The spread of the Islamic mainstream has negatively affected the status of women in Egyptian society and has more dangerously demolished several old traditional patterns that previously granted wider liberties for women.

The spread of the Islamic mainstream has negatively affected the status of women in Egyptian society and has more dangerously demolished several old traditional patterns that previously granted wider liberties for women.

Since the settlement of the Bedouins in Marsa Matrouh, 550 kilometers northwest Cairo, women have had the upper hand inside the Bedouin house where a woman was called the ‘house pillar’ by the tribe.  Such perceptions contradict the stereotype of Bedouin women but the traditional tribal life has provided a space of freedom unattained by the inhabitants of the city. Widespread Salafist ideology, particularly in Matrouh, has influenced this status yet women have resisted in their own way.

The touchstone

Bedouin writer Abdullah Buzouir from Marsa Matrouh said women have been the touchstone of the Bedouin house since the beginning of time. The older she gets, the more she glows and the more valuable to her family she becomes. In the past, she was assigned to erect the pillar of the tent which should be done professionally since the tent’s load depends on it and accordingly all the weights of the house are distributed. This task indicates the partnership between the Bedouin man and woman and the appreciation of her status in the social life. She was also responsible for feeding the cattle owned by the Bedouin family and hosting the guests when her husband is away. Furthermore, her opinion was essential in choosing the bride of her son.

Old rights

One of the rights Bedouin women have enjoyed is the right of divorce, known in the Bedouin culture as the ‘Zohd’ right.  Fathy Farag, law researcher, explained: “A woman is entitled to announce that she is unwilling to continue her life with her husband for whatever reasons she may keep to herself. She has the right to go to one of the prominent figures in her tribe, preferably not her father, and state her will to leave her husband.”

The hosting party – the family whom the woman has chosen to stay with until the problem of her marriage is solved – consults her parents and husband. In many cases where a woman asks for the right of ‘Zohd’, she gets what she wants especially if she explicitly provides convincing reasons for her request and the men of the tribe help her fulfill her desire when proven harmed by her marriage, said Farag.

This right has been granted to Egyptian women lately, Farag said, whereas Bedouin women enjoyed it a long time ago. “In this context, the Bedouin woman has had more advantages than the modern Egyptian woman,” he stressed.

Socially cunning

Buzouir believes that the Bedouin woman has been able to fool the religious mainstream with her instinctive intelligence, linked to the desert life. She has agreed to wear the Niqab, which covers her face as well as her bodily features unlike the traditional costume she used to wear which did not reveal her body features, but left her face uncovered so she could be recognized. However, she has managed to exploit such veiling of her face to do things she would have never done before such as begging, delivering thus a message to the Salafists that they may cover the body, but a woman could, if she wanted, do things that contradict the notion of the imposed veil.

Salafists do not abide to Islamic teachings

Despite the traditional rights Bedouin women have enjoyed, they have been deprived of other religious rights that Salafists could not restore. Although Salafists have prevailed over the desert and tribal villages for about forty years, they have failed to restore one original and legitimate right of the Bedouin woman, which is the right of inheritance. “Conflicts arise within the same family and tribe over the woman’s inheritance under the pretext that the tribe’s inheritance must not go to another tribe by marriage ties.  Although such a right is granted to her by the teaching of Islam, the Salafist mainstream has failed to restore this religiously legitimate right.

Right of education

Umm elizz Breik, Bedouin writer and director of a public establishment in Matrouh, said education inside the Bedouin house especially for women depends on the house culture. “I have four sisters and they all acquired higher education and some of them continued their post graduate studies. It depends on the culture of the house in which we were raised,” she said.  “My mom believed that education is a weapon for women that they should never abandon although she was illiterate. She disregarded all social norms of the tribe and made sure we continued our education.”