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Breaking the gender stereotypes in Egypt

“Arabs are Arabs everywhere.” This is what I told myself as I went volunteering in DC with a group of Egyptian Americans a couple of weeks ago. These weren’t Egyptians that were born and raised up in the Arab world, but rather first and second generation Americans. The way they dressed and spoke was western, but later I discovered that the only thing that remained oriental was their gender stereotypes. Although I’m Egyptian who was born and raised all of her life in Egypt, I have been always the non-traditional Egyptian young woman, who was a little more independent and critical than her female counterparts. I thought that going out and doing activities with Egyptians who were born and raised in a western society wouldn’t put me through the hassle of breaking the gender stereotypes, but I was wrong. The group I went volunteering with was typically Oriental in the way they assigned roles according to the gender. Men were assigned the hard, challenging roles because they are the tough side here, while women- who were dressed too elegantly for a volunteer day- were assigned the boring, easy tasks, or with some, no task at all.

I found myself in a familiar situation, where I have to fight hard to break the mold I was automatically put in. When I was younger, I used to break these molds by acting masculinely, but as I grew older I took up the challenge of remaining beautiful and feminine, but strong and independent at the same time, and what a challenge this was!

I found myself automatically behaving in a way that shocked the people I’m with. I wasn’t submissive or soft like most of the young ladies there; I rolled my sleeves, stepped outside and chose the task that was most challenging. I wasn’t afraid to look clumsy or dirty- because this is what volunteer work entails; I was happy and I could see the other women were giving me these suspicious looks!

Men gradually changed the way they deal with me throughout the day. From being bossy and patriarchal, they changed their behavior to be more of peers, and by the end of the day buddies.

This day I felt an authentic femininity bursting inside of me, a femininity that doesn’t entail weakness, submission or stupidity, but one that entails strength, hard work, independence, beauty, resilience and courage. This day, I took an oath to be loyal to my true identity and passion, and not let anyone steal this identity from me.

This day I was proud of myself but at the same time worried about going back to Egypt after 6 months from now. Will I keep challenging the gender stereotypes for good, or is there hope for more equality and social justice for women after the Egyptian revolution? Will the demands of the thousands of women who stepped out to the streets on the international day of women on March 8th be met, or be suppressed and denied as what happened on that day by harassing the women protestors? These are questions that I and thousands of rebel Egyptian women are thinking about for the future of their country.

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