By Ali Gamal
After carefully checking she was not being followed, Yara locked the gate to her building on a narrow lane in Cairo and headed to her rented flat. The young journalist lives apart from her parents, and is one of a growing number bucking the trend in Egypt where girls rarely leave the family home before marriage. “I have to achieve my goals regardless of what people are saying. I chose to live separately from my brother, who also lives in Cairo, to find more time for writing and reading,” she said.
“Egyptian women participated in demonstrations demanding rights for the whole of society,” said Nehad Abul Qomsan, director of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights. “That broke their isolation and made them bolder in asserting personal rights
“The rest of my family live in El- Arish, North Sinai, and there are no suitable career opportunities for me there.” Her room does not have a dressing table, but the walls are filled with images of political activists and freedom slogans. “My mother accepted that I wanted to live independently because she is a social activist, but she’s got problems with my uncle telling her that it is not acceptable for me to live alone and that it might tarnish my reputation”.
Unwanted attention: The growing phenomenon can be traced back to the calls for change that accompanied the revolution in early 2011. “Egyptian women participated in demonstrations demanding rights for the whole of society,” said Nehad Abul Qomsan, director of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights. “That broke their isolation and made them bolder in asserting personal rights.” She said for young girls, leaving home is a gradual process because they have been so conditioned by society frowning on it. “The path to independence generally begins when girls come to major cities to study and then see that life isn’t as scary as was described to them,” she said.
One such home-leaver is Minah al-Sharqawy. She has been studying mass communications in Cairo and does not intend to return to her family in Upper Egypt after she gets her degree. “I chose to be less noticeable by living in an apartment block where there are lots of doctors’ clinics and companies. Girls who live on their own are more likely to attract harassers and be followed home.” “Independence gives you more responsibilities than freedom. My advice to girls is not to go independent without your parents’ approval,” she concluded.
Generational gap: But some young girls see their parents’ attitudes as inconsistent. “Parents can’t accept their daughters living alone in the same neighbourhood, and yet they would accept their daughter living alone if she went abroad for study,” said one NGO worker, “A”, who did not want to reveal her identity in case her family rebuked her for saying so. Currently in her 20s, she returned to the family home after more than one-and-a-half years of living independently.
“Living anywhere in Egypt, people watch a girl’s every move,” she said. “They monitor when she leaves and what time she returns, who she is hanging out with, her clothes and whether she is made up. “Even complete strangers, in such instances, become guardians of morality and make themselves the girls’ custodian in the absence of her parents,” she added. “The gulf between the females from my generation and my mother’s generation seems to be getting bigger. Women from their generation still hold traditional expectations for women.”
Because of this, few young girls harbouring wishes to leave home broach the subject with their parents. “Most Egyptian girls discuss their desire to live separately from their families with each other, but only 35% raise the issue with their mother or father,” says Dr Olfat Allam, a consultant psychotherapist. But Dr Allam warns about what she calls a “fake” life of independence, where a girl lives on her own but still needs financial support from her family.
‘Buy a dog!’: In some cases though, girls make a point of taking on both burdens. “I am proud to be living independently,” says Mai Abdulghani, a translator. “I have never asked my father for financial assistance and I have dealt with all the problems that have arisen on my own.” Despite wearing a veil and being religiously devout, Mai says she has still experienced many difficulties with landlords. “They treated us like their private property or children who could be controlled and had to obey them,” she said. “For instance, they want details about where we go, who we are meeting, what time we plan on coming home and who visits the apartment - even if the visitors are female”.
Even when a girl’s family is around, though, the risks can be the same. Shaimaa lives a 20-minute walk from her parents’ house. Despite this, she says she was being stalked by a neighbour. “I bought a large dog and his behaviour stopped,” she says. “I am stricter with myself now that I live alone than my parents were with me when I lived with them. For instance, I will only allow a couple of female friends to visit me in my apartment occasionally and I always get home before 21:00 because otherwise my neighbours will talk. “For any girl who wants to live alone, I advise her to get a dog!”