“Since there’s no one at your apartment and you live all by yourself, how about I come by and we spend the night together?” This is a line many women may hear when dealing with men solely due to the fact that they live alone and without any of their family members.
For a woman, living on your own in Egypt means putting in twice the effort and dealing with double the amount of work that a man would have to deal with. This is only because she is a woman that decides to break a social taboo. In a society that most of the time does not accept change, women usually live with their parents until marriage. This is seen as one of the few reasons it would be socially acceptable for them to move out of the family house.
Based on that, a young woman having her own apartment, in which she lives alone without any of her family members, is most likely to be translated into some people’s minds that she has a tendency to act “inappropriately” according to culture standards.
These beliefs can be exemplified by the way Egyptian society deals with such women; the suspicious looks of neighbours if she happened to return home late, and their curiosity to understand the reasons beyond her decision of being independent and away from her family. Moreover, it might reach the extent of not allowing their children to deal with her, fearing that she might affect their traditional way of thinking and lead them to “abandon” their parents, as they believe she once did.
Samar Ali, 24, an Alexandria-based pharmacist, went through a similar experience. Throughout her university years, she lived alone, away from her family who live and work in the Gulf. However, Ali never imagined that living by herself might turn into a nightmare because of neighbours who would not accept her right to do so.
“When the old lady living across the hall knew I was living without my parents, she gave herself the right to interfere in every single detail of my life. This included asking me where I was going, when I will be back, and who I am going out with,” Ali recalled.
“Every day when I used to return home, while I’m unlocking my door the annoying lady opened hers to check on me, but I knew for sure that she just wanted to check that I wasn’t bringing any guy to spend the night with me,” she said.
Despite the fact that Ali expressed several times her resentment towards these routine checks, it never stopped the woman from trespassing into her personal life. “When I started complaining about her attitude, she didn’t stop. Instead, she used to send her young son to ask me the questions that I wouldn’t give her answers to.”
The questions Ali was routinely asked included details about her life, like the names of friends who walked her to her building to check on her, the reason behind her choice of outfits when going out in the evening, and her decisions on sometimes suspending her curfew to spend some extra time with friends. “I was spotlighted all the time, for no apparent reason but living alone!”
It is believed that parents are the only thing that prevents young women from falling off the “right track”. Society sends the message that if a girl is not under her parents’ supervision, she is willing to drink alcohol and have sex with anyone.
Currently, there is no Egyptian law that prevents a man and woman from having a sexual relationship regardless if they are married, as long as it is consensual and no party is paid for the act. Yet, having a relationship with a man other than her husband is the biggest scandal any woman could face in Egypt’s conservative society.
This is one of the reasons behind the social obsession with the “sexual relations trap” young women may fall into if they are not monitored by their parents.
The contempt society holds for women who decide to take care of themselves and live alone overcomes the positive influences of becoming independent, which teaches a lot of responsibility.
In order to live peacefully until she completed her university years, Ali surrendered to the pressure of society by following culturally acceptable rules. This included returning home early, not going out a lot, and not welcoming home any strangers. Yet, she still faced “unbearable situations from the surrounding ignorant society”.
“My younger cousin came to visit me once,” Ali remembers. “Five minutes after he came in, we heard strong knocking at the door and found several boys from my building asking me what I was doing with a foreign man all alone in ‘a closed door apartment’ [referring to having sex]. When I answered explaining that he was my cousin and was just there to check on me, I was met with inappropriate looks.”
Although she lived in an upper-middle class neighbourhood in Alexandria, social class did not stop neighbours from giving Ali insulting looks due to her being a “scandal” from their point of view. “I could never describe the offensive looks they gave me,” she explained.
E.T. is another girl who suffers under society’s narrow perspective regarding young women who live on their own. As a photojournalist, she had to leave her hometown in the Gharbeya governorate and move to Cairo to work for a private newspaper.
“I’m always looked at as a prostitute who escaped her parents’ control to do whatever she wants,” she said. “In peoples’ minds, what I want to do must be something unethical.”
In one life changing situation, E.T. remembers the man who proposed to her and refused to tell his mother that she lives away from her parents, claiming that “they are old fashioned who would look down on a girl that lives alone”.
“He said it in a way as if it’s something to be ashamed of,” she recalled.
Both girls agreed that the main concern they observe in people’s eyes, especially men, is that due to not having anyone living with them, it is believed that they can freely fool around and have sex with anyone they want.
On the other hand, some find that such cultural pressures do not only apply to young women living alone but it also affects young men or any person who aims to break social norms, regardless of gender.
“I used to rent an apartment whose owner thought she had the right to open the door unannounced if she suspected we had women staying with us,” said Mahmoud Nasr. “As a male, I was not allowed to welcome any women or friends without worrying about the headache the owner would cause me.”
Nasr believes that both men and women deal with the same amount of “intolerance” society imposes on youth living on their own. However, with arguably fewer rights, women’s ability to fight back tends to be less than a man.
“Those with strict mentalities focus the most on social scandals, not the law,” Nasr explained. “They intimidate people by threatening them with what the ethical scandal having sex or drinking alcohol might cause them, without any legal basis for their accusations.”
Ali and E.T. agreed that living alone taught them many things, independence most of all. However, while they think they achieved what many others long for, their sense of independence is also what makes men fear them the most.
“Independent women intimidate the authority men seek to have over women while being in a relationship with them. Many Egyptian guys wouldn’t marry an independent woman because they feel she doesn’t need him in her life,” said Mohammed Saed.
According to that belief, strong women will not let a man take full responsibility for her, which is translated into the behaviour of refusing to follow his orders or fall under his control. “That is the main fear most men have, yet they never admit it.”
On another level, some men believe that women who live away from their hometowns have the tendency to misbehave since there is no one to watch after them. “When you live with your parents, you always have the fear of getting caught if you did something wrong. That won’t stop anyone from doing anything they want of course. Yet, when there is no one to fear or keep mindful of, than that will increase her potential for misbehaving and men don’t like to marry unethical women,” Saed explained.
“You might find lots of guys who claim to deal with women living alone normally and as they deal with others, but in reality, knowing that a woman lives alone is somehow translated in the back of our minds that we can cross certain boundaries with them,” he added.
How to deal with people was another thing women mastered after living alone for a long time. “I think ignoring those who interfere with your life is the best solution,” E.T. said. “Not giving them any answer is the best reply you can give. If they want to think we are prostitutes, that’s their problem, and no matter what we do we won’t change that.”
Ali said that “holding the stick from the middle” is another thing she learned while dealing with people. “Nosey people will never change, so you shouldn’t let them control your life. At the same time, short and limited answers are perfect when necessary. That way you’ll keep the balance by pushing them away in a way that would not cause any arguments”.