4. Gender and the Struggle
over Public Spaces
The distinction between the social and the political makes no sense in the modern world … because the struggle to make something public is a struggle for justice.
Seyla Benhabib, “Models of Public Space”
Karima is a sixteen-year-old woman. She is the youngest daughter of eight children. Karima, an older single sister, and two of her unmarried brothers live with their mother. Since the father is dead, Karima's movements are monitored by her mother, the two brothers, and, to a lesser degree, by her unmarried sister. Sami, the youngest brother, feels that it is his duty and right to closely monitor Karima's movements. In fact, because he is the youngest son, he cannot exercise any real power over his mother or older siblings. Hence, Karima seems to be the only member in the family that is subject to his attempts to exercise some power. They frequently fight over many issues, ranging from his attempts to forbid her from looking at passersby from their balcony to arguments about fixing his food and doing his laundry. Controlling Karima's movements at this stage of Sami's life is central to the construction of his masculinity and his role as “the man of the house.” Sami's attempts to control his younger sister intensify when he is temporarily unemployed or when there is a tension between the two.
This tension was manifested in a conflict during an Eid (one of the main Muslim feasts). During one Sacrifice Feast, Karima and Sami were not on speaking terms. Despite their mother's and my efforts to
This is an extreme example of the attempts of males to control their female relatives’ access to public spaces. On the one hand, it shows the failure of Karima in negotiating her access to public space; on the other hand, it exemplifies how physical force (and more often the threat of its use) is employed to secure the compliance of women to their families’ rules. This case also conveys that struggles over space are not limited to those between the people and the state, the subject of discussion in the previous two chapters. Gender, age, and religious groups also continuously struggle with each other and with the state over space and how it should be used and organized. As my following discussion of the workplace illustrates, such struggles are central to the attempts of men
The Private and the Public as Objects of Study
For the Arab, there is no such thing as an intrusion in public. Public means public.
Edward Hall, The Hidden Dimension
Life in the Middle East has been often viewed in terms of a clear dichotomy between the private world of the woman and the public world of the man, such that men, seen as dominant and powerful, monopolize the public domain, while women, viewed as subordinate and powerless, are secluded and confined to the private sphere. Women's segregation has often been seen as central to men's sense of honor, and seclusion has been analyzed as a mechanism to control women's sexuality, which is perceived by the society as powerful and potentially destructive (Mernissi 1987; MacLeod 1991; Hessini 1994).
The distinction between the private and the public has been viewed as a separation between “two different worlds” (Abu-Lughod 1986; Mernissi 1987). Mernissi (1987), for instance, argued that “space boundaries divide Muslim society into subuniverses: the universe of men (the umma, the world of religion and power) and the universe of women, the domestic world of sexuality and the family” (138). To cross the boundaries that separate the public from the private, women need to protect themselves and prevent any potential social disorder or (fitna) by wearing the veil. Women thus can “enter men's public space only by remaining shielded in their private space,” and the veil is seen as a “symbol of interiority” (Hessini 1994: 47) that renders the woman “invisible” in the street (Mernissi 1987: 143). Such studies, though they have much to offer to the study of the politics of sexuality, usually limit their discussion to
The dichotomy between the private and the public has been criticized by several scholars (Nelson 1974; Altorki 1986; Hegland 1991; Fraser 1992; Benhabib 1992). Feminists in particular have shown that the distinction between the private and the public “has been part of a discourse of domination that legitimizes women's oppression and exploitation in the private realm” (Benhabib 1992: 93). More theoretical studies have shown how the notion of “public” has changed over time (Sennett 1977; Calhoun 1992). Currently, as Fraser (1992) showed, public is used to mean “state-related,” “accessible to everyone,” “of concern to everyone,” and “pertaining to a common good or shared interest” (128). Private usually refers to private property or to “intimate domestic or personal life, including sexual life” (Fraser 1992: 128). There is a need, therefore, to continuously question who is defining what is “private” and what is “public” and how the distinctions between them shift over time and are being negotiated by gender and age groups.
My aim here is not to deny the gendered nature of the separation between the “public” and the “private.” Rather, I argue that by assuming a rigid dichotomy and fixity in the separation between “the world of men” (always equated with the public) and “the world of women” (always equated with the private), the analysis fails to account for the continuous struggle to define the boundaries between the private and the public and how their definitions are central to the reproduction of power relationships
Privacy and Modern Housing
Men have, through modernity, established a firmer claim on urban space but the city is ultimately possessed zonally, X eetingly and some times randomly and not by a particular gender, group or tribe.
Chris Jenks, “Watching Your Step”
According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, privacy is defined as “the quality or state of being apart from company or observation,” “freedom from unauthorized intrusion,” “a place of seclusion,” and “secrecy.” Like some other societies, people in al-Zawiya do not have a specific word that designates the English meaning of “privacy.” Similarly, Arabic-English dictionaries such as al-Mawrid tend to present a limited sense of the meaning of privacy, which is translated as ‘uzla (seclusion and solitude) or sirriya (secretiveness), while the Oxford English-Arabic dictionary adds to the meaning the words wihda (loneliness) and khalwa (retreat). Not one single word indicates a desired, positive temporary separation of the self from others. No one in al-Zawiya would ask, “Do you want to be alone?” No one would say, “You invaded my privacy” or “I need some privacy.” Stories often describe how Egyptians did not understand the need of their foreign visitors to be alone, especially when they were sick (see, e.g., Rugh 1984). In fact, people feel sorry for those who live on their own. I was pitied because I was childless and did not have company when my husband was at
The absence of an equivalent Arabic word for the English concept of privacy does not mean the absence of concern about family life, domestic affairs, and bodily functions in al-Zawiya. This concern was manifested in the state public discourse and continues to be central to how people conduct their daily life. As discussed in the first chapter, the state discourse placed great emphasis on the need to separate nuclear families and conduct intimate actions related to the body, such as bathing, in designated areas away from others. Children should not see their siblings bathing or their parents engaged in sex. At the same time, each nuclear family was to occupy its own separate unit. The contracts given to families when they were relocated make a clear distinction between the spaces that are controlled by the individual family and other spaces that are to be collectively used. The enclosed space of the apartment belongs to the family, while spaces outside the units such as the staircase and the rooftop are to be jointly managed. The contracts call upon people to form an owners’ union (itihad mulak) to regulate the use of these spaces. The project created a dichotomy between the domain of the family and the rest of the community. For instance, rather than seeing the rooftop as an extension of the whole building and viewing it as open to all the residents, the current view is that the rooftop belongs to the families who live on the top floor. They have the right to use and regulate who has access to it. As reported for the Algerian housing project discussed in chapter 2, “The outside now corresponds exactly to the opposition between the family nucleus and the neighborhood, between the apartment and the rest of the building” (Bourdieu 1979: 89). With the absence of the previously shared spaces such as the roof and the bathroom, many (especially the better off) can afford staying apart from their neighbors for days. This absence features prominently in narratives about the past and the current lack of cooperation between neighbors and decrease in exchanges of goods (especially of food) and services. The new apartments, and their doors, make it possible to have little interaction with others and to avoid neighbors.
OPEN DOORS, CLOSED HOMES
I was only seven years old when we were relocated. I remember a Christian friend of my mother who described how happy they were with the new housing units that they moved to in al-Zawiya al-Hamra. We all were so excited about moving. My friends and I used to talk for hours, imagining how life was going to be in the new apartments. We used to picture the new bathrooms and count the number of showers that we would take in the morning and evening. We were very happy while we were helping my mother pack our belongings. It was only when I saw them removing the door of our room that I felt deep sadness, pushing me to weep very hard. Without realizing it, I found myself holding the door tight screaming, “I do not want to leave, I do not want to leave,” but of course my parents and siblings would not allow me to stay. We all were crying when we moved.
A twenty-two-year-old woman describing her feelings when her family was relocated
The “door,” as noted in chapter 1, had a special significance in Sadat's infitah, or “open-door policy.” This policy, as stated by Sadat (1981) himself, aimed to “open the universe … open the door for fresh air and remove all the barriers and walls that we built around us to suffocate ourselves by our own hands” (12). While Sadat's policies aimed to open the door to the outside, at the local level doors were utilized to enclose and separate nuclear families from each other. The modern family was perceived as a nuclear family that occupied its own separate apartment and had a door that enclosed its activities and defined its separate boundaries. Doors have a special significance in how people depict attachment to the old location and current interaction in the new project. As the above narrative reveals, the door mediates the relationship between the social actor, the housing unit, and the larger community. The door is recalled when people remember the past and point to how space connected them in Bulaq while it separates them in al-Zawiya. Many used to live in rooms that opened on a common hallway (fasaha), and the building (bayt) had one door that enclosed them as a unit. The statement “We did not use to close our doors” is made to signify a complex set of relationships, manifesting security, closeness, trust, and honesty, that is said to have characterized the old location. In comparison, el-masaakin are formed of residents who come from different parts of Cairo and various Bulaqi alleys. The security that was guaranteed through long-formed relationships was disrupted, and the basis for leaving doors opened was shaken. Simultaneously,
Since relocation, the door has become more important in mediating the interaction between the family and others. It has become the entrance to the family's life, its exit to the outside world, and the gate that is used to communicate with others, establish or restrict relationships with neighbors, and express solidarity with the rest of the community. In short, it is the “gate” that regulates the inclusion and exclusion of others from the family's life. This is not to say that the gate is rigid. In fact, because the rules that regulate this gate are flexible and change according to the context, the door becomes the locus of tension with others. Closing the door can be translated as separating your world from others when there is tension between neighbors, especially in el-masaakin. The door symbolizes and reinforces the distinction between “us” and “them” when there is tension between neighbors.
The special importance of the door is revealed on a daily basis because it functions like a thermometer that indicates the fluctuation of the relationship between neighbors. The families of Um Mahmmod and Um ‘Emmad are two of the few families that continued to live next to each other after the relocation. Their memories of their life in Bulaq have created a sense of closeness between the two families and openness between their apartments that is not common in other blocks. The two women think of themselves as sisters, a fact that is manifested in how the children of each family call the other woman khalti (mother's sister). Although physically the two apartments are separated and have their own wooden doors, there is a continuous flow of news, objects, and people between the two units. The doors are usually open (especially in the summer) from morning until late at night. This changes, however, when there is tension between the two families. The number of visits decreases rapidly, and some members who are directly involved in a conflict may stop talking to each other. In this context, the door gains more significance. How one opens and closes the door signals feelings of anger, disrespect, and frustration. When a young woman of the two families slaps the door hard while one of the neighbors is passing, she is making a clear statement about her anger. If she closes the outer door of the apartment while her neighbor's door is open without looking and asking for permission from
The door and the ability to enclose the family's life introduce a new definition of privacy. Families’ reactions to this new possibility vary depending on their members’ education, economic status, and religious views. There is especially a marked difference between the better offand the needy. The needy (such as Um ‘Emmad and her family) see in the door and the growing separation from their neighbors not a positive change that protects the family but a barrier that reduces interaction and cooperation within the community. The relatively better-offfamilies (such as Um Mahmmod's) see in the door a welcome development and tend to introduce physical changes to their units that secure more visual protection. This can best be exemplified by the wall that has been introduced to create a space that mediates the interaction between those who are standing at the door and those who are inside the living room.
SEEING AND PRIVACY
As mentioned in chapter 2, the living room is the main space where family members interact with each other and with visitors. They eat, drink tea, and watch television in this room. Like the maglis in Lebanon (Gilsenan 1982) and the mafraj in Yemen (Gerholm 1977), the saala is on the border of the private and public. During daytime, it is public and open to visitors (both men and women), while at night it is privatized and used as a bedroom for family members. Both men and women tend to secure their privacy in this space by dressing modestly. In addition, when the doors of opposite apartments face each other, families who can afford it have added a new half-wall that separates the living room from the kitchen and creates a space called turqa (corridor or hallway). Without this wall, the saala is exposed to the eyes of the neighbors when the door is open (see Figure 8). The new turqa makes it possible for the person who
FIGURE 8: Families who can afford it add a new half-wall that separates the living room from the kitchen and creates a space called turqa (corridor). This wall blocks one's view of the living room from the apartment doorway or from other rooms in the apartment and provides visual protection for family members, especially when they sit on the floor to eat.
Central to the regulation of the relationship between the self and others is the control of what, when, and how the self is to be seen by others. Here it is important to point out that regulating acts of seeing does not mean a total shielding from the eyes of others, as argued in relation to “the Islamic city” (see Abu-Lughod 1987). Rather, it is the attempt to control who sees whom and under which conditions. Thus, while young women are encouraged, and in many cases required, to wear the scarf to have access to the workplace and other public spaces, they are allowed to dress in fancy clothes, wear full makeup, fix their hair, and dance in front
At the same time, sharing a bed with a sister, a mother, or a female visitor is accepted. Daughters may prefer to sleep in the same bed with their mothers in winter to keep warm or simply because they feel lonely when sleeping in separate beds. But, the apartment, which may be the most private space, becomes more “public” for women at night. Female members wear pants under their long dresses (galaliib) because the rooms where they sleep are accessible to their male relatives, and mothers describe how the presence of children prevents them from wearing revealing nightgowns or using makeup. The body becomes the most intimate space that should be protected from the gaze of others. Similarly, sexual relationships change to a large extent after the birth of the first baby. Since children are not required to ask for permission before entering their parents’ room (when the parents have their own separate room), intimate relationships between couples are exclusively limited to nighttime and only after the children are completely asleep. Many women reported that they have not seen their husbands’ naked bodies for fifteen to twenty years. The body in this context becomes the most intimate space that should be protected and regulated. This protection is central to the meaning of privacy in al-Zawiya.
Rather than a separation between two domains, this notion of privacy rests on regulating encounters between the family and outsiders as well as among its members. This regulation is crucial to the negotiation of changes that people introduce to their units and that threaten to violate the privacy of others. This can be elaborated through revisiting the changes that people introduced to the main balcony, briefly examined in chapter 2. Over the last fifteen years, this balcony, which overlooks the public land in the middle of the square (murabba‘), has been changed in various ways that enable family members to see what happens in the center of the murabba‘. Because these balconies open on the middle of the murabba‘, they are not seen as violating the privacy of other families. No negotiations are required between neighbors to implement such changes. The situation is different when one family opens a new window that may expose the bedroom or the kitchen of another family. In this case, negotiations are needed, and families who are threatened by the gaze of the neighbors can prevent such changes. “Our neighbors allowed us to open
Privacy is a relational concept that is context bounded rather than a rigid dichotomy between two separate domains. Privacy here indicates all the actions that should be protected from the gaze of others (whether family members, neighbors, or officials). This makes it important to examine the role of social actors in negotiating and redefining the meaning of privacy. For example, domestic violence is considered “public” in that people are expected to step in to stop a fight between family members. Neighbors who fail to do so are blamed. Tension may escalate and relationships may be temporarily severed because one family did not interfere to mediate a conflict in the next-door apartment. This was painfully expressed in a story told by a female informant. One man used to beat his wife, but as soon as she started screaming, the neighbors rushed to help her. To avoid this interference, the man shifted to removing all his clothes before beating his wife. In this way, the man “privatized” an action that is considered public and managed to prevent others from helping the wife. Using his naked body, which should not be seen by others, the man managed to discourage others from helping his wife.
Engendering Public Space
Rather than a fixed boundary dividing the city into two parts, public and private, outside and inside, there are degrees of accessibility and exclusion determined variously by the relations between the persons involved, and by the time and the circumstance.
Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt
Public spaces are gendered in that they “both reflect and affect the ways in which gender is constructed and understood” (Massey 1994: 179). While men have more freedom touring the city and enjoy less restricted access to various public spaces, women's movement is structured by several
While men can and often do go out almost at any time (day and night), women do not usually go out late at night without being accompanied by a male relative or a female friend. They usually prefer to walk arm in arm. They are more relaxed when walking in a group, laughing and chatting loudly. When they are walking with a male relative, he assumes full responsibility for their safety. Sometimes conflicts may erupt if the male relative feels that other young men are being offensive in their comments or the way they look at the female relative. In contrast to the young, older women have more freedom and can walk alone without the threat of harassment. The power older women acquire over time is manifested in more mobility and more confidence while in streets, stores, and marketplaces. So they can talk in loud voices, can address strange men directly, and can answer back verbally and physically if they feel they are being treated disrespectfully.
Men, as manifested in the story of Karima, try to regulate the movement of their sisters, wives, and mothers. The realities of daily life, however, make men's attempts to restrict women's access to public space an ideal more than a practical possibility. More often, women take charge of their families, due to the absence of the husband (because of his death, old age, or employment in Cairo in more than one job or in one of the oil-producing countries). Women thus not only take care of their family affairs in the “domestic sphere” but also are the main agents in negotiating the daily needs of their families, bargaining in the market, and forging social support networks. Above all, they have the time and skills
While women who go often to the market, the mosque, and government offices to attend to the affairs of their families are not restricted, their movement is closely controlled when it is motivated by socialization or is leisure oriented. Women, especially the young, like going out (fusha). Fusha implies going out to the open space to enjoy fresh air and the company of others. The most preferred visits are to the seaside during the summer and to local attraction centers such as parks and the local zoo during the winter. The further the trip is, the more restrictions are put on the woman to be with other women or male relatives. Permissions for visits inside the neighborhood are usually easy to obtain, and young women often simply inform the mother that they are visiting a friend or a neighbor. Traveling to other parts of the city, however, demands more negotiation and preparation. The verbal permit to travel inside the city and outside it can be granted by various family members—the father, the mother, an older sister, or a brother, depending on the context. A clear yes is needed when the trip is outside the city; on such occasions, the father is usually involved in the decision, with mediation from the mother or older siblings. When the mother agrees to allow a daughter to go on such a trip, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the father or the brothers to reverse the decision.
It is important to remember that women's access to public space shifts and changes over time. Many factors—age, marital status, economic need, the number of children, and the background of the “social guardian” (education, age, job, gender, and regional culture)—shape
The “right” of a husband to regulate his wife's movements is usually accepted by men and women in al-Zawiya and is strongly supported by religious discourses circulated in the mosque and through audiotapes. Rather than directly debating this right, which would lead to physical violence and social condemnation, women tend to cooperate with each other and employ various tactics and strategies to escape the control of the family on their movement. Um Mohammad, who lives in el-ahali, has a shorttempered husband who tries to control her movements and determine which neighbors she can visit. He decided that one neighbor, Um Fathi, “was not a good woman” because she always fights with her neighbors and swears by using the usually male-designated phrase ‘alyya italaq (“May my wife [or husband in Um Fathi's case] be divorced”). Abu Mohammad especially forbade his wife from visiting Um Fathi after she had a big fight with one of their neighbors. He feared that such visits might cause a conflict between his wife and their neighbors. Um Mohammad, however, likes to visit with Um Fathi. She tries to do that during the daytime when Abu Mohammad is at work. When she needs
Symbolic Violence and Struggles over Public Spaces
But inside and outside are not situated side by side, each one constituting a separate domain; indeed, on the contrary, they are re X ected in each other, and it is only by this opposition and this complementary nature that they reveal their true meaning.
Pierre Bourdieu, “The Sentiment of Honour in Kabyle Society”
In addition to physical violence inflicted occasionally both on young men and women, symbolic violence is central to controlling their access to public space. Like other forms of domination, men's domination presupposes “a doxic order shared by the dominated and the dominant” (Krais 1993: 169). This order is internalized by social agents, structuring their practices and perceptions of the world around them. It is this order that men (and older women) try to maintain through their attempts to restrict women's access to some public spaces. Rather than seeing this system as imposed on them by others, women accept this as part of the taken-for-granted domain. Notions such as love, solidarity, care, and modesty are interwoven with power inequalities between family members in such a way that, when her brother beats her, Karima feels that it is because he cares for her. This is exemplified also in women's insistence that if a man really loves his wife, he will not allow her to work outside the house. In short, “patriarchy seated in love may be much harder to unseat than patriarchy in which loving and nurturance are not so explicitly mandated and supported” (Joseph 1994: 58). Limiting women's access to public space is often justified in al-Zawiya al-Hamra by the need to protect them from the evils of the outside world. But it should be
THE WORKPLACE AND WOMEN'S ACCESS TO PUBLIC LIFE
Um Rida has a twenty-two-year-old daughter, Halla, who works in a sewing factory. She leaves early in the morning and comes back late in the evening. The mother knows that her daughter needs the job to be able to buy the rest of her gihaaz (trousseau). Although Halla is not engaged yet, she has been working on and offfor the past four years, investing her money in buying clothes and household appliances and saving money to buy her part of the furniture (usually a set for the living room) for her future home. Even though Um Rida trusts her daughter very much and rarely questions her movements, she often expresses her resentment at Halla's job. The mother emphasizes that, since she started working, Halla has learned qillit il-’adab (bad manners or impoliteness). “Not only does she refuse to help in the household chores,” the mother complains, “but she also answers back when I talk to her. She even stopped praying.” The mother describes how proud she was of her daughter who (like the mother) decided to wear the khimar and used to perform her religious duties on regular basis. Halla tries to explain to her mother, often without success, that since she started to work, she comes home very tired and without any energy to help with the housework. At the same time, there is no place for her and her female co-workers to pray in the factory. Her neighbors and mother have encouraged her to approach the manager to ask him to designate a separate place for prayer where they cannot be seen by male workers.
Halla accepts the social definition of women's work outside the home and emphasizes that she will not continue working after marriage. For one thing, the pay is very low and the hours are very long. She is forced to work overtime and does not receive any benefits such as health insurance, paid holidays, or compensation when she is sick. More important, she knows that her future husband will not want her to work. Many men prefer to work in two jobs to secure the expenses of their families rather than allowing their wives to work outside the house. There is a widespread view that links a woman's work after marriage with the inability
But in addition to these social conventions, there is a strong association between “bad manners,” as stated in Um Rida's narrative, and women's work outside the domestic sphere. “Bad manners” are manifested in being able to answer back and challenge the mother's authority or being assertive and addressing other men directly. In the workplace, Halla meets other young women from different parts of Cairo, and the site seems to foster solidarity among them, bringing them together to exchange stories about their lives. Young women often feel and see the suffering of other female fellow workers, and their discussions bring part of the family's power into question. They “eat together,” a notion that usually designates strong solidarity between people, and their relationships extend beyond the workplace to include the home and occasional trips to areas around Cairo. They may also meet their future husbands through one of their female co-workers. The relationship between female workers was nicely described by a factory worker in Cairo: “Friendship here [in the factory] is stronger than outside. We talk about nearly everything that occupies our minds. … If we see a fellow worker poorly dressed whose husband is taking her salary, we show her the unfairness of it and encourage her to ask for her rights” (Ibrahim 1985: 299).
Thus, working not only provides women with some income that makes it possible for them to feel a sense of limited independence but also allows them to be part of a collectivity of women and to know more about the condition of others. Similar to other “subaltern counterpublics,” workplaces become “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (Fraser 1992: 123). Halla tells stories about other friends at work
WOMEN'S WORK AND THE USE OF PUBLIC SPACE
The attempt to restrict women's access to information explains why many women work in various activities that do not take them away from the neighborhood. The fact that these activities contribute to the income of the family does not challenge the masculinity of the husband or bother the neighbors or the relatives of the wife. Women sew and embroider garments, make bead necklaces, and sell clothes. They utilize the empty land next to each murabba‘ to sell cooked foods, sugarcane, roasted corn, and fresh vegetables and fruits. Women also use this space to promote some of their seasonal home-based industries. Some women, for instance, set up ovens on the side of the lanes between the murabba‘at to bake the ruqaq (thin bread) that is widely used during the Sacrifice Feast and get a specific amount of money per kilo of flour that they mix and bake. Through this utilization of space, women simultaneously publicize their activities, interact with others, and supervise their children who play nearby (see Figure 9).
The public space around the murabba‘at is also used to integrate the workplace with the residence area. This not only secures extra income for the family but also enables its members, especially women, to take care of the new investment. Having a small shop next to the housing unit, for instance, enables Um Su‘ad to take over while her husband is outside the neighborhood. These additions are also used as an economic safety
FIGURE 9: Women manage family investments around the housing units. Some families have placed small grocery stands next to housing blocks to sell soft drinks, candy, and ice cream. Through this use of space, women simultaneously publicize their activities, interact with others, take care of some domestic animals, and supervise their children who play nearby. Photograph by Farha Ghannam.
At the same time, these activities encourage the presence of people between the different murabba‘at. Immediately after relocation, these spaces were “empty,” dark, and potentially dangerous. Such empty spaces are often equated with evil spirits, who may attack and harm the vulnerable passersby. This makes it unsafe for women and young children to be outside, especially at night. The continuous presence of human beings in these spaces ensures the pacification and dislocation of evil spirits. It also secures help when one is in trouble. People are always ready to help in stopping a fight or protecting a child. At the same time, being seen by others provides social control that allows more freedom of movement for women and legitimizes their interaction with men. The same is clearly manifested during Ramadan, when women are allowed more freedom to stay outside late at night. The presence of many people and the increase in street lighting facilitate women's access to public space during this month. Paradoxically, the presence of others also restrains women's movements because they become more visible to others, especially when they try to “sneak” outside without the knowledge of their families. The power to restrict women's access to external spaces is thus scattered across the community, a fact that makes women feel that they are under the gaze of their families all the time. The presence of others who may tell their families (or at least start gossiping) makes it hard for women to feel outside the control of the family. The threat of the gaze of others frames women's ambiguous feelings toward the relatively wide and often welllit passages between the different murabba‘at that replaced the old narrow lanes in Bulaq, where they could walk between homes with some degree of invisibility.
The view of the murabba‘at and the spaces between them is influenced by the shuZing of neighbors and mixing of people from different parts of Cairo. The new setting is structuring both the interaction of family members with others and the way they view public space. This shift is exemplified by the growing restrictions on the access of women and children to various spaces. In Bulaq, male children were allowed to stay outside until late hours. “My parents did not use to worry about me,” a man in his mid-twenties explains. “I was only seven years old when they
These reactions are part of a larger system that defines the social meanings attached to various public spaces. While children are encouraged to go to school, mothers often feel frustrated because they cannot totally control the upbringing (tarbiyya) of their children when they mix with others in “the street.” A “good mother” tries to keep her male and female children “under her wings,” as one woman explains. Mothers try to keep their children away from the street, which is associated with “dirty language” and “bad manners.” I often witnessed struggles between mothers and young children over the latter's desire to play outside. Mothers bribe, beat, scold, and even lock up their children to play at home rather than in the street, where they might interact with others who would teach them bad habits. These restrictions are directly linked to the knowledge that social actors are expected to acquire in different public spaces and how this knowledge is central to the social meanings attached to various spaces and who has access to them. In the previous chapter, I examined the word lama, which sums up people's reactions to the increasing mixing and gathering of a heterogenous population in the same housing project. This heterogeneity informs the social construction of space. Public spaces such as the coffee shop and the vegetable market are considered lamin. The presence of a mixed group of people in the same space makes it a site where social norms can be challenged or questioned. In addition, these spaces are subject to state intrusion and control, which also shape their role in the life of young men, parents, and women.
YOUNG MEN IN THE COFFEE SHOP
Although there are coffeehouses in other parts of Cairo where women are allowed, in al-Zawiya coffee shops are open only to men. They gather
The coffeehouse in al-Zawiya al-Hamra is perceived ambivalently by both men and women. First, coffee shops, especially those attended by young men, are targeted by the police. There are informants (mukhbirin) who report to the police any activities in the various coffee shops. As one man explained, “The government fears that we gather in one place and that we may discuss politics.” Second, police will target visitors to a particular coffeehouse if they suspect that a thief, a drug user, or a fugitive attends it. When the police raid a coffeehouse, they usually detain all the attendees. Young men in particular are dragged outside, slapped in front of people in the street, and beaten in the police station (qism), which was upgraded from a small police post (nuqta) after the 1981 clashes between Muslims and Copts.
Almost every young man that I met had a story to tell about himself or a close friend or relative who was taken to the police station for questioning because he happened to be in a qahwa during a raid. Young men and their parents dread “visits” to the police station not only because they believe that they can be framed for crimes they did not commit but also because torture has led to the death of a few suspects in the police station. In one case, the police claimed that a man charged with theft committed suicide by throwing himself from the window of the police station. The family of the victim and their neighbors did not accept these claims and publicly protested the incident, claiming that he was thrown from the window by the investigating policemen. To avoid being taken to the police station, young men keep a watch, and as soon as they feel or hear the police coming, they run in different directions. Such experiences and fears frame the negative views of the coffeehouse.
Although police intervention may restrict the utilization of the coffee shop as a site for the production and circulation of discourses critical of the state, the experiences of young men in this space and in the police station shape their views of the government and its policies. For example, the reactions of young men to the news circulated in the state-controlled media about “terrorism” and attacks by Islamic groups differ from those of their fathers and female relatives. Young men draw on cases of their friends who were allegedly framed for crimes they did not commit to argue that the same is done to others who are accused of conducting terrorist attacks.
The possibility of detention is in itself the source of anxiety of many
THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION
OF THE VEGETABLE MARKET
Opinions—about people and about politics—take shape in the network of communications in the suq; even the most severe government censorship cannot stand up against the whispered asides which pass from person to person in the suq.
Robert Fernea, “Suqs of the Middle East”
There are at least two entities that people call market (suq) in al-Zawiya al-Hamra. One of these markets is located between the old masaakin and el-ahali, while the other is in the ahali area but close to the new masaakin. The actual market is hard to define physically. One of these structures was built by the government in 1985. It consists of several wooden booths encompassed by a concrete wall. One part of the market has a roof, while the other part is not covered. Although the roofed market has been a main feature of Middle Eastern cities, traders here do not like the roofed space allocated to them by the government. There is a continuous struggle between the merchants and government officials over where the former can sell their products. The officials try to force the merchants to stay within the bounded market. Merchants, however, refuse to stay within the boundaries of this structure and take their goods to the nearby streets. Only a few traders with heavy loads or hard-to-move goods stay inside the formal “market”, but they stay in the uncovered part. The rest take their fruits, vegetables, cheese, and other products into the nearby intersection. Sellers feel that the street is more spacious, allows them to
The vegetable market is full of movement. Women from nearby villages bring big baskets of seasonal products, some breast-feeding their babies while older children play around; merchants move their goods to allow a car, whose driver is honking madly, to pass; a man tries to force his horse, that is pulling a lettuce cart, to proceed through the crowd; trucks try to unload; small children sell lemons, parsley, and other goods; and a man carries a tray with tea glasses to be sold to the traders. Products are piled on carts, and their sellers loudly describe the taste of the fruit, announce the prices of vegetables, and call upon people to inspect their merchandise and compare prices. Fresh and frozen fish are being sold on the corner of the street, while on the other side there is a shop with an immense woman selling internal organs, legs, and heads of water buffalo. A woman sits next to a cage with several chickens, waiting for customers who select one or two, which are then weighed, slaughtered, and dipped in the boiling water to make it easy to pluck the feathers. Another woman squats with a big basket of rice, and a group of women stand around waiting for her to weigh the amount they requested. One woman screams at one of her female customers who tries to pick a piece of cheese from the metal container. Flies continue to fly in and out of the container, but the merchant is only bothered by the fact that her other customers may feel disgusted if they see the female client putting her fingers into the container. Around the area that is defined as the market, there are shops that sell spices, fabrics, clothes, shoes, and miscellaneous household equipment.
Most of the studies of the market (conducted mainly by male anthropologists) focus on the bazaar or the central market, which is dominated by men (Gilsenan 1982; Geertz 1979; Gerholm, 1977). Studies of the suq also tend to focus more on the merchants than on how the people, especially women, interact and view it. Little attention has been devoted to the study of local vegetable markets that women visit to buy their daily vegetables and fruits. Unlike the central markets and bazaars that have attracted the attention of researchers, the suq in al-Zawiya al-Hamra is dominated by women. They are the majority of the sellers and buyers. Although there are other closer options that could save them time and
In the market a woman compares prices, checks the quality and freshness of the vegetables, and then decides what to buy for the day. She checks with the merchant to make sure that the advertised price is the same as the price that he is charging. She bargains to see if the price can be reduced and reads the reaction of the merchant to ascertain when she should leave or when she should increase the offered price. Although she may know some sellers by name, she does not try to maintain a commitment or a strong relationship to a specific merchant, for if she did, she would not be able to maintain the broad bargaining space that allows her to compare and select what is suitable for her budget and needs. She picks up every single vegetable and examines it closely to make sure that it is fresh and not damaged. Then she hands the plastic bags, which she brings with her to avoid paying extra for them, to the man or the woman who is selling the vegetables. She keeps a close eye on the merchant to make sure that the weights used are correct and that he does not add any bad products. She carefully calculates the total cost and counts the change. Meanwhile, she keeps her eyes open for lettuce leaves or other vegetables that can be fed to her chickens and ducks. Some merchants do not mind if she collects some of the green leaves that they have thrown away. If she does not find anything to take back to her poultry, she may buy them some old cheap vegetables.
A central feature of the woman's interaction with the male or female merchant is suspicion and distrust. Merchants, whether those who reside in al-Zawiya or those who come from villages around Cairo, are not to be trusted because they may try to cheat on the weight, the price, the quality of the food, and the change they give back. Because women expect to engage in such arguments and disagreements, special verbal skills are taught as part of women's socialization, which includes visits to the market from early childhood. Young girls accompany their mothers to the market during school vacations and are sent alone to buy some simple things as they grow older (around ten and over). Before reaching this stage, they are taught “the language of the market” and how to be assertive so that they can bargain and answer back if the merchant tries to cheat them. Women's assertiveness in this context, unlike their assertiveness in relation to the workplace, is highly regarded and celebrated.
The relationship between clients and sellers is not the only potential source of conflict in the market. Women view the relationships between
Like the coffee shop that shapes how young men view the state, the vegetable market is the main site that shapes women's opinions of government policies. Even though their visits to the market are usually short and goal oriented, women still hear complaints about prices and new regulations related to the market and observe the struggle between the merchants and government officials. Women's efforts to secure their daily food with limited budgets makes them experts on the changing prices of vegetables. They monitor increases in the price of tomatoes, the availability of onions, and the freshness of fish and link them with the policies and projects of the government. For instance, women were very concerned when the governor decided to relocate Rod al-Farag market (the major vegetable market in Cairo). They thought that the relocation of the market outside the city would cause large increases in the prices of vegetables and fruits. When I visited al-Zawiya in December of 1994, women considered the increase in vegetable prices and the shortage in some supplies to be a natural outcome of the relocation of that market.
Public Spaces and Collective Identities
Young men have more mobility and freedom to tour the city and visit various public spaces. Still, they have to struggle with their families and government officials to secure access not only to the coffee shop but also to
In contrast to the market and the coffeehouse, the mosque is viewed in positive terms by people in al-Zawiya. In Abu Hosni's narrative in chapter 3, Mohammad's attempts to maintain the identity of his children in America led him to the mosque. Not only in the United States but also in al-Zawiya al-Hamra, the mosque is a powerful space for creating a collective Muslim identity. Unlike the coffee shop and the vegetable market, the mosque is depicted as a safe space that brings members from different groups together on equal terms under controlled conditions. The decline in social control, which ensured the compliance of individuals to collective norms in Bulaq, and the increasing flows of information and consumer goods to the neighborhood have paved the way for religion as a powerful basis for structuring and shaping people's interaction in al-Zawiya. In addition to relocation, in the next chapter I examine other major transformations that have been sweeping Cairo and Egypt at large and that reinforce the role of religion in creating a sense of certainty in a world where all that is solid melts into air.