For anyone who has experienced the stages of culture shock, this post is about how I am dealing with my induction into the “phase of frustration.”
The first few months in Egypt, I felt like this place made me more alive. Each day was new and exciting. Each new friend a gem in my pocket to join a whole crowd of others. Each sunny day a reminder that my winter would be mild, especially relative to my damp and grey Seattle winters of the previous three years. I wrote poetry about the “magic” of my surroundings, and how it made me feel “electric.” As this is not my first time living abroad, I am no stranger to culture shock and the mental tempest at the end of the honeymoon period. While living in South Korea and Zhengzhou, China it took me roughly six months to move beyond that “honeymoon stage.” Cairo, rather Sheikh Zayed, became the place where I lasted the typical three months before mentally throwing in the towel. I have friends for whom their honeymoon period lasted only a few weeks. As a feather in my fez, in that time I hadn’t had any of the experiences I had read about. The verbal or physical harassment news outlets so frequently report were all noticeably absent from my day to day life. None of that was part of my reality. Suddenly, it was.
On the whole, I find the people I meet to be in one of two camps: those who love Cairo and those who know almost immediately it is not for them. The former have magic and heart connected with the soil and sand of Egypt. The latter see all too clearly what is broken and needs to be, must be, fixed. For this second group, especially women, the ideologies of upbringing clash and clash hard with the local code of ethics. Most foreign women I have become acquainted with were raised with a set of mores regarding the roles of women that differs significantly from how women are raised here. I find that those who are most successful with the dissonance of this new culture accept and live within the parameters of each contrasting reality. They have rules for dress, for who may benefit from their society, and where and when they may accomplish certain activities. The idea of cultural relativism is also particularly useful to some people. It isn’t wrong. Only different. What I hear a lot is, “It’s just different here.”
One of the first moments when I realized that Egypt and I, perhaps not quite oil and water, wouldn’t make great bedfellows was when I visited the Mohamed Ali Mosque with some out of town guests. At the entrance to the mosque was a huge sign, nearly 1/4 the length of the entrance wall, reaching from floor to ceiling, emblazoned with a slogan proclaiming Islam a religion of feminism. Interested in this idea, I went over to talk with the women passing out literature. I was not surprised to find that both women were heavily veiled, though that had little to do with my eventual reservations. The woman I was speaking with began her talk by explaining her role within Islam. I expected, from my somewhat limited purview, she would begin by talking about her aims to dress modestly, continue with her commitment to daily prayers, and her fervor for God. She surprised me by saying, “When I make food for my husband, I am worshipping Allah.” I reminded myself, though probably not in so few words, devotion has many forms. On this, and many other things, it was apparent that we would never agree on a form of devotion, or even a definition of feminism, but still we talked. After a few minutes I felt comfortable asking her how she felt about the sexism and disrespect shown women on the streets in Cairo. My question had stunned her, and she did not seem to have a ready reply. This immediately made me feel as though I had crossed a boundary. My brain started to spin with internal arguments, “Should I not have tried to have a dialogue? Isn’t that what is expected?” Eventually she said that everyone could always do better. For the remainder of our time together, I allowed myself to listen, but didn’t ask any pressing questions. Anxiety had risen in my throat and I lost the confidence to question. We parted only when my husband and our friends were ready to go.
At the time she and I spoke, I had experienced very little of this disrespect myself. The first time I experienced verbal harassment I was walking home alone from the grocery store. My reaction was automatic: I simply shouted something lewd back. That is a ritual that has continued. It always shocks me to see how surprised they look. I have wondered, though not at length, what should my reaction be?
On the bus to and from school we have become accustomed to the same bus driver each day. Back in September, I had an experience and I wasn’t sure if it was strange or not. Often in my area, men and women kiss each other on the cheek to say hello, though very devout Muslims won’t touch a member of the opposite sex who is not in their family. On this particular September day, our driver shook my hand and then kissed me on each cheek. I had never seen him do this with anyone else, but I was new and unsure of the protocol. Possibly he noticed my state of discomfort, but that never happened again. My husband said that he was likely just being nice, but he was also unsure as to its propriety. Earlier this week I went home on the early bus, which meant I was on the bus alone when we reached my stop, my husband still at work. While descending the stairs I turned to call back, “Thank you, see you Wednesday.” My driver puckered his lips and kissed the air twice. His eyes looked heavy. I felt nervous. This made me uncomfortable. My first reaction was, “Oh no. What did I do wrong?”
I did nothing wrong. This place, this place that at first made me feel electric and magical is turning me into someone I don’t always recognize. No stranger to questioning other people’s motives, I was suddenly ready to blame myself for another person’s transgression. What makes this so hard is that I am not alone in this. Many women voice the same concerns. “What could I do differently? What could I change about my lifestyle that would prevent this from happening?” Most striking, is that while my experiences have soured my perspective, I have been lucky. Not so the others. The other women. Women with different stories.
This takes me back to the phrase, “It’s just different here.” While that may be so, it is never socially or culturally appropriate to take such liberties. Naked, modestly dressed, or in a burqa a woman is a human being deserving of respect. Cultural relativism is not an appropriate excuse for subjugation of women. Or, in my opinion, subjugation of any people, anywhere.
I want to be sensitive. I want to remain who I am. I want to be respected.
We shall see.