I have bought the tiniest pair of patterned Ali Baba trousers from a stall in Dahab to take to a one-year-old girl’s birthday party today. I’ve been looking at them every time I visit, wishing I had someone to buy a pair for, and finally that moment has arrived.
I met the baby’s mother – a Norwegian woman who is married to an Egyptian – when I was walking into town to meet friends one evening and she asked me to walk with her. Another man had been hassling her (despite her being married with a baby) and she wanted me to talk to her as we walked past him. Turns out she was really nice and we met again for coffee a few days later.
We agreed that there is an unspoken alliance between women when it comes to hassle from men – I understood what she needed immediately and it was no problem. We’ve all been in that situation, in any country. This happened on the day that I’d had to deal with hassle from a British man here in Dahab so I was feeling ultra-protective of myself and women in general.
The day after this happened, a young Egyptian woman who works at my hotel asked me to go to the doctor with her. She’s twenty-three and she has come to Dahab on her own, which I gather is a very rare thing to do in Egypt. Women here are policed by family and strangers in a way that is horrifying to me. A few days earlier she’d been made to go to a police station where they called her parents to make sure they knew where she was. A friend of hers had overhead one of the police officers refer to her as a ‘whore’, simply because she was alone, and unveiled, it seems.
Anyway, she was afraid of going to a male doctor alone, so I was her chaperone. She only needed her ears syringing, but I was glad I could offer comfort, having had it done a few times myself. Earlier, my young friend had told me about her ambitions to be a journalist, but that her intelligence is seen as a threat. There is so much fire in her eyes – I told her to stay strong and to keep doing what’s she’s doing. I will do what I can to help.
On my last visit to Dahab I went on a ladies-only boat trip to Ras Abu Galum and had a wonderful time. The women were a mixed group – some Egyptian, some European, most married to Egyptian or Middle-Eastern guys. They told me about Dahab’s ‘woman problem’, which turned out to be feminism. Yes, it’s right here: women doing things that men don’t like. Having heard male friends comment that a woman shouldn’t be smoking shisha in her hijab because it’s ‘disrespectful’, I’ve seen it here for myself. I look at those women admiringly, and think, ‘you go, girl’.
On that boat trip, we were given lunch by a Bedouin woman and her daughter and I asked about the numbers of Bedouin girls running about in Dahab selling bracelets. Isn’t it dangerous? Apparently not. It’s only when they hit puberty that they are taken indoors and covered. I’ve been told that some mothers are hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the male members of their family to preserve their freedoms for a precious while longer. Again, ‘you go, girls’…
When I first came to Dahab I couldn’t see any local women in public and assumed they were all being kept indoors. I think it was just the time of day that I’d arrived in town, because now I see them everywhere, particularly at night, when families come out for tea and cake. There are lots of young girls doing the ‘hijab and skinny jeans’ thing I’ve seen in the Middle East, and then a few who are completely covered. The best thing I saw on my last trip was a large group of the former on quad bikes, heading towards the mountains one evening. You go, girls!
I think Europeans like myself come here with a lot of preconceptions about the lives of local women which can only be challenged or vindicated by meeting them and hearing what they have to say for themselves. I’m constantly told by local men that the women are ‘free’, and that may be true in comparison to their Saudi neighbours, but the level of policing of behaviour here tells me the real story. The women *can* do what they like to a certain extent, but they may be called names by anyone for doing it.
On my first visit to Dahab I was invited into the house of a Bedouin woman who’d just had a baby. I was told that hers was a love marriage – she in her twenties, he in his forties – but they had encountered problems conceiving. Then along came Aida, the miracle baby. I was led into the woman’s bedroom, where every single female member of the family was gathered. It was like an all-girl nativity scene, with Aida as the centre of attention. She had a shock of black hair and was sleeping, swaddled in cloth. I was offered Helba tea, made from fenugreek seeds, which is a popular Egyptian health drink. We sat round, me only able to communicate in appropriate cooing sounds, looking admiringly at the baby and the sublimely happy mother.
I was invited to the feast to celebrate the seventh day of the baby’s arrival, at which they would slaughter a goat. As the person I’d gone with was vegetarian we politely declined, but the hotel guys told me I was really missing out. When the Bedouin party, they really party. I wasn’t brave enough to go on my own, and I didn’t know anyone else in Dahab back then.
So today I will go to the birthday party – one that doesn’t involve goat sacrifice – and celebrate all the women I’ve met in Dahab and how many I now count as my friends.
You go, girls.