By Amira El Feky
There are children in the streets of Egypt. Although we see them every day, we do not know all that much about them, except what is obvious to our eyes. Every day, there are children begging in the street, asking for a pound to buy bread or medicine. On every main road, they are selling paper tissues or other products. Many are holding a dirty piece of cloth with which they wipe, or rather smear, our cars. They knock on our car windows and make a gesture signalling they are hungry. Usually, they are barefoot or they wear worn-out slippers that do not fit them. We talk about these “street children” and discuss their lives, whether they are victims, criminals, neither or both. We advocate for their right to be in a family, to be unharmed, to have access to education. NGOs, governmental institutions and activists discuss, design and implement ways and projects to “solve the issue of street children”.
Interestingly, we mostly discuss street children as if they are a homogeneous group, as if they have no age or gender, although it is evident that the experiences of a 5-year old boy in the street strongly differ from those of a teenage girl. Street children are not ageless, and they are not genderless. They have different backgrounds and experiences, different problems and certainly, different needs. Our discussions about street children become much more interesting when they become more specific: when we talk about working children, street leaders, drug dealers and addicts, or about street girls. When these discussions become more differentiated, more meaningful questions are asked: what does a street girl experience because she is in the street and what does she experience because she is a girl? How does she deal with these gender-specific differences? How does she shape them herself?
Although all street children have something in common, that they are perceived to be unwashed, poor beggars, girls are still viewed very differently than boys. For instance, street girls are more likely to be stigmatised as immoral people, even as prostitutes. They are often exposed to more (sexual) violence. At the same time, they are the subject of more pity than boys. They earn more money when begging, especially when they are holding a baby in their arms. Girls’ experiences in the street are hence not better or worse per se, but without a doubt, they are inherently different. To really understand street girls’ lives in the street, their problems and needs, one has to examine and analyse these differences.
During my research about female street children in Egypt, I asked the girls how their lives in the street differed from boys’ lives, and if they were looked at or dealt with differently than their male counterparts. It became clear that there are many differences, and that they can be ascribed to three main factors: girls in the street are considered out of place, weak and ‘awrah, sexually provoking.
Girls are out of place
One of the girls participating in my research, Salma (14), explained why girls in the street are looked at in a different, and often worse, way than boys: “The boys can do whatever they want, you know. They can go to the street and nobody will say a thing. But we can’t do this, because we’re girls and they’re boys.” To Salma, it is clearly inappropriate for a girl but perfectly acceptable for a boy to be in the street. This is astonishing because it shows that it is solely the street girl’s gender that makes it unacceptable for her being in the street. Not her deeds, not her looks, not her background or her abilities, but her gender determines the way she is looked at.
Another girl, Dalia (14), completely agreed with Salma and even argued that not only is it the reality that girls in the street are considered out of place, but that this is also the right way to look at them. “There are some things about girls that are good. They do as they’re told, they can clean the house. They can cook, wash, they do much better things than boys. Boys can only go and sit at the ahwa [the street café]”. To Dalia, being at home makes girls better persons than the useless boys who contribute nothing and waste their time at a café. The good girl is the girl who stays at home. She does not belong in the street because there are things for her to do at home, ways to make herself useful and to contribute.
Both Salma and Dalia describe what is called the separation of male and female spheres. While boys are allowed, even encouraged, to go to the street, sit at the ahwa or earn a living, girls are expected to spend time at home, helping their parents or other family members, and grow up to become good wives and mothers. Home is seen as a female space, the street as a male space. As outdated and old-fashioned as this concept may seem to many modern Egyptians, it has not lost its relevance for street girls’ own perception as well as the way they are looked at and dealt with. As a consequence of this separation, girls in the street are particularly stigmatised, because they ought to adapt to the role assigned to their gender by society. During a TV interview, I was once asked whether girls work in the street as prostitutes by choice. The presenter had never met a street girl before; she had only seen children in the streets of Cairo. Although it is very difficult, if not nearly impossible to actually see female street children working as prostitutes; she automatically assumed they did, but was only unsure about whether or not they did so voluntarily. The result of such misconceptions is grave.
It is ironic that even many street girls themselves, such as Salma and Dalia, think within the same concept of the separation of male and female spheres, and it points to a very significant, although somewhat absurd logic: street girls are part of the very society that marginalises them. By going to the street, the girls do not cease to be part of the Egyptian society. As much as they are excluded and discriminated, they do participate in shaping their own exclusion. Although their being in the street contradicts all societal rules about the appropriate behaviour of females, they think and behave within the same scheme while challenging it at the same time. This is especially interesting because it affects the way girls deal with the street, and with other street girls and boys, and how they redefine their gender role in society.
Girls are weak
All street children deal with violence in one way or another. They are subjected to it or they exert it; in all cases, they witness it. It drives them out of their homes to the street, or from the street to various shelters and then back to their abusive homes. However, although all street children face violence, girls’ experiences still differ substantially. Yasmin (16) explained to me that “a boy can defend himself. A boy can protect himself. But girls can’t defend themselves, because boys are stronger than girls.” To Yasmin, it is self-evident that the boys, who are by definition stronger, are more able and more likely to defend themselves against violence. It also means that they are more likely to actually exert violence and it shows that this violence is often gender-based. Consequently, girls, who are generally perceived as weak, are exposed to more violence than boys, often by boys.
It is clear that this difference dramatically affects the lives of girls in the street. Dalia (14) described her experiences as a street girl to me: “You can be walking in the street and men stare at you, they whistle or make other noises. You are always afraid, all the time. Men try to take girls with them.” Dalia is talking about scenes that every women walking in the streets of Cairo has experienced but, unlike most other girls and women, street girls cannot escape this scenario. They cannot go home and discuss the issue of sexual harassment. They are constantly subjected to it, in a more severe and concrete way than any other person is affected, and they are mostly without effective protection.
Yasmin’s and Dalia’s accounts show that the perceived weakness of girls has at least two very real and crucial consequences. Firstly, girls are exposed to more violence than boys because they are believed to be unable to defend themselves. It is the idea of girls being weak that essentially results in their frequent exposure to violence. Secondly, this effectively leads to a constant state of fear every street girl has to live in. She has to be afraid of violence, always, and this causes immense psychological distress. The omnipresence of fear of and the exposure to actual assaults indicate that girls experience the street more violently than boys, and that this difference can, in fact, be ascribed to their gender.
The fact that girls in the street are considered weak, however, does not only have to have harmful consequences. In fact, street girls typically earn more money when begging because their perceived weakness can arouse the pity of the public. Street girls who sometimes have a baby in their arms are not viewed as dangerous as (adolescent) street boys, and can therefore face less rejection. Even in the interaction with other street children, the girls’ weakness can actually lead to their protection, when a “strong” boy pities her and decides to become her guardian.
Girls are ‘awrah
It was Nadia (15) who, during my research, illuminated the importance of the idea of girls and women in the street being ‘awrah. During an interview, Nadia referred to this aspect, which is deeply rooted in Egyptian Islamic norms, and which explains the roles of men and women in any space: “Girls should be quiet. Their voices should be low, they should be polite. The man is the one who has to roar. He can shout or not shout, so what? But the woman is ‘awrah. Her voice is ‘awrah and her body is ‘awrah.”
When translated literally, ‘awrah means “genitalia”. However, in this particular context, it can be understood as “sexual” or “sexuality”. Nadia explains that a woman who exposes her sexuality provokes the sexual arousal of men. Any subsequent action, including rape, is the woman’s responsibility. In order to be respectable, she has to hide her ‘awrah from men who are not her husband or close relatives, ergo from the public eye. This is paradoxical, mainly because she herself is ‘awrah which means that even her presence in the street is socially unacceptable.
Translated into the context of street children, it becomes clear that men can feel entitled to sexually violate street girls, for it was their ‘awrah that caused the men’s sexual arousal in the first place. Nadia deals with this concept as an unalterable truth: Because they are girls, they should neither be seen nor heard. For street girls, this perspective has dramatic consequences. Since every girl in the street appears to be immoral, simply because she is a girl and in the street, she is easily viewed as and dealt with as a prostitute, a sex object, and she is held entirely responsible for any sexual abuse or assault she falls victim to.
Street children are not ageless and genderless
Girls who live in the street are perceived as out of place, weak and ‘awrah, solely because of their gender, just like boys in the street can be particularly stigmatised for other reasons. This means that the experiences of street children are gendered, that street children actually live in a gendered space, and that their lifestyles, activities and needs strongly depend on their gender.
NGOs and other (governmental) institutions working with and for street children cannot ignore these differences. Instead, the ways in which street children (and the public) perceive their own and others’ gender, and how this affects their daily lives in the street have to be studied and understood. The knowledge about the ways a girl’s life differs from a boy’s will certainly add to the quality of development programmes designed for street children. They will be more specific, more targeted and therefore, more efficient.
If we are truly interested in understanding the living circumstances of street children, our daily discussions also have to become more nuanced. Instead of discussing in what ways street children differ from other non-street people, it would be much more interesting and productive to illuminate how street children differ amongst each other, and how their experiences in the very same space of the street can be completely opposing. These discussions will soon convince us of the heterogeneity of street children, for we will understand that the only thing they all share is, in fact, a certain special relationship with the street.