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Growing Up: Four Stories
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This Wonderful Girl Who Wore the Higab

The closest most Egyptian youth come to an organized rite of spiritual passage is the series of examinations that punctuates their school careers and finally grants them their certificates. Their families, who press them to study and who scrape together money for tutoring; their teachers, who sometimes earn several times their salaries by doing that tutoring; the state, which outlaws that tutoring altogether as a conflict of interest; and private companies that produce condensed study guides and summaries for the tests, are all involved as players in the summertime ritual that takes its most intense form in al-thanawiyya al- ‘amma, the general secondary exams.

The short-term pressures of nationwide testing are powerful motivators for the principal actors in this drama. Ordinary Egyptians respect education and use schooling as a means of status enhancement (particularly for girls, who, it is believed, are more attractive marriage partners if they have a certificate and can not only bring in income from outside employment, but save money by tutoring their own children[64]). But in part because teaching is the lowest-paid professional occupation in the country—the salary of a public sector secondary school teacher in the late 1980s was about thirty-five dollars a month; that in the private sector about twice that, but still not a living wage—it often attracts idealists who want to make a difference in the lives of young people. Particularly at private religious schools, committed community members join teachers to volunteer for tutoring work, help with bookkeeping, coach sports, and perform other tasks out of a sense that Islam is calling them to work with young Muslims.

Layla al-Shamsi was the head of the Literature Department at a private Islamic language school in Masr al-Gidida, the “New Cairo” northeast of the city center. The area—founded just after the turn of the century as a planned community for expatriates and well-to-do locals—is a modern and expansive area where military installations, airports, government agencies and factories are mixed with private mosques, villas, shopping centers and apartment blocks. In contrast to Samia ‘Abd al-Rahman's zayy islami, which consists of a long-sleeved dress and a designer scarf covering her hair and neck (called tarha), Layla wears khimar, which is one step more conservative. “I've been a muhaggaba for seven years now,” she said.

Before that I was really a Muslim in name only. I was educated in a Christian school—the English missions school. I consider myself that I was a non- Muslim then. I was an airline hostess for Saudia airlines, and travelled all over the world; to Europe, and Asia. I've spent a lot of time in England, and I was an English major [in college]. I don't have a teaching degree, or an advanced degree in anything, but I'm very good with children. I love working with children.

I'm 33 now. But seven years ago, when I was around 25, I began wearing higab. I had met this girl, this wonderful girl who wore the higab, and she began to tell me about Islam, and about being a real Muslim. And for a while I kind of felt both ways. While I was working, I really used to admire Western ways, and was very impressed with the West and their way of doing things, and thought, like a lot of you do, that women who wear the higab are oppressed by men, or retarded, socially or mentally retarded somehow. It wasn't a decision I made, really, it's not like there was some sudden inspiration from Allah or anything; but God always puts someone in our life, sets this person in our path to guide us, and for me it was this wonderful girl.

I started reading the Qur’an, but at first I did it with a critical eye, like you might, understanding it but not believing everything it said, trying to keep some kind of critical distance. And at the same time I was living in my old way—oh, I used to fast during Ramadan, and that kind of thing, but really I was a Muslim in name only—but I would go out with friends, even when I didn't drink anything, I would go to discos with people, where there was alcohol around, and I would try to sit there and have a good time, but started thinking that this really is a bad thing to be doing. I started feeling guilt. And believe me, I had never felt guilty about this kind of thing before! But I slowly began reading more and more, and deciding that I was living the wrong way. It took about a year between the time I met this girl, and the time I put on higab.

By 1989, Layla had taught at the school for four years, and was beginning her fifth. Strongly devoted to her students and to the institution, she told me that “when you work at this school, you're working for Islam. I have a lot of work here—when you're working for Islam you don't just say, “that's not my job”; you do a lot of different things for the good of the school.” [65] In her previous teaching job, which was not at an Islamic school, she says that the students were “very naughty,” but that here, they are well-behaved. “They've gone here, most of them, since they were in kindergarten, and they know that you should respect people, and be well-behaved. I really think that it's Islam that makes them so well-behaved. They know that for everything they do, they are accountable to God.” [66] She was quite sensitive to her own accountability, and worked inside and outside of class to lead her students down a different path than the one she herself had been made to travel.

I'm not married. I am too busy working with the children, and trying to plan things at the school, and have no plans to get married, because I have my own ideas about marriage and Muslim men. I love working with our children here, and that's the important thing to me. A Muslim woman keeps her own name, and her own economic resources, and keeps her own personality, her own individuality. I think that it's very important to work with children here, not to increase the number of Muslims in the world, but to work with the Muslims that are here already, to extend da‘wa to them and teach them how to be more than Muslims in name only. And I think it's very important to teach children about being Muslims so that they don't have to go through the kinds of things that we had to go through, not knowing about how to lead a good life. Because Islam isn't just the rituals; those are important, but Islam includes all aspects of life as well.[67]

I have small study groups, mostly with girls and women, but I've got one with some boys. Usually they say that men teachers should be teaching boys of this age, but since they were my pupils anyway.…But I picked these five boys out of one of my English classes to talk to them more about religious things, and about Islamic ways of life. Boys of this age are really very impressed by things they see in the movies or on television about the West, things they see in Knot's Landing and so on, and I try to teach them about the right alternatives. I really had no special criterion for choosing these five except I felt that they were closer to me, and we understood each other.[68]

On a visit to Egypt in 1993 I found these study groups had been discontinued because of Layla's marriage to an oil company executive who expected her to spend her time at home caring for their young son. When I tried to set up an interview appointment, she put me in touch with her husband, who, she assured me, could tell me anything I wanted to know. He explained that her new role is primarily to take care of the family and “to have things ready for me—whether it's food, or sex, or anything else.” While she still performed some administrative work at the school, she was trying very hard to restrict her interactions with people outside her family, particularly men. “She really doesn't mix with men,” her husband confided, “and it's not because of me, it's just the way she is.” Marriage appears to have shifted Layla's sense of accountability quite radically. Beginning her adulthood as an airline stewardess, the stereotypical specimen of female liberation and (literally) jet-setting mobility, she entered on a journey of slow but steady introspection and circumscription of activity. Accountability to herself, expressed as a love for travel and experience and pleasure, was superseded by concern for living right, and for being a Muslim in more than name only. So her sense of accountability—the acknowledgment that one is responsible for providing for the rights of others—shifted first to her students, whose right to their heritage she worked to protect, and then to her husband and child. But this shift was a difficult and unexpected one. Even draped in her long khimar in 1989 she expressed no desire to marry, but instead contravened even her own convictions about gender segregation by reaching out to young men to serve as a model, a habit that made her marriage and seclusion appear all the more dramatic.

In a sense, accountability to God and to the Islamic heritage is expressed as a complex series of accountabilities to other human beings. Sometimes the balance between accounts is a delicate negotiation, as when different sets of auditors—family, peers, the state—are in conflict, as they were for Muhammad Sulayman, Wafa’i Isma‘il, and Layla al- Shamsi. Layla lamented that parents send their children to her school “because they want their children to grow up as good Muslims,” but sadly, some parents “only stress the interior aspects” of Islam and let their daughters, for example, take off the uniform higab after school.[69] Inner piety without the strength to display proper public behavior is a serious flaw, because although God can monitor inner intentions, God's community cannot. Therefore displays of responsible behavior are vital, and the accountability of young people to their families, to their schools, and to their nation is ceaselessly reiterated in the press. Although youth have been receiving increasingly bad press in recent years, as concerns about their moral degradation and political dangerousness are aired, they are regularly redeemed through annual celebration of their struggle through high school exit exams.

Following Foucault (not to mention the lower-grade textbook that compares God's Day of Judgment with the school examination), we can highlight the sense in which the school imposes “a principle of compulsory visibility” [70] upon its students not only through a forced display of signifying dress and daily discipline, but through “highly ritualized” examinations in which “are combined the ceremony of power and the form of the experiment, the deployment of force and the establishment of truth.” [71] The examination, at the critical point of the final secondary exam, is not, however, a closed and secretive ritual. It is, in some ways, a highly public drama. Every summer newspapers publish analyses and debates about testing policy, and page after page of numerical listings detail the results that qualify for entrance into university. The religious press, for its part, uses the occasion to represent Islamic values as the key to academic accomplishment. Parents of students who excel in the general secondary exam extol the role of the family in the student's success. One father allocated 80 percent of his son's achievement to a supportive home environment and 20 percent to what he learned in school.[72] Pious students attribute high scores to higher powers. Sahar Ahmad Fikry, who scored eighth in the nation in the literature section, told a newspaper that she “performed the prayers, and read what she could of the Qur’an every day before beginning her studying and after finishing it…prayer was for her the only escape, to achieve rest and serenity and self-confidence, and gave her the opportunity to organize her time in relation to her studying.” [73]

On 11 June 1989, on the second day of the general secondary examination, almost one-quarter of a million Egyptian students sat for one and a half hours to answer five questions about Islam, questions that would help determine whether or not they would be able to attend university, and which field they could enter. For the first time, “objective” (also known as “American style”) questions were to be used on the examination. As with almost every decision taken by the government, this change was criticized in the opposition press. In the fortnight preceding the examinations, professors of education complained about the new style of question, which they conceded might be appropriate for the sciences or engineering, but which, when applied to religion, would not allow the student “the opportunity to express his views,…to reveal and explain his perspective, and if he had read any other sources or not.” [74]

Reprising the educational discourse of a century before, pundits admitted that while the old method of essay testing might have contributed to “a culture of memory,…of accumulation and retrieval,” the new method, although it would reveal the student's ability to apply scientific methods of thought to theoretical information in the curriculum, would not reveal his “interpretation of values and morals, and the connection of Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings to daily life.” [75] (In the end, the only question on the religion section of 1989's general secondary examination that actually included an objective portion was a question about sex: specifically, about the Prophet's advice for cooling the ardor of young celibates.)

Although students didn't find the exam particularly difficult,[76] some of them criticized the religious studies curriculum as weak in general, complaining that the subject, often occupying the last class of the school day, was easily skipped or ignored, and that it would be better taught by “specialized ‘ulama.” [77] For the following academic year, the Ministry of Education, jointly with the Ministry of Religious Endowments, had planned to place “religious visitors” in schools to organize religious meetings and discussions with students.[78] Criticisms of al-Azhar and other official religious institutions for dereliction of duty toward the country's youth—evident in al-Khashab's survey results—have led to public pleas by officials all the way up to the Shaykh of al-Azhar University, that religious scholars listen carefully to the concerns of the young and enter with them into constructive dialogue, so as to avoid the inevitable consequence of defection to alternate sources of inspiration.

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