Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Aristotle – Alexander the Great
Saul Bellow – Philip Roth
Ralph Waldo Emerson – Hendry David Thoreau
Graham Green – Muriel Spark
Ansel Adams – Georgia O’Keefe

What these pairs have in common is that the first person in each couple became a mentor for the second one. In Greek mythology, Mentor was the friend of Odysseus who raised and educated his son Telemachus while Odysseus was fighting in the Trojan war. The Ancient Greeks adopted the concept of mentorship as they developed relationships between elders and younger boys, notoriously often extending beyond the provision of pearls of wisdom. In the words of John C. Crosby, “mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.”

Identifying Role Models
 If the fad of life coaches and ‘personal development consultants’ [suppressing eye roll] suggests anything, it is that people constantly need guidance. For young women in Egypt, identifying mentors differs from such relationships in the American corporate environment, as this is not as enthusiastic a culture of giving and receiving feedback and openly discussing ambitions, dreams and insecurities.

My newest project aims at prompting young women to seek inspiration – to think about who their role models are, express what they admire about them, and draw on each other’s selections for more inspiration. The scope of the project remains narrow, as its primary objective is merely to prod thought and articulation of what qualities a role model embodies. At a later stage, the project will help participants get in touch with individuals they respect and establish mentoring relationships with them; for now, the focus is on research and self-inquiry. While the details of the project execution must remain confidential for now, your input would be is invaluable for its completion.

Contribute: Who is your role model?
 Use the comment box below or send me an email with the answers to the following questions. Answers will not be linked to your name, so unleash your brutal honesty. Men and women are both invited to respond.

Which public figure--male or female, current or historical--serves as your role model? Explain why in one sentence.

Name a quality you seek or have found in a mentor.

On a personal note
This idea was born out of a very personal place, as I have been having some heavy thoughts in the past two weeks. Life continues to be fulfilling, surprising, and wonderful, but I have had to revisit my priorities for my remaining time in Egypt, the rest of the Fellowship, and my immediate post-Fellowship plans. This process has been especially difficult, given the constant state of overstimulation in which I have been operating and my distance from individuals with whom I have spent countless nights and walks dissecting ourselves to the core.

As my own (difficult) quest for a mentor on the ground continues, I find myself turning to literature and words and, specifically, to the intersection of one of my favourite writers with an emerging new role model for me. This took the form of a commencement address on tackling uncertainty and change, the following passage of which always travels with me:

“Improvisation. Joan Didion, a writer who has been charting our responses to change since the 1960s, has a memorable passage describing how her husband said they’d begun a trip to Paris in the right spirit: “He meant doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them,” she wrote, “but because we wanted to do them. He meant wanting. He meant living.”

She was referring to life as a kind of improvisation: That magical crossroads of rigor and ease, structure and freedom, reason and intuition. What she calls being prepared to “go with the change.” Uncertainty, in other words, makes us feel alive. As jazz great Charlie Parker put it, “Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that… and just play.”

Let the hunt for that magical crossroads begin.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Women, Men, Flirting, Marriage in Cairo

Agency over Women's Lives

“We can now expect women to go out to work and men stay at home waiting for their wives to return. People can also expect to see mustachioed wives with downtrodden men at their side pushing baby buggies.” – Member of Egyptian Parliament Gamal Zahran

Mr. Zahran’s fear of the type of gender equality that would require a man to push a baby buggy was expressed in response to proposed reforms to Egypt’s Personal Status laws. The 1929 statutes that govern marriage, divorce and domestic obligations between men and women have prevented Egypt from fully aligning itself with international treaties and conventions that set the standard for women’s rights worldwide. Specifically, Egypt ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) with reservations to accommodate the prescriptions of the Personal Status Law. These reservations carve out exceptions for Egypt with regard to “equality of men and women in all matters related to marriage and family relations” and allow the country to comply with the convention only provided that “compliance does not run counter to the Islamic Sharia.”

According to the 1929 law, women can only file for divorce if they can prove physical or psychological abuse, even in cases of polygamy. A 2000 amendment enabled women to “repudiate their marriages as long as they agreed to forego any financial claims.” A different provision of the Personal Status Law reads that a woman must wait 4 years before attempting to dissolve her marriage to a disappearing husband – and is obliged to return to that husband if he ever reappears, regardless of her own marriage status at the time.

The National Democratic Party is about to introduce legislation that would reform the Personal Status Law and allow women more agency over their marriage-related decisions. According to Zeinab Radwan, an NDP Policies Committee member, criticisms such as Mr. Zahran’s reveal that “men in this country are not used to the idea that women have rights. They are used to the fact of their own power.”

Women’s Narratives (Along Men's)
 In my time in Egypt, I have encountered women who laugh at the suggestion of having to cover their hair, have spent time with my colleagues who scorn the notion that they should not work and get married as old-fashioned, and have attended a soccer match only to be surrounded by enthusiastic Egyptian girls in tight jeans, jerseys and face paint, chanting along their male counterparts. The same portraits of modernity that typify any urban metropolitan center recur in Cairo as well.

However, I have also experienced Egypt otherwise. On a recent night, a group of my closer friends and I wandered around Al Azhar Park. Green is not a word to accurately convey the beauties of Cairo, so being surrounded by it within view of the Citadel at night was a real treat (of the kind that required a 45-minute ride in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but lungs need to earn that oxygen!) This was the night that one of my best friends remarked that “it was as if couples were unleashed into Cairo.” We crossed the street and saw couples. Sat at a bench in the park and saw Egyptian couples holding hands (ie. A Lonely Planet Guide “don’t” for Westerners). We were surrounded by displays of love in a way that not only nearly induced my gag instinct, but also was rather atypical of Cairo.

After some aimless wandering—typical of any group excursion that necessitates at least three phone calls along the lines of “Exactly what does the tree under which you are standing look like?”—we sat down on a grassy hill overlooking the Citadel and mosques at night. All the girls in the group had long sleeves, long pants and scarves on, rendering them almost completely covered. Twenty minutes in, two uniformed guards stopped by and looked at us. Nadine, the only fluent Arabic speaker and native Egyptian among us, asked them what the problem was and they pulled her aside. They conveyed to her that we had been reported for… “excessive flirting.” They clarified that she, being Egyptian and all, probably understood exactly how she should conduct herself, but that she should make sure the rest of us were also aware of the unspoken rules. They cited the incident of one of the girls having shared a puff of her cigarette with a guy, which none of us remembered happening and remained bemused by the uniqueness of the gesture. I was immediately reminded of the time that a colleague smoking inside an office (smoking in all its forms is perfectly acceptable in Cairo, though trickier for women) was reprimanded for “blowing out her smoke seductively.” Picture no Audrey Hepburn/Holly Golightly cigarette holder and lace gloves; it was the thin exhale of smoke through the mouth that pushed buttons.

Might I admit, ours can be a typically flirtatious group with all our temperaments, the tensions of being abroad and away from the familiar and the collection of everyone’s stories, although I cannot imagine flirtation being a reportable crime (and remain slightly amused at the fact that all our 20something bubbling tension was so visible that it had to be reported.) Yet, on this particular night, we were surprisingly well-behaved, especially given that the whole scene unfolded with an Egyptian couple chasing one another, playing a very flirtatious game of hide-and-seek in the background, as well as other couples shrieking and giggling together on the hill—as individuals can and do in parks.  The guards did not expressly prohibit us from doing anything – they did not ask our co-ed group to split up, or to stop smoking, or to dress differently or to leave – and soon departed.

Nadine sweetly informed the group that we were probably singled out because we were foreigners, because they almost expected a certain kind of inappropriate conduct from us. This is similar to the reasons why Western-looking women get picked on in the street, regardless of how respectfully they are dressed. Standing in line for a falafel sandwich or crossing the street after work is almost always reliably coupled by whistling, hissing, making kissing sounds, and feeling like a man is undressing a woman with his eyes. Men sometimes even gesture to signify they want us to approach them or get in their cars or that, bluntly put, they would love to make sweet, sweet love.

Dressing respectfully can minimize this, but can by no means prevent it entirely. I have very little understanding or sympathy for the tourists who wander the streets of Cairo in their white American Eagle booty shorts and then complain that they are attracting the wrong kind of attention. I further virtually demand of myself and others to be respectful of a society’s codes and morals, however divergent they are from my own and however restrictive they may be of my lifestyle. In the same way that I did not come to Cairo to breathe in fresh air and take in the peace and quiet of a countryside, I also did not come here to flaunt my thighs to the world in a mini skirt. I try to remind myself that these are the attitudes, as expressed in the statements of Mr. Zahran or the hissing on the street outside the grocery store or the judgmental looks from fellow women which are almost tougher to handle, that create a need for women’s development work in Cairo and that make my presence here relevant.

However, how does a society achieve a change in prototypes and communal codes when these are so deeply entrenched in religion and gender perceptions held for centuries? The proposed changes to the Personal Status Law are a step, but the vehement opposition to them and the history of reform that lasts only half a decade before a radical wave of re-conservatization sweeps society make me skeptical. How does a society raise its men to not whistle at women who walk past them and not grab the girl at the market? How can women here maintain a sense of individuality, uniqueness, and identity without putting themselves so publicly in the spotlight that they suffer from both the aforementioned repercussions and an irreparable reputational wound?

The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to their dream.
-Joan Didion
Egypt poses a constant sensitivity filter test. Everything I have described refers to an experience or conversation I have had at work or at home and, as a survey of blogs and journal articles will reveal, none of it is unique and all of my encounters and critiques are, in fact, quite trite.  Despite the little new informational value of the observations, it is still proving challenging to convey them in a way that does the society justice and does not succumb to standard stereotypes. There is a danger of attributing all the ostensibly backward and stiflingly conservative traits of this society to Islam, failing to see the gradations within Islam and the way in which tradition and attitudes can be shaped outside religion here too (albeit more rarely). There is a further danger of assuming this society is uniformly backward and consistently conservative, entirely missing its trends towards progressive and critical thought or its sprouts of modernity. There is yet another danger of assuming the Western way is the standard when it comes to personal freedoms and any community that falls short of this standard is immediately somewhat more primitive in its functioning.

More personally, there are the dangers of ingratitude for the hospitality and warmth of a country that has become a home. Can one love Cairo and Egypt as much as I do when some of its attitudes and workings provoke such a visceral reaction? In telling the story, how does one do it justice without whining, sweeping pessimism, or demonization?

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Leaves were falling, just like embers,
In colors red and gold, they set us on fire
Burning just like moonbeams in our eyes.

Somebody said they saw me, 

swinging the world by the tail
Bouncing over a white cloud,

killing the blues.

-Alison Kraus and Robert Plant, Killing the Blues

The "bouncing over a white cloud" phase has been replaced with the blues for the first time since I set out on this journey. The overstimulation of the past six weeks has given way to a light melancholy.

Disclaimer: A tide of "ohmygoshsweetie iseverythingokay" would only serve to remind me of why I had once asked Cooper to please slap me if I ever became one of those people who blogged about their feelings. I am fine. Life continues to be difficult--in its usual ways, the ones with which I know how to live--but beautiful. I continue to go to bed here every night with contentment and the fortunate knowledge that the world moved me in small ways - something that a year or two ago would have been a small miracle.

The blues are the result of having seen too many sunrises, of harboring a bout of nostalgia for aimless wandering for miles in fall weather, of having allowed myself to float inside my own head a bit. One of the ways in which this Fellowship and its tenets have changed my life is by enabling--and forcing--me to live in the moment, to be mindfully present. The dizzying pace of life that stemmed from being faithful to this tenet has given way to the realization that all the questions that were put off for the sake of living in the moment are now calling for an answer: sustaining this happiness, finding a way to transform passions into a way of living, figuring out what the real passions are and somehow conjuring all this to translate into a next step - a fellowship placement after Egypt, graduate school, or whatever else life has in store. In the words of Joan Didion, it is time to "pick the places you do not walk away from."

The 'Women's Issues' Quandary

Having just completed the Needs Assessment phase of my project with UNIFEM in Cairo, the most thought-provoking finding relates to the expectations female parliamentarians ought to meet. Specifically, conversations with colleagues in this field have corroborated my research finding that female parliamentarians in Egypt are expected to and should primarily work on 'women's issues.' This is not an Egypt-specific phenomenon; parliamentarians from Pakistan to Denmark have expressed either the thought that men treat them as though they "are only qualified to talk about women's issues" or the conviction that it is by focusing on women's issues themselves that they bridge the gap in women's political representation.

Sociopolitical theorists and experts in women studies differ on the benefits of female parliamentarians focusing on 'soft issues.' Some argue that by focusing on soft issues, female parliamentarians are not contributing to the combat of gender discrimination and are, instead, perpetuating the same cycle of gender stereotyping. Others counter that in certain political systems, questions related to the welfare of women, such as reproductive health, family benefits, and labor and wage issues, will not be addressed unless women themselves highlight them. In that sense, women are perceived to have both a vested interest and a specialization in certain arenas and, according to these theorists, female MPs should channel these advantages to the representation of women-specific issues.

The latter view appears to reflect the Egyptian attitude toward female parliamentarians. Given the limited attention 'women's issues' receive in the parliament at the moment, any legislative focus that would prioritize their consideration would be a welcome improvement. I recently began drafting what the U.N., with its special affection for bureaucracy and jargon, calls a "Logical Framework" – essentially, a document that outlines the overall goal, major objectives, activities, outputs, and impact of the project for which I am responsible. Through this process, I realized that there emerged a motif whereby the goals, objectives and impact converged towards equipping female parliamentarians to shed light specifically on women's issues, with the ultimate goal of affecting a policy change in that arena. When I discussed the issue with my co-workers in order to figure out if this was actually flawed logic, full of assumptions about the focus of female parliamentarians' work, they all seemed to suggest that this is an intentional focus – that women would be most effective as parliamentarians if they advanced what is perceived as the women's agenda.

After much conversation and research, I have come to understand how Egyptian female parliamentarians' focus on women-specific issues and their prioritizing shifting policies related to women may be not only necessary, but perhaps the best way for them to maximize their impact in their new role. And yet, I continue to personally struggle with this proposition. What if this type of focus and 'pigeon-holing' creates a precedent for female parliamentarians that they are unable to break in the mid to long term, once they are better versed in the political machinations and want to expand their involvement? What if the example such a commitment to women's issues sets shows other women that they are best off limiting themselves to that with which they are genetically familiar? And how would a dedicated focus of female parliamentarians on women's issues affect men's perception of women in the legislature? Devising a culturally appropriate and customized answer to the questions the project poses is a non-negotiable parameter for its success, but when the answer requires one to set aside her own (and granted, Western acquired and Western coloured) knowledge and beliefs, it makes every day at work an internal conflict.