An interview with sociologist and researcher of women in Upper Egypt, Samwa Anwar, who says that while women from the south are marginalized, they have powers unknown to many.
A woman from Upper Egypt (the south) is the household leader and an indispensable asset to her husband, managing all of his needs, although he might humiliate her in public. Her world is full of complexities and ambiguities.
A woman from Upper Egypt suffers violence and is often punished as the wrong-doer of everything. She is guilty because she begets girls instead of boys and she is held responsible when her children fall ill or her husband dies. And to top it off, she may likely be disinherited. A study by the Ministry of Justice revealed that 95 percent of Upper Egyptian women are deprived of inheritance.
These women avoid political life, due to their high illiteracy rate or because men refuse to involve them in politics.
Salma Anwar is a social researcher, novelist, and poet who has published a number of investigative reports on women from Upper Egypt. Her book, Upper Egypt Women Speak Out, comes from her time in the field meeting Upper Egyptian women and discovering unique aspects about their livelihoods. She made repeated visits to villages in Aswan, Qena, Sohag and Asyut, where she met more than 30 women of various ages and education levels
We started the dialogue with a question about the stereotype image of Upper Egyptian women as oppressed and helpless women.
Salma Anwar, would you say that the stereotype of Upper Egyptian women as oppressed is realistic?
It is only partially realistic and does not reflect the entire picture. There is an amount of physical, verbal, and moral violence against them, and for this matter against all Egyptian women. It is particularly practiced in Upper Egypt and the southern edge of Upper Egypt, where there is a tendency to treat Upper Egyptian women callously. Having said that, we should note that Upper Egyptian women are consistently trying to improve their status. Negotiations are regularly held to enhance their rights and the rights of their children to education, as well as their right to go out and change their traditional clothing style and eating habits.
An Upper Egyptian woman is not weak or oppressed; she is strong in her own way. Given the circumstances she is living under and without disobeying her husband’s orders, she can be successful and bring up her children even within Upper Egypt’s disadvantaged environment. She can also maintain her inherited traditions amid the accelerating cultural changes that may easily distort or eliminate the recognized cultural setup. On the other hand, an Upper Egyptian woman may visit phony religious scholars and impostors when she finds no other way to solve her family’s problems. She might resort to traditional medicine, in the absence of modern treatment methods.
What about the education level of women in Upper Egypt?
There is a massive movement with regards to women’s education and post-graduate study in Upper Egypt. Most of the women I met were university graduates. However, the question of women traveling abroad for education is only possible for married women who may accompany their husbands employed abroad or pursue their higher education. For Upper Egyptian women, discovering the world is only possible through marriage or education in Cairo. I met old ladies who had the opportunity to travel abroad for work during marriage.
What are the most conspicuous traditions still associated with southern women?
Generally speaking, Upper Egyptian women still maintain their traditions and heritage. This is evident in small details like using old kitchen utensils, including the Pharaonic wooden tool ‘Zinadah’ which is used for smoothing okra to prepare ‘Waika’, the Upper Egyptian dish. They also bake ‘sunny bread’, a tradition that has been carried over for many centuries and symbolizes the Pharaonic God Amon. They also use the traditional medicines, including herbs, for treating diseases.
Upper Egyptian women still maintain the special rituals used in marriages, births, and death, and they believe in the world of magic. Many women told me tales about the power of magic and the underworld and society’s attitude about mentally disturbed persons and its dealing with the problem of envy and ghosts. These beliefs persist despite their use of advanced technology.
How would you describe Upper Egyptian women in the household?
An Upper Egyptian woman is the head of her household, manages the resources and acts as leader at that private space in as much as her movement in the public space is limited and subjected to husband’s approval.
In any case, she remains strong, distinguished, intelligent and well-acquainted with her surroundings. Through her intelligence, she can achieve large gains and enjoy the husband’s absolute trust, because he cannot run his own world without her.
What was the most unique experience during your visits to Upper Egypt’s towns?
The stories of goblins and ghosts treated as a natural part of life. Another exciting experience is the traditional songs associated with certain natural phenomena like singing and drum-beating during the eclipse of the moon, in addition to chants sung during weddings, Hajj, mourning, and burial of the dead. It should be noted, however, that these traditions are gradually disappearing.
In your opinion, what do women in Upper Egypt need?
The circumstances of women in Upper Egypt are not different from those in Cairo or Lower Egypt. They all have the same means, watch Indian and Turkish TV series and are influenced by their lifestyles. An Upper Egypt house has Internet and social media. We can therefore say that lifestyle differences are shrinking. There are no closed societies, but even with these changes, the basic driver for women is her upbringing, family habits and the traditions originating in her house and village. They are more effective than social media and Indian and Turkish TV series.
What Upper Egyptian women need is education; it is their only means to improve their socioeconomic status and empower them to take on jobs that are not considered humiliating by men. Besides, education will play an essential role in changing men’s thoughts about the labor market. The problem faced in Upper Egypt governorates and Egypt in general is the declining quality of education.
How can Upper Egypt be developed?
To understand and develop the South, it is necessary to study the so-called “cultural resistance” of the concepts and terms of the North. Why do people in a particular area reject certain concepts and accept others? Why does Cairo TV, for example, succeed in changing thoughts in Upper Egypt only to the extent allowed by the Southerners themselves?
Upper Egypt is a society loaded with cultural and religious components in addition to class and tribal complexities covered with a veneer of urbanized living. There needs to be a sustained research project to save an eroding heritage.