A very interesting look at the women-only subway cars in the Cairo metro system.
I love the Cairo Metro’s womens compartment. Really, I do. Unlike my friend, the acclaimed (and very secular) documentary filmmaker Atiyat El-Abnoudy, I don’t think it’s a form of discrimination at all. If you’ve ever been harassed on Cairo’s streets, you know what it’s like to get even a little respite.
Um, yes. Wow do I hear her on this.
I’m not sure how I feel about the “discrimination” angle, but at the very least I think that’s the wrong word for it. Cairo has a fairly low crime rate, and when I was there I was never worried about being physically attacked — but I did come home crying almost every day after being out on the streets and being continually hissed at and harassed. So I can understand the demand for women-only spaces on public transportation.
(Obviously, the best solution would be to target the street harassers, and make all spaces safe for both women and men — but I understand the argument that we have to deal with the here and now, and women-only cars are an effective way of doing that).
On this ride, I’m sandwiched between two matronly ladies. Not being skinny myself, the situation is a little cramped at the moment. Still, I diligently take notes, although my right-hand neighbor is not very happy about my moving arm.
Soon, she is vindicated, as a secondary-school student asks me if I could hold her bag for her. Before I can answer, the bag is dumped on my lap, albeit with a thankful smile. Rule number one of riding the women’s Metro: If you’re sitting down, you have to atone for your sins by taking school bags, shopping bags and the occasional baby on your lap. My left-hand neighbor has a huge bag of freshly baked baladi bread between her legs. There must be 100 loaves or more in there.
They smell great, and I ask her if the loaves are for sale.
“Take one, ya okhti [my sister],” Omm Ahmed insists.
A running theme through the article is sisterhood between the women in the subway. This section struck me as particularly interesting, and I think it serves as a decent example of the divide between Western individualist thought and a more community-based approach that you see in countries like Egypt. I’ve written a bit before about how I’m a subscriber to the individualist camp (if we want to divide these things into camps, which I’m not sure we can), but that I think there’s a lot of value to be had in examining the ways in which women coming from different cultural backgrounds structure their lives and their identities. The sisterhood in these trains is an interesting example. And as the article details, it’s also one that is grounded firmly in religion.
As I chat with Omm Ahmed, a horde of women board the metro at El-Malek El-Saleh.
“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” one of them, a monaqqaba immediately starts shouting. For a second, I feel like an extra on the set of the latest religious Ramadan serial in a scene in which the Muslims have just conquered Jerusalem. The shouting continues: “Sisters of iman [faith], repeat after me the duaa el-rukoub [prayer for the riders]: Sobhana allazi sakhar lana hazah wa ma konna laho moqranein [Praise be to God, Who adapted this means of transportation for our use. We would not have been able to do so ourselves, and we will return to Him one day.]”
All the passengers on the Metro immediately start repeating the duaa, chanting in one loud voice. It’s a first for me, so I’m a bit too busy watching everybody to actually join them.
As several sets of eyes pointedly turn my way, I suddenly feel uncomfortable —and a little guilty for not having whispered the prayer.
“We’re all sisters,” Omm Ahmed announces, shooting the stink eye right back at those giving me the once over. Although she’s leaping to my defense, my being the only unveiled woman in the compartment has led her to believe I am Christian. For her, that’s the only conceivable explanation for my unusual ways.
The author of this article also talks to secular Egyptians about their views of the subway cars:
As a director, El-Abnoudy says she refuses to look at a place like the women’s compartment in the Metro as a possible film topic. “I try to show the positive in my films, and what I see on the Metro is sad,” she says. “I see tired, downtrodden women. I see veils everywhere. I smell the sweat because of all the covering-up in the sweltering heat. I hate traveling in the women’s compartment; people have lost hope in everything, and they turn to religion instead.”
That’s a valid perspective, too, and perhaps the subway sisterhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“Assalam alaykum, ya okhti,” Zeinab says. As we start talking, Zeinab eventually explains that she works in Helwan and lives in Shubra; she crosses from one end of the nation’s capital to the other via Metro every day. On Thursdays, she goes to women-only religion lessons.
“The Sheikha told us that jihad [literally ‘holy war,’ but also meaning a personal struggle to be a better person —a better believer — every day] is every Muslim’s duty, and that each one of us can do her own jihad,” she says. “I read duaa el-rukoub every day, and she told me to read it out loud and to invite my sisters on the Metro to join me. This way I get thawab [divine reward] for saying it, and extra thawab for each one who says it along with me.”
Zeinab works in a small clothing workshop, which belongs to another sister in faith. “We make decent clothes, loose and long-sleeved, for the muhajjabat. We also make isdaal [a head-to-toe prayer outfit for women],” she explains. “Although I may be able to find work closer to home, I feel my work brings me closer to God. Maybe when I get married I may have to look for something else.”
And there is the benefit of women-only spaces in certain contexts: They allow women to experience things that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. In my ideal world, these silly gender divides wouldn’t exist, and there would be no need for a woman-only subway car or a woman-only workplace. But given the current reality, the presence of a woman-only subway car enables some women to travel when otherwise they might not have been able to. A strong religious network enabled this woman to get a job that she fills spiritually fulfilled by. For many girls, agreeing to wear the veil means that their parents will let them go to school; agreeing to be circumcised means that they can go to university; agreeing to ride in the woman-only car means that they can get a job. These concessions may be problematic; in cases like genital cutting, I’d say that they’re deeply problematic human rights violations. And obviously genital cutting is nowhere near on the same level as sex-segregated subway cars or wearing the veil. But I would argue that on some level and in certain contexts these things are related, in that utlizing them is a double-edged sword: It doesn’t take on the underlying problems of sexism and oppression, but it does enable some women greater mobility and access to things like education and work.
And then we get to sex:
Today, Zeinab and the ladies who cry out the duaa and talk religion to Metro passengers are a common sight in the womens compartments, as are beggars and vendors. On my numerous trips on the Metro in the last month, I was pestered by vendors selling anything from hair scrunchies, safety pins, combs and chewing gum to foot pumices, prayer isdaal and shower curtains. And, of course, the little religious booklets on everything from dream analysis to the signs of doomsday.
But here’s a new one: lingerie — the skimpier and the gaudier, the better.
If you’ve ever window-shopped along the streets of Downtown Cairo, you’ll know what I mean. Veiled women, who wouldn’t even shake hands with a man, stand in front of lingerie boutiques, pointing at flimsy numbers that either glow in the dark or produce music on touch. Encouraged by such ‘religious’ books as How to Be a Slut for Your Husband, these women dutifully buy nighties that would make even Irma La Douce blush.
On a quieter-than-usual ride to Tahrir, I saw a group of women sitting down along one of the long benches, heatedly discussing prices with a vendor wearing the niqab and sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of them. The vendor was selling polyester bra and panty sets in the most unlikely of colors: bright pink, electric blue, yellow, sick-cat green, and some somber black. The going price is LE 15, although the ladies (veiled fortysomethings) were driving a hard bargain for LE 10.
One finally bought a set for LE 12.
It’s interesting how sexuality is sold, too — “How to be a Slut for your Husband,” for example.
Sex aside, though, the metro gives female vendors a safe place to sell their goods without fearing harassment from men, or even from the police. And, as the author writes, it’s an example of how sisters help each other:
On one of my trips downtown, I was unlucky enough to ride in a compartment in which nothing worked. The fans, the lights (which was a problem when we got underground), even the doors were on the fritz. I was the only one panicking as the train stopped at station after station and no one was able to get into or out of this particular compartment, the second of two womens carriages on this train.
I was close to fainting when the woman sitting across from me told me that when it was time to get off, everybody would help. And right she was. As it was morning, most of the passengers were headed Downtown to work. Starting with the Saad Zaghloul station, several women stood at each door, forcing them open when the Metro stopped. I got off safely at the Sadat station, but had to sit down for a few minutes, I was shaking so much.
Lesson learned: Sisters help each other.
The next time you’re on the Metro, look around you for scenes like this: As a rushing woman is about to miss the train, all the women in the entryway force the door open, letting her in. Woe be to the driver who complains or closes the door on a woman’s leg, arm or even handbag. On one of my rides, a young woman at the Dar El-Salam station lost her shoe as the door closed while she was coming in. If you’ve ever taken the Helwan-El-Marg line, you must have seen what is like when hordes rush into the metro at Dar El-Salam, which is one of the most highly populated areas in Cairo.
Who could blame the poor driver? Every single woman in my compartment, for starters. Dozens of hands crashed against the door that separated his driver’s compartment from our carriage. Insults cut through the air. As he opened the connecting door, he got more than an earful about how inconsiderate, blind and stupid he was.
He could have called the police on the platform; he could have shouted back at them. Instead, he actually apologized: He was a helpless man amidst tens of screaming women. What else could he do?
The next time you hear that Middle Eastern/Muslim women are submissive, quiet or invisible, point them to this article.
This camaraderie is one of the few positive aspects about the women’s compartment. That day in Dar El-Salam, the Metro’s Cinderella was quickly handed a pair of flip-flops that seemed to materialize out of nowhere. How many people do you know travel with an extra pair of shib-shibs?
And if you are ever on the Metro and feel the urge to faint (an easy thing to do, trust me), tens of hands will revive you whether you like it or not. Perfume bottles will be conjured out of bags, cool water and candy will be thrust into your hands. Someone may even give you a half-eaten sandwich. Don’t take it the wrong way — they just like to help. On a ride from Dokki to Tahrir, a young lady asked me for perfume. Although I found the question a little strange, I gave her a little bottle I had tucked into my purse before asking her what she needed it for. Before I knew it, she was spraying it right into the face of a tired-looking yellow-faced woman, who looked about to throw up any minute.
We could use a little of that on the New York subway system.
Read the whole article. Thanks to Russell for sending on the link.