by Juliet Annerino
Marwa, I know you as an outspoken and at times controversial writer, radio personality, blogger, social commentator, advice columnist, poet, humorist, wife and mother, born and raised in Egypt and living in “6 October City”, just outside of Cairo. Please tell us a bit more about who you are, and how you are possibly quite different from the average Egyptian woman.
Marwa Rakha: I am not different from the average Egyptian woman. I just had the opportunity to voice my rebellion against limiting insensible traditions. The best way to show that societal norms do not work in our favor was to actually go against them! I just did it my way and enjoyed every bit of it.
As an Egyptian woman, what unique obstacles do you face, socially and in relation to being a particularly strong and independent woman living in Egypt?
Marwa Rakha: The biggest obstacle is judgment! People are quick to pass judgment when it comes to a woman trying to fulfill her potential and savor life the way it’s meant to be savored! The worst and most impactful is rejection from family members. The people you expect to love you unconditionally are the first ones to block your path with expressed or unexpressed negativity.
I’d love to get your views on the changes you’ve seen in how Egyptian women are treated, viewed and regarded by Egyptian men and in the Egyptian media in the last 10 to 15 years. Have you seen changes? If so, what kinds?
Marwa Rakha: I have seen regression in the status of women! A setback in the way women are represented in the media. Take television for example: in black and white movies and in movies in the 70s, women were portrayed as strong, independent, determined, uninhibited, and emotionally liberated creatures! Whether they chose to work, stay at home, have kids or not, or socialize and party—it was always their choice.
There was even one movie called “My Wife, The General Manager” that discussed the inner struggles of a husband when his wife and colleague gets promoted and becomes the GM! Today you have two types of women in movies: the slutty divorced unethical liberal, and the happily married/about to be married/will eventually get married conservative docile woman.
The image of the macho (polygamous) man who keeps his woman on a tight leash is eminent on television. Scenes of domestic violence and aggression towards wives, sisters, and girlfriends are also an integral part of most shows.
Egyptian women are very strong. Those who rebel are strong and those who endure abuse and domination are also strong. Not all Egyptian women could break free like I did.
The insight into TV shows in Egypt is especially interesting and very important since I believe Cairo is the “Hollywood” of the Middle East.
Tell us, are most Egyptian girls expected to marry, have children and forego any career of their own? If so, do you see this changing?
Marwa Rakha: It is true that most Egyptian girls are expected to get married and have kids; by the age of 25 mothers of single girls begin to worry. If a girl is 30 and unmarried almost everyone in her family is worried. If she is over 35, the society is quite judgmental.
Some girls are really not interested in getting married and starting a family but their peace of mind is constantly disturbed by other people’s expectations!
As for career, there is no clear social rule that says that a girl is not allowed to work. Actually most Egyptian women work for money or esteem. The problem is usually with how seriously that woman takes her job or career. There will always be sacrifices, compromises, and negotiations. Men still expect the woman to be fully in charge of the home and the kids and those who cannot afford house help—a nanny, tutors, cooks, drivers, and other luxury services—really suffer.
Let’s talk just a bit about a cultural difference that most American women would find difficult to understand: the option for their husband to take a second wife. How common is this and how do you think most Egyptian women feel about this? I understand the limit is four wives for a man.
Marwa Rakha: The subject of a second wife is not as complex as it seems! Most men are not monogamous by choice. If a man has the opportunity and the choice he would like to explore women as opposed to being committed to only one woman for the rest of his life. Whether he got married for love or not, at a young age or rather late in life, a man finds it suffocating to be fully faithful to one woman. Some men manage to tame that need and invest in the relationship and manage to become a true family man, but many others have affairs! The affairs could be of a mere physical nature or based on love and feelings. This is exactly the second wife situation. A man has a legal affair with a woman for sex or love or any other reason.
Not all Muslim men take a second wife—many prefer to have affairs and flings! Some men take a second wife, then divorce her, then take another woman to be the second wife. Some have 3 and 4 wives! To grasp that concept, think of your typical American womanizer but give him a license from God.
If their man must be unfaithful, then most women would rather he had an affair as opposed to a second wife. It sort of soothes her ego to know that the other woman is a dirty illegitimate secret that is bound to end.
Affairs happen in all social classes, and second marriages are common where the man and the affair woman have religious convictions. A lot of those marriages are “orfi” or common law marriages. They are religiously correct but are not officially documented.
Finally, if there is one thing you could explain to American women about life in Egypt for Egyptian women, what might that be? Maybe there’s some common misconception that you’d like to set straight for us? Thank you so much again for your time and thoughtfulness in answering our questions.
Egyptian women are very strong! They are true warriors and heroines! They deal with discrimination, misogyny, harassment, objectification, and abuse in their everyday life but they still manage to finish their education, get a job, and raise their kids! A lot of them fully support their families whether they have husbands or not. It is not easy being a woman in Egypt but we have adapted and evolved in numerous ways. It does not matter which social class or background a woman comes from—we have all developed senses and powers to navigate us through turbulent times.
Find out more about Marwa at her website www.MarwaRakha.com.