One of the most difficult things for a wife here in upper Egypt is having to keep silent when the husband makes decisions which effect the entire family. Its now Eid Al Ahad, the feast of the Sacrifice, although it has become the feast of the meat! There are so many emotional issues connected to this feast but it is so much more difficult for the wives. In our family, with four husbands, four wives, their kids and two elderly parents, the meat issue becomes fraught with tension.
As I wrote in a previous blog, the men buy other members of the family a kilo of meat as a gift for Eid. But if a husband does not accept the gift of meat, for whatever reason, the wife has to accept that decision, without question. She cannot change the decision and cannot say anything about it. If the husband ‘shares’ what they have in the kitchen, because someone in another flat has run out, then again she has no voice. Even if she is angry or upset about it she doesn’t show it, but it builds up inside her nonetheless.
Guilt is often an emotional factor in refusing the gift, and the refusing not only upsets the giver of the gift, but also the entire family. The intended receivers of the meat have their own reasons, usually because they do not want to deprive the family of the giver, and so it becomes a catch 22 situation. Meat is the equivalent of two weeks vegetable money and so it is not an easy thing to gift, but because it is the feast they do it anyway, leaving themselves short. The men think of other family member’s needs before the needs of their wives. This leaves the wife feeling like the last person on the husband’s list of priorities.
The wife is powerless, and just has to accept whatever the husband decides. This pretty much applies to every aspect of their family life. The husband has a purpose, which the wife does not. He can come and go as he pleases, and often spends every night outside the house, spending time with his friends in the cafe, smoking shisha and playing dominoes, or running here and there doing favours for everyone else! The only thing a wife has is the TV, or the other wives if she gets on with them, Their lives are empty and depressing. They can pursue no hobby or craft, unless they are single or divorced, because they have to be on call for the husband, or taking care of the house, children and his elderly parents.
As soon as the husband comes in everything is dropped and she has to cater to his needs. It doesn’t matter what she is are doing, she has to stop. This means that she has little time for herself. You often hear a man call for what he wants “YaBett, Mayya”, (Girl; Water). There is no please, no thank you, just the command. If she was watching TV when he came in then he picks up the remote control and changes the channel. It doesn’t matter that she was watching something. He now wants to watch something else. If he is hungry then she immediately has to cook and if its not hot enough or ‘something’ not enough he will shout at her and criticise her. Sometimes she will shout back, especially if she is already busy with something else but she still has to do it. These men create so much unnecessary stress with their constant needs and demands. The wives also have to feed the elderly parents, whether they want to or not, and put up with bad treatment from them too.
If her husband wants to entertain his friends at home she has to provide them with tea, or juice or cook them food when her husbands tells her to. She has no rights to tell anyone to leave and if one of her brothers-in-law comes in he treats the place as though it is his, and never asks for her permission to enter. After all, it is his family home! A husband’s brother can also also chastise his brothers wife, and often they interfere in each other’s arguments. For a while, when I first got here, I was completely confused as to who was married to whom, as they all seemed to think that they were married to each other’s wives and were free to deal with them as though they were! They really were treated as just family servants!
The result of all of this abuse and neglect is depression, massively low self-esteem, psychosomatic illnesses, and other psychological issues. Depression seems to be the norm here and when women do get ‘hysterical’ or reach saturation point, having ignored their own needs to take of the man’s needs and desires, they are seen to be the victim of a djinn (evil spirit)! This usually entails the woman breaking down and going ‘crazy’, because she cannot take it any longer.
When I first came to live here I woke up one morning to the sound of a woman screaming at the top of her lungs in the building next door to us. She was obviously having a really difficult time and I could feel the fear and anguish in her voice. She sounded to me like she was being battered. I went out onto the landing, feeling concerned and wondering whether I should go around to her, when my sister-in-law came out too. We looked at each other and both of us understood exactly how the woman was feeling but knew there was nothing we could do about it. WE felt powerless. My husband Omar said she must have a djinn in her. Didn’t sound like a djinn to me. I know the sound of a woman being beaten by a man!
Later we were told that she did indeed have a djinn and that the local sheikh was called in to take the djinn out of her. I asked how he did that and Omar told me that he would beat it out of her with a stick, because the Djinn doesn’t like pain! Not only was the woman possibly being abused by her husband but she was also abused by a so-called holy man! I was dumbfounded! Nobody listened when I said she was being beaten by her husband; but a few months later I made friends with this woman and she invited me around for tea. While we were chatting, through my early Arabic, she mentioned her husband’s violence. She was a miserably unhappy woman. She was young and very pretty and had had a little daughter a few months previously, but her Mother-in-law wanted a grandson and constantly badgered her son, who was a bit of an idiot, to produce one. Having sons is a wives’ raison d’être. He took out his frustrations on his wife, instead of dealing with his mother, who was really the one who deserved it!!
For smart women, who marry men who do not match them. depression hits hard and they usually end up with a host of psychosomatic symptoms. But being possessed by a djinn is usually the way a woman declares to the world that she can no longer take it! Her mind, emotions and body hit the Wall.
I worked with one lovely woman who had mysterious skin rashes that just appeared suddenly out of nowhere. Her husband took her to many doctors in Cairo to find out what it was but they said it was psychological. They lived in their own house away from the rest of the family as she had become so depressed her husband thought it was best to move. When she was living in her husband’s family home she had had one son and two daughters. The other wife of her brother-in-law was really nasty to her about the fact that she only had one son, whereas she herself had three. Mona, a soft and very quiet woman, was so hurt by this constant barrage of scorn and spite, that she became ill. Women can be so cruel to each other here. Her husband, a good man, decided, after their third daughter, was born to move them into their own home so that Mona could be away from the spite. Mona never had any more children, having decided that she could never have a boy again but she became steadily more and more depressed and the illness got worse and worse. Her husband despaired but did his best to try to find the best medicine for her. But nothing worked. A few months later this spiteful woman apologised to her as her son had nearly died in an accident and she felt sure that Allah was punishing her for her nastiness!
It is incredibly sad to feel purposeless or that you are not good enough as a wife. Muslim men can marry four wives, although most do not. But they constantly use the threat of divorce to keep a wife in line. Wives are very aware that if they don’t fill their quota of sons that the husband can quite easily go and marry another one who will. Even in jest they are threatened. ‘If you don’t do such and such.’ they joke, ‘I will divorce you’. Women are kept feeling insecure, that way they can be controlled more easily. Men constantly make hurtful jokes about another woman being more beautiful and try to make their wives jealous. They watch belly dancing on TV, which is more like lap-dancing the way they do it now and the wife is powerless to do anything about it. All she can do is watch it too and try to make herself as desirable as the woman on TV, trying hard to dismiss the reality of it. I watch the wives as they go about their normal routine while their husbands are glued, addict-like, to the woman on the screen and I wonder what they really feel. It is an incredibly uncomfortable experience to witness.
Most of the women don’t have close friends or confidants and if they do there is no sense of solidarity between them. The wives in our house gossip with the woman next door or with each other. One of our neighbours has a few children, a couple of them boys. Her husband remarried a wealthy woman and lives with her and her sons in another house. The first wife was pregnant when he married the second one. Now he is trying to sell the house from under the first one, for a pittance! He won’t grant her a divorce though. If he did at least she would get a pension from the government. He gives her no money so her eldest son tries to make some money for them to live, but he physically abuses his mother now too. She looks for solace from the women here, but they can do nothing to help and often are so cut off from their own feelings that they can’t even begin to identity with another woman’s problems. If they did they would start to question their own life and and then realise that they too are in a hopeless position.
The 45 year old woman down the road from us, in the little shop which they recently opened, had a baby girl at the beginning of the year. Her husband, a heavy marijuana smoker, came home one night and had sex with her while she was really ill! “Broken,” as she says. The result was the baby girl. The women joke about it because they can do nothing about it. They have to give their husbands what they want. They have absolutely no rights whatsoever. No matter what ‘Islam’ says, the culture is stronger than the religion!
Recently we had a wedding here in our house and one of the wives went to the beautician to have herself ‘waxed’ and threaded. I made a joke to one of the other women and asked her why she was doing that? Did she hope to find another husband at the wedding? “No”,” she answered laughing. “She’s trying to keep the one she has.” Much like women in the west, wives here have to look their best, otherwise their husbands will go looking for another wife!
When a man gets fed up with his wife, and they argue, he usually commands her to leave and go back to her family. Because in this culture a woman, when she marries, goes to live in a man’s family home, she has no rights to the house at all. So if a husband tells her to go, she goes. All of the rights are his because it is his family home. This also has other effects because the women have no rights in the husband’s home they also have no sense of belonging. They don’t get involved in the home because they know that they could lose it in an instant. They have no power to change anything. Everything belongs to her husband and his family and things can change in an instant!
The interesting thing about all of this is the fact that when the wife does go to her family home, her house falls to pieces! Her husband is so used to giving orders and having her do all the cooking and cleaning that he is in fact completely incapable of looking after himself! Slowly the house begins to look abandoned, even though he is still in it, and his brother’s wives and older daughters then have to come and cook for him. By the time his wife does come back, if she comes back, she has to spend days cleaning up the entire house, as he has been unable to take care of it. The reality is that women in this culture are strong, resilient survivors and the men are inevitably weak but controlling! They cover it up by making the women weaker and controlling her every move, but in reality they are like children, unable to even take care of their own basic needs. Without these women they would fall apart and I think they know that. That is why they keep them small and therefore they never have to face their own weaknesses and lack of power. They control every aspect of a woman’s life and the women are completely unaware of it, consciously! Unconsciously though, it takes its toll and many women die of heart attack, stroke and cancer, or though violence! Their bodies having had as much as they could take. It is not an easy life for women but they survive it.
In the next blog I will go into the marriage process itself, from first meeting to eventual marriage. Keep tuned.