CAIRO: “People don’t consider that you are a human being, says 31-year-old Layla, beginning her ordeal of being a single female professional living on her own in Cairo.
Since she graduated from the Faculty of Arts, she has been working in the development sector, commuting everyday from a small town close to Cairo.
“This is my nature, I am very ambitious. And I am always looking to study and travel. My parents brought me up to be an independent mind, she says about herself.
The job she found in Cairo was worth the four-hour daily commute, she says, and while exhaustion was not a concern, the endless harassment she was subjected to in public transportation was.
“I had taken some of the basic actions, like [yelling], she says. “I started keeping in my bag a cutter [a letter opener].
Delaying the decision to move to Cairo for months, she finally made up her mind, when her manager offered to let her stay temporarily in her apartment to look after her cat. “My father came and saw the place. It was a good [place]. It was very close to my work and there were security [guards]. This was the turning point.
Months later, Layla decided to look for her own place. “My budget was limited, so I had to look for an apartment to share, she said, explaining that the idea of sharing an apartment with a flat mate is not common in Egypt, which is why she had to look for an apartment to share with foreigners.
“[The important] thing was to convince the foreigner that I am not like the traditional Egyptian, I am different, she says.
Layla says the fact that she was Egyptian put some of the landlords off.
“I went to see the place, I liked the people, the people liked me, and the day after they called me and said ‘we are sorry, but the owner doesn’t like Egyptians’.
Layla then found an apartment occupied by two Germans and an Egyptian man.
“After a few hours [following the visit to the apartment], I received a phone call to say that the owner refused because I’m a girl.
This, she says, was a trend as she continued to be rejected either because she is Egyptian or because she is a woman. The market is otherwise dynamic, as foreign students, researchers and journalists move in and out of Cairo frequently.
On her quest for a place to live, Layla also faced harassment besides rejection. After refusing to meet a broker late in the evening to see an apartment, she claims he started bombarding her with abusive and threatening text messages.
In Egypt, there are no legal restrictions to single men or women living on their own. The only binding document that determines the relationship between the landlord and the tenant is the contract, upon which both parties agree.
“These are our customs, says Marcel, a landlady and a mother of four in Cairo. “[An unmarried woman] can’t find an apartment alone. She has to live with her family. They would be afraid for her.
Marcel says that while she would rent her apartment to a single Egyptian woman with her parents’ consent, she would not allow her own daughters to live on their own.
Social customs determine the rules of some state institutions for women as well.
“In the Egyptian society, [a woman] has no choice. She can’t live by herself; [she has] to live with her parents or with her husband, says Asama Farag, the director of government-sponsored shelter for female victims of violence.
She explains that her institution turns away women who are not married. Married, separated, or divorced women who have been battered by their husbands or/and family cannot check themselves out of the shelter, she says. Their spouses or families have to come pick them up, signing an “official agreement that they will not harm them.
Orphan girls who reach legal age at SOS Children’s Villages in Egypt meet a similar fate. According to the rules of the international organization that sponsors these institutions around the world, children who reach the age of 18 have to move out and live on their own.
However, in Egypt, the Ministry of Social Solidarity stipulates that girls over 18 are moved into another facility within the village, separated from the others by a wall. Currently, there are 12 women between ages 27 and 35 at the SOS Children’s Villages.
The girls typically leave the village when they get married, even though some of them are working and earning a living.
“It’s hard to do it here in Egypt, you know, with our customs and so on, says Amr Aboul Azayem, advisor to the Minister of Social Solidarity.
“We are like her [an orphan girl’s] parents. I am like her father, Aboul Azayem says, justifying the decisions of the Ministry.
Layla’s father, however, took a different approach. After seeing how much of a hassle the commute is, he agreed to let her move into her own apartment in Cairo.
“It’s not logical at all to make you go up and down daily, he told her.
Paying the price
However, her independence comes at a price; her parents have to endure the society’s scorn. She says although she feels pressured into getting married, she is adamant on waiting until she finds the right person. “[I want] to have company, have a partner, a friend, a husband, someone to share life with. And it’s not easy to do that, she says.
“I earn my salary and I can buy whatever I want, she says.
However, her economic security is sometimes not appreciated. Men ask her about her income to compare to their own, says Layla; economically independent women seem to be intimidating to some men.
Interested in the fate of single women in Egypt, film director Hala Lotfy made a film that explores their private emotional world. The film, called “About Feeling Cold, was released in 2005 and since then it has won a few awards, such as The Golden Hawk for Best Documentary.
“They are realizing that they failed in love because of the way they were raised, says Lotfy about the women she interviewed in her film. “They are brought up to be something that they are not. If they are sincere and express the way they want, it’s wrong for the society, she says.
Societal expectations and reprimands burden both men and women, explains Lotfy. She is optimistic, as she sees more and more successful women who are not embarrassed to be themselves. “Success in their career allows women to be able to express themselves without the authority of patriarchy on them.
As the average age of marriage is rising, Egypt will have to face more and more single women and accept their status as equal members of the society.
“Sometimes I feel like Egypt is not for the Egyptians. It is for someone else, concludes Layla. Despite all the difficulties in her life, she continues to work hard and dream. “Next, I plan to buy a car and travel abroad, she confides.
In this article, Layla is an alias of the interviewee to protect her identity.