Sunday, August 9, 2009

Woman. The pillar of life.

"The loneliest woman in the world is a woman without a close woman friend." This quote, taken from George Santayana's 'The Life of Reason,' is so profoundly true that it has inspired me to blog about it. Specifically, the women that I have met throughout my journey in Egypt, and the amazing strength and wisdom that we can learn from their experiences.

Living in Egypt as a single woman can be very hard. Of course, it can also be extremely liberating, but I would say that generally speaking, single women in Egypt are faced with a heavier burden than many would expect. When I first moved here, I was blessed to be living with my family, and having the strength and support that being "at home" comes with. When my parents moved out of Egypt however, my entire life shifted. My closest and dearest friends, the two women who understand me better than anyone, who will tell me what I need to hear, even if it's not what I want to hear, my sister and mother, were no longer right at home and it is here that this story begins.

Women are often faced with the difficult choice of career over family, or visa versa. This trend of choice is particularly evident within Egypt and the Middle East, where the establishment and development of a family unit is still highly valued. Women here are often not given the choice to pursue a career, which is why when you are blessed to meet a working Egyptian woman, you know that you have found a pillar of strength. I have been privileged to work with many strong and inspirational women throughout my time here, and each of them has impacted me in a certain way. One of my online co-workers and I frequently talk about the challenge of finding the right man in Egypt, and finding a man who will not only be able to fill the cultural expectations of "providing for the family," but to find a man who will support and encourage your own career goals. We have frequently discussed the expectations that fall upon her shoulders from her family, the need to see her married and to start her own family often dominating the conversation. Yet despite the pressure that she is subjected to, she has remained strong in her desire to further her career, and strengthen the amazing talents that she has already demonstrated, and should a husband fall into the path she is treading, then all the better. If not, she refuses to sacrifice her values to adapt to the expected cultural norm around her. How can you not learn from and respect this belief!

If you are ever lucky enough to be granted the opportunity to sit down with a group of Egyptian women, I highly recommend that you take it! It quickly becomes apparent that despite the appearance of being a misogynistic society, women are the powerhouses behind closed doors. While men are the ones expected to protect a family's honour and be the main bread-winner, Egyptian women exhibit true strength in the family. She becomes the focal point of a family, women are expected to bear the burdens of a household, and do so with a smile on their face. Women are expected to ensure the fluidity of any working family environment, and ensure that all the household affairs are in order, children are raised well, and a woman's problems pushed to the side. When you consider the women that do all of this, AND raise a family, you cannot help but stand back and smile, and respect the devotion and love that it takes to achieve this. But to carry this weight around all the time can take a toll, and it is the women that surround you that will help you bear your burden. Be it through witty banter, small talk about friends and family, or true compassion and understanding when things get tough, there truly is nothing better than a strong female companion.

Two of my closest friends I have met in Egypt

My friends in Egypt have become my adopted family. My female friends are the rock that keeps me solid here, without them I would have lost myself a long time ago. Of course it is not only the Egyptian women that I have met here who have greatly inspired me, the ex-pat women that live in Egypt also provide an eye opening perspective on Egypt. I know of quite a few other single ex-pat women living in Egypt, some who have only been here for a year or so, and their perspectives on Egyptian society is fascinating. Many ex-pats find that it is difficult to develop a friendship with Egyptian women, and consequently find that most of their circle of friends consist of men. I won't lie, I also have quite a few male friends here, but there's just no replacing the connection between women, the underlying understanding that we have of one another. Men here for example, approach relationships with women in a very different manner than many Western women are used to. As a result you see many female ex-pats who recently moved to Egypt fall head over heels for an Egyptian man, believing that they have a true future together. What many Western men lack in chivalry and romance, Egyptian men make up for two fold. Yet what many ex-pat females forget to take into consideration is the motivation behind the relationship. Egyptian women are far less likely to date without the promise of marriage on the horizon, and as marriage is an extremely expensive affair in Egypt, many Egyptian men and women are simply unable to afford marriage. Western women however, will enter into a relationship that won't necessarily turn into a long-term commitment. We provide the perfect alternative for many men here, the convenient girlfriend, who when push comes to shove, can easily be pushed aside - as is often the case with relationships between ex-pat females and Egyptian men. It is a shame to see this happen, and it is times like this that you truly appreciate your female friends, particularly Egyptian females, who can easily point out the "Egyptian" behaviour in the man, and how to deal with it. Many ex-pat females will notice that their Egyptian boyfriends become overly possessive and dominant in a relationship, demanding the last say in many decisions a woman makes, a trait that is often bred into men here. Listen to your Egyptian sisters, and how to deal with this behaviour becomes easier, giving you the opportunity to draw from their own experiences and examples.

Often times I think that as women we forget how important we are in each others lives, and forget how significant an impact that our "sisterhood" can have. When it comes to the intricacies of a female mind, only another female can hope to interpret it. I know that for me personally, when I have been confronted with times of great personal stress, pushing me to my limits, it has always been my girlfriends who have stood by me, lent me a shoulder to cry on, and nudged me back onto the right path when I have strayed. For this, my hats go off to you. We women are truly an inspirational creature, and should learn to see that within ourselves! Until then, I am here to say "I am woman, hear me roar!"

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