girls.
Peaceful conflict resolution
To be a good village mayor, according to Suheir, one must have a quick sense of judgment, political tact, and close contact to each and every village inhabitant, and even with those who no longer live in the village but only occasionally visit.
Having knowledge of human nature is also important for being able to describe the different characters of the villagers, which is necessary for creating reports on the situation in the village for the Sheikh al-Balad's superior, the Omda.
For example, if a fire breaks out in a field, the village mayor immediately shows up to investigate the cause of the fire. If it is a case of arson, the Sheikh al-Balad tries to mediate a peaceful resolution between the arsonist and the field's owner. If this is not possible, the case must be handed over to the courts.
Another example: If a member of the community dies, the village mayor assists the family of the deceased and even helps support them financially for a time. The position is intended to aid the Omda, who cannot take care of all the affairs of his community members.
Suheir Ismail says it took a long time for the villagers to accept her because they had internalized social customs according to which women are supposed to be subordinate to men and never the other way around.
They were very surprised when she would show up in the middle of the night to inspect the scene of an accident or to help in medical emergencies. According to the villagers, women, especially those in rural regions, are to obey traditional customs!
Suheir is also involved in overseeing veterinary projects as well as health centers, which are concerned with child care, combating illiteracy, and supporting women and girls in their efforts to gain an education.
The villagers now also seek out Suheir's counsel for many different issues related to Islamic beliefs and precepts. She has closely studied the Islamic Sharia texts because she knows that this is one of the most important points of reference for the villagers throughout their lives.
Her counseling on the Sharia is not a function that every Sheikh al-Balad can perform because it requires special knowledge. And if Suheir's knowledge of Sharia is not enough in a particular case, then she turns to scholars who have specialized in Islamic law.
Helping in good times and bad
To explain why no other woman has applied for the position of Sheikh al-Balad, Suheir Ismail refers to the customs of rural Egyptians. For most of them, the Sheikh al-Balad is a man who is feared by the villagers. Suheir's work, however, has served as a counter-example—the villagers have come to like her and even honor her because she was able to show that she stands by them in good times as in bad times.
In the beginning, she says, the office of village mayor was a volunteer position for which one was not compensated in any form. But now it has become a government office with pay of 75 Egyptian pounds per month and no age limit or mandatory retirement. A Sheikh al-Balad can serve office regardless of their age; all what is required is that they be in good health and suitable for the job.
Nelly Youssef, © Qantara.de 2004
Translated from German: Christina M. White