CAIRO — A friend of mine lived alone in downtown Cairo. She was single when she moved in but after getting into a relationship, her boyfriend joined her. One day in 2012, her neighbors saw her heading to the apartment with her boyfriend and two friends, a man and a woman. Once they were inside, the neighbors started banging on the door, calling her a prostitute and threatening to call the police to arrest them for prostitution. An old man, another neighbor, intervened and tried to calm them down. My friend told them that she and her partner were married, through an urfi or unregistered marriage, and the guests were just friends. Things settled down only after she promised that she would move out of the apartment.
Many women have been raised in familial contexts where their mobility and sexuality are restricted. We are taught how to act "respectably," to pay attention to our reputation, to access public spaces only temporarily and with a clear purpose, and, of course, not to have sex unless married. These restrictions have driven many of us to move out of our family homes in a quest to experience life for ourselves, and enter the expanding ranks of the mustaqellat, or independent women, those who live in the home of neither their families nor husbands.
If we thought that by leaving our family homes we could escape respectability politics, we learn very quickly that this is not the case. When women live alone, they are perceived as "out of place," their place being the private sphere of the home and the family. We are seen as abnormal subjects, because we are not living with our families, the source of a woman's identification and social value. And so a woman trying to live beyond the traditional frameworks of social relationships must constantly navigate for her mobility and sexuality. She is constantly surveilled, and the primary authority over her body moves from the family and its neighborhood to the larger community, which becomes the new neighborhood.
Our sexuality is held in check for the sake of something bigger, namely safety.
Things get more complex when sexuality comes onto the scene. When a woman moves out of her family home, she must make various arrangements, from finding somewhere safe to live to securing a job, so that living alone can be financially viable without her having to rely on her family. Given the fact that most mustaqellat come from lower middle-class families, we can't afford apartments in fancy neighborhoods where you can find apartments where nobody cares what you do as long as the rent is paid regularly.
We rent apartments in working-class areas, usually with other women. Most mustaqellat experience policing by landowners, doormen and neighbors. An independent woman knows very well what it means to prove, in every step she takes outside of her apartment, that she is respectable enough to deserve safety. Our neighbors judge how respectable we are by our behavior, our clothes, who we live with, who visits us, whether or not we host male visitors, how late we get back home and the reasoning we provide for why we live away from our families.
Sex as a luxury, safety as a priority
Navigation is possible but limited. A woman might bribe the doorman, for example, or manipulate the rules put down by the landowner, but she will remain anxious of being found out. Especially if she has nowhere else to go, she will be cautious not to risk losing her home. Our sexuality is held in check for the sake of something bigger, namely safety, because we have to choose between sex as a luxury and safety as a priority.
In Mumbai, women living away from their families are policed and harassed the most, according to researcher Shilpa Phadke (2007). She describes harassment, such as stalking, by neighbors that ends up jeopardizing women's access to public space and their safety. I remember how being perceived as a non-respectable young woman was a danger to my safety and well-being. When they realize you are not a woman who lives with her family or who has women-only visitors, the neighbors feel they have a license to do whatever they want to you.
In 2016, I was compelled to leave the Old Cairo flat I was living in. I had a hint of what was to come on the day that I moved in. As a male friend was helping me carry my things, we were stopped by a group of young men, asking my friend to leave immediately because this was a women-only apartment — shaqqet banat — and it wouldn't be appropriate if he entered.
I know that by doing this, they were trying to achieve their fragile masculinity, by imposing rules on women they think are ill-behaved and family-less. Part of this was their feeling that if women host men in their neighborhood, it would mean that they aren't "real men," since women could be having sex freely without respecting them, as men.
Walking in Cairo — Photo: TheOnlyMoxey
If gender is a social construction and masculinity is perceived as privileged over femininity, then obtaining a sense of masculinity requires feminine subjects that show subordination to men. This construction of masculinity does not happen away from the state apparatus. If you bear in mind how the figure of the working-class man has been targeted by processes of securitization by the state, you can see how he has been emasculated. And if the woman is not submissive — if, for example, she hosts male visitors in mustaqellat apartments — this creates a dynamic where some men in a working-class neighborhood end up trying to perform their masculinity at the expense of women living alone.
A few months after moving in, another group of young men began to gather at the entrance to our building, harassing me and my flatmates each time we tried to get in or out. This harassment became more systematic after I was hosted on a TV show where I defended the right of a woman to decide whether to keep or break her hymen. Adding to that, they did a quick Google search of my name, finding further ammunition, such as articles on women's sexuality and videos that I posted of myself dancing, and they continued to stalk me on social media. They justified their assaults on us by calling us "loose women," ones who deserve to be disciplined as they saw fit: sexual harassment, labeling, constant activity by our door that we could never identify, but the point was to let us know that there are men, hostile toward us, right outside.
When I reported them to the local police station through a friend, the station sent some policemen accompanied by the friend. Although I didn't file an official report — I just wanted to send a message to the harassers that I was capable of taking serious steps — it ended up with me struggling with the policemen myself. They ignored the reason I called them and started to collect information about me instead. They checked my ID, passport, rental contract, university ID, and so on. They made it clear that they thought what had happened to me was because I was a loose woman, and continued to come to the apartment to check on me — daily.
The many burdens of sex
This experience of no longer feeling safe in my home was deeply traumatic, and I ended up leaving the neighborhood and starting my search for a new, safe place, though it would probably be just as precarious as the last one.
Trying to have safe sex can become a nightmare as an unmarried woman living on your own. There is the question of contraception to prevent pregnancy and STDs — and hoping your partner won't object — and, of course, there is the fear of sexual violence. And then, even if contraception isn't an issue and you are with a partner whom you trust, and you manage to find places where you can have sex with the least risk possible, there is always the fear of a neighborhood scandal that could end up with your arrest on charges of sex work. In these circumstances, sex is often perceived by women as a hassle that they prefer not to put themselves through, especially if these women are already overwhelmed by battling on multiple fronts: a labor battle, a family battle, a harassment battle, a battle over a place on the metro, an emotional battle, and battles with friends from time to time.
How can you be sure that it won't be you who is made an exception?
If you haven't been through it, I think it is hard to imagine what it takes to have sex burdened by fears of being arrested, imagining what might happen to you or the people you love and who love you, if the reason for your arrest is "depravity" or "prostitution." Although the Egyptian Penal Code does not criminalize unmarried individuals living together, what guarantees that the law will be adhered to in your case? As Giorgio Agamben puts it, we live in a state of exception, where the exception is the rule.
How can you be sure that it won't be you who is made an exception? Any certainty you might have had decreases as the numbers of people arrested for no good reason seem to pile up. When your friends are arrested and disappear for months, or die suspended in limbo, how do you dare endanger your whole life just to get laid? Imagining this future and scared someone is recording you, your orgasm is delayed or never arrives. You are prevented from pleasure and your body might even become possessed by uncontrollable shaking and panic attacks.
I could not put myself through this anymore. But thinking of marriage as a solution to this predicament does not come easily to a woman who has fought to delink herself from the family as a social and economic structure. Marriage in Egypt, as defined by the law, is unjust — there is no criminalization of domestic violence, a husband can have sex with his wife whenever he wants and divorce remains primarily in his hands. I hesitated. I was afraid of losing the independence that I had battled for over several years.
I used to rent out rooms in my apartment to other young women, as a means to financially sustain myself. I got tired of forcing myself to live with strangers. I was fed up with living with people I didn't know. I felt lonely. I needed someone to share my life and personal space with me, to have my back.
He was there, and accepted my offer of living together. I felt comfortable with him, and he with me, so why not live together for a while? But I thought of my previous experiences with hosting male visitors. I didn't want people to threaten me because I'm not married to the guy I live with. I thought of legalizing our relationship, with a marriage contract, so I proposed to him, and he accepted. Then we started to prepare my place for us, not as flatmates, but as a couple.
When I changed my relationship status on Facebook, people were shocked. Many people, including some friends, couldn't believe it. Some people just asked me why, but most were more direct — how could I get married when I identify myself as a feminist and a mustaqella. The status was shared over a hundred times, with comments such as, "The biggest man-hater got married and left you sad single women!" and "Strong independent woman until the rich groom appears!"
Shopping in Al-Ghouri Complex in Cairo — Photo: Frank Schulenburg
Perceiving feminists as anti-men and anti-marriage is anything but new. Yes, we hate men. Men who harass us, men who restrict our mobility, men who manipulate our self-esteem, men who sexualize us in the name of liberation or religion, men who feel entitled to our bodies, men who run away for no reason, men who stigmatize us if we act on our weaknesses, men who don't see us, who don't respect us, who think we're less important than political priorities — those are the men we hate, and the list goes on. Yes, we are anti-marriage — marriage that puts power in the hands of our husbands, marriage that feminizes domestic work and caregiving, marriage that subsumes our bodies. We hate this marriage as much as it hates us.
Once we label ourselves as feminists, we get stereotyped as strong, individualistic, rebellious, anti-men, and anti-systems in general. The worst thing about this is getting stigmatized for not conforming to these stereotypes. If a feminist asks for help, she gets stigmatized as needy or demanding. If she expresses her emotions, she gets stigmatized for being too emotional, weaker than a feminist should be.
This stereotyping depends on a binary: the normal woman versus the feminist. In other words, this assumes that if a woman defines herself as a feminist, this makes her superior to the normal woman, and if she fails to conform to the standards of being a feminist, she is relegated to the normal woman category.
Fighting is exhausting, especially fighting the people in your own camp.
So not only does the patriarchal system discipline us if we label ourselves as feminists, people do that as well. Even the most supportive friends discipline us. How many times do you hear that you are strong and you should not feel weak because you are a feminist? How many times do you hesitate to ask for help, thinking about what people will say, given your independent lifestyle and your feminism? They have to know that these supposedly encouraging words do more harm than good. We need people who understand us. We need social networks where we can get support, where we can express how fragile we are. Fighting is exhausting, especially fighting the people in your own camp
It is an approach that denies a person's right to act according to their own circumstances, and it's a kind of dehumanization process. We are denied our right to express what we feel, which is to be human.
Your body isn't yours
Apparently many people equate being an independent feminist with being individualistic, as if the attempt to leave home in order to have mobility is a statement that we make while foregoing all social bonds in the process. But we wanted mobility, not social isolation.
My husband shares domestic responsibilities with me: I have the right to divorce, and our home is quite different from our parents' in terms of gender roles. But I am not claiming that I married to change the unjust system upon which marriage is built in Egypt because I'm a feminist, nor do I use it to smash patriarchy. I have realized my limited abilities, and I just want things to work out peacefully for myself.
My family finally accepts the fact that I have sex, and that sex is one of the main aspects of my life. My mother buys me lingerie, and so does my sister. My dad gives us personal space during family visits. And he knows that we might be having sex right now, behind that door. It's done; my sexual affairs now are legitimized, by the virtue of law, and blessed by my family.
And this legitimization turns into sexual fantasy. You may have lived years and years of being surveilled in your family home. No door is allowed to be closed without there being an investigation into your "real" reasons for doing so. Even in the shower, you're asked why you take so much time in there. It feels as though you are forbidden from being alone with your body. It is not yours, simply. Solo sex, masturbation, is on a long list of prohibited activities. How is it that a person, a woman, becomes solely associated with her body, when any attempt to do so is monitored and censored? Masturbating usually happens secretly, bodies under a blanket, hand motions careful, eyes open to see if anyone appears, breaths slow and quiet, moans muted. Anxiety, secrecy and caution are your companions, but never your body.
Marriage can mark a turning point, from secrecy to privacy, from caution to saying clearly: "I'm sleeping with that man." This is not to say that marriage is the only way to overcome these conditions, but to highlight how perceptions change after marriage, as a legitimized means for women to have sex. As Michel Foucault argues, repression of any expression of sexuality in the familial home is more likely to produce sexuality than repress it. He argues that when sexuality becomes an object of surveillance and control, "it engenders at the same time an intensification of each individual's desire, for, in and over his[/her] body."* No wonder, then, that the ordinary fact of the family's presence behind that door can be arousing, a sexual fantasy. It's a final acknowledgement of our rights to our bodies. Here, inside this room, we are doing what you warned us against doing for a long time. Yes, I have someone sleeping in my bed.
See more from Culture / Society here