In Cairo, not wed to custom

Times Staff Writer

She sits in a cafe, her laptop unfolded, while at the next table a young man in a suit discreetly reaches for the hand of his fiancee, who blushes and laughs against a window in the night.

The couple whisper, almost conspiring. Mai Hawas knows what that’s like. She has been engaged twice, but neither romance lasted -- one man was preoccupied with work, the other consumed with money. Now she’s 31 and unmarried, a state that bemuses her parents and leaves Egyptian society, with its customs and curious eyes, wondering whether there is something wrong with this quiet woman in the embroidered head scarf.

Hawas’ passions are poetry, photography and her job as an architectural engineer at a firm sketching new designs for Mecca’s holy shrine complexes. These, not a man, give her identity. She wants a family, but like an increasing number of educated, professional women in Egypt, she craves a wider degree of independence than men are willing to grant and cultural expectations traditionally allow.


“Getting married and having a family is natural,” Hawas says. “We all need someone to trust. I don’t want to live alone. But I also don’t want to give up who I am.

“The men I meet are educated, yes that’s true, but some Egyptian men don’t like ‘girls’ to talk about politics and culture, or to argue with them about ideas. But I have my own personality. I don’t need someone else forming my mind.”

Marriage here is steeped in negotiations between families over dowries, money and who buys the couch and who the nightstand. But increasingly career-oriented women, along with Egypt’s high inflation rate and low wages, have complicated the scenario. Marriage now is often postponed by young men whose bank accounts are too small to win over a fiancee’s family, and by independent women less inclined to wed a rich man solely for children and security.

Economic uncertainty has slid into national neurosis; Egyptian nerves are riled these days as many women, either by desire or necessity, attempt to bypass conventions. Literacy rates for women have risen, and a United Nations study found that increasing numbers are joining the labor force, accounting for 31.4% of workers in 2005, up from 18% in 1996.

The single, professional woman is “a phenomenon that’s definitely been increasing” across the Middle East, said Madiha El Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. “These women feel they have a number of things to offer, and to give up, so they’ve become selective and very choosy. This is especially true among the upper class, but there is still great pressure on women in the lower and middle classes to marry young.”

Most unmarried men and women live with their parents in a maze of extended families and whispered advice. A single Muslim woman venturing beyond these walls to find her own apartment confronts the admonition of religious conservatives, the worry of her parents, the gossip of neighbors and reluctant landlords, many of whom believe that a woman on her own is less than chaste, and the kind of trouble that attracts the police.


“You can’t step outside these parameters,” says Hanan Sheikh, a painter and college professor, who, to the frustration of her parents, remains happily unwed. “My parents would never let me have my own apartment. . . . I’m 35 years old and I still feel like a girl. Slowly our culture has started to recognize us, but it’s with pity, like accepting someone who is ill or has cancer.”

Sheikh is accustomed to musing about her husband-less predicament and, as if rehearsing lines from an Arabic soap opera, she concedes with a mischievous laugh that she is a torment to her parents. The matter is particularly sensitive these days given that there appears to be a family curse: Her 30-year-old sister also is single.

Breakfasts at Sheikh’s house skip from talk of available men to cousins just married to dowries to hints that expectations could be lowered, perhaps even obliterated.

“You have to feel sorry for my parents after a while,” Sheikh says. “My mother says I’m a bad example to my sister. I have a 9 p.m. curfew in the summer, 7 p.m. in the winter. If not, the neighbors will say, ‘Ah, she returned home late again.’ If I don’t make it home on time, my father comes and picks me up so the neighbors don’t talk. In Egypt, everyone’s thinking about what others are saying.”

Younger women are trying to slip through these strictures. In coffee shops infused with hip-hop and Western motifs, college-age women are growing bolder, some having four or five boyfriends and leading lives that their parents, raised with arranged marriages and the rite of female genital excision, cannot understand. But Sheikh said tight European jeans and caramel cappuccinos have yet to alter the reality that “Egyptian boys have a conservative mentality and will not marry someone like that.”

It is where Islam and tradition encounter permissiveness and the allure of the West that tugs at Hawas’ and Sheikh’s identities. It is bewildering territory; this is an Egypt that produces risque music videos of Muslim pop divas amid incessant warnings of sin and debasement that echo from minarets and flow from clerics’ fatwas. It is a land where the hijab conveys different meanings -- for the faithful it is an emblem of Islam, for others it has become a stylish fashion of national dress.

“They try to convince you that you have to be veiled to get married. It’s a way for religious conservatives to entice women to wear the veil,” says Sheikh, whose long black hair is uncovered. “Religion has become another place to escape to. Thirty years ago, women wore veils to escape because they couldn’t afford modern, fancy clothes. Now they wear veils to escape society.

“Cairo has become so open. We’re more exposed to the West and the influence of satellite TV. We are like the village girl who gets brought to the city, that’s what our country has become. But the men want the veiled girl. She makes him feel safe.”

Nahla Emad Abdel Aziz wears a veil; she is not looking for escape. A doctor of internal medicine and a lecturer at Cairo University, the 33-year-old lives with her parents in an apartment building with a tricky elevator not far from the Nile.

She says today’s single women don’t have to endure the spinster labels and other stigmas attached to their counterparts of two generations ago. The country’s poverty and limited opportunities, even for the well-educated, who often earn less than $80 a month, are undermining confidence in the future and forcing many couples to reevaluate traditional gender roles.

“Men don’t want the responsibility because of financial reasons,” Aziz says. “They are more accepting of career women. Eventually they know they’ll need someone to help them financially.”

She doesn’t want to be single forever. Sitting beneath a chandelier in her living room, the hum of an air conditioner making faint the noises of mechanics and shopkeepers rising from the street, Aziz speaks of hospitals, why surgeons tend to be men and the gap she feels at the day’s end.

“I believe I’m missing something,” she says. “I need to have children and a family. It’s emotional, instinctual. You need other parts of life, not just work. But I never obsessed about it, never thought you had to run after it. I always believed [finding the right man] should be spontaneous. Some people think this is silly.”

The lovers by the window have left the cafe where Mai Hawas sits with a cup of tea, her laptop crammed with architectural musings and a book of poetry by the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi.

She is content in this space; this quiet, private space that is so hard to find in a metropolis of 16 million. A waiter approaches and is waved off. Hawas touches her copper-rimmed glasses, then folds her hands, then lifts her cup, putting it down before raising it again for a sip.

“I was engaged twice; both were arranged by our families,” she says. “The first time was to a policeman with the state security services. He was very well-educated, but carried too much pressure from his job. He wanted someone pretty and quiet. It lasted a month.

“The second was to an engineer from a lower social level and we agreed he would not pay the traditional money the groom pays the bride. We had planned to temporarily move to America and he wanted my parents to deposit money to buy furniture for our house when we returned to Egypt. It was very strange. He also wanted it a condition that he’d take 50% of my salary. I would have given it naturally, but to make it a demand, I didn’t like that. He was jealous of my success. The relationship lasted six months.”

She sips her tea. She doesn’t want to be slipped into someone else’s life like a bookmark. The waiter brings the check; Hawas, whose hair ebbs like a dark wave beneath her scarf, sits for a while, then slides her laptop into a bag and walks to her parents’ house, where perhaps they’ll offer a suggestion, neither pushy nor contrite, about where she might meet a man.

“Our society is not ready to accept a woman living on her own,” she says. “It will come naturally, though. Maybe in a few years you’ll see single women living alone in their own apartments.”


Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.