Written By Noha Hassan, Egyptian Canadian Political Activist and Women’s Rights Advocate
What’s your label? Are you single, married, divorced or widowed? Are you childless, overweight, ugly, beautiful, tall or short? Are you easy to get, open- minded, conservative, veiled, unveiled, wealthy or poor? Throughout our lives, we as women are labelled, pigeon-holed and corralled. Why does it happen and what should we do about it?
This constant classification of women is a means of controlling our lives, limiting our potential and banishing us to secondary roles. It may not be pre-meditated, but the casual manner in which society labels women reveals a great deal about its regard for females. What is even more devastating is that most of these labels relate to our relationship with men and that we are labelled far more frequently than men.
My intention in this article is to discuss some of these labels and to challenge the perception that a woman’s worthiness is primarily derived from males and her association with them. This perception is unhealthy and it erodes a woman’s self-esteem, her sense of individuality and completeness.
People make assumptions about us based upon our age, our physical appearance or whether we are single mothers or childless. Unfortunately, Egyptian culture is not very kind to women. It blatantly promotes the idea that a woman’s worth stems from her association with men. In Egypt, we are immediately labelled by our marital status and the image we project.
I will choose a few labels to discuss in detail. Are you labelled “single?” This is the moment when you are transformed from a human being into a big question mark. “Why aren`t you married?” you are asked suspiciously. “You look good. You are educated and you have a pleasant personality.” In essence, you are being asked, “What’s wrong with you?”
You may feel obliged to defend yourself because no matter how intelligent your answers are or how well you highlight your accomplishments, these are of little significance to the person questioning you. You may have a decent job and financial independence but your achievements are overshadowed by your marital status. Your interrogators will invariably end the conversation with the hope that you will get married, as if nothing else mattered.
Are you a divorcee? This label transforms you into a “conversation piece” and everyone is curious about what went wrong and why you couldn’t handle it. Divorced women are cajoled into relating their often painful personal stories in order to justify their divorce. They must be redeemed so that they can maintain their worthiness or their option to remarry. Not only are they trying to heal from a divorce, but they are sometimes forced to explain what went wrong when they may be trying to figure it out themselves!
Are you classified by physical appearance? Labels such as “ugly” and “fat” are used to remind us that our core worth is defined by a specific definition of beauty, a definition conceived and promoted by society and the media. To deviate from that definition is to find ourselves devalued, our accomplishments and concerns of little recognition.
Then, of course, there is the age factor. Successful women over 35 seem to come with an expiry date. They are identified as “the good friend,” “confidante” or ‘the other woman.” Although they provide a comfort zone, they are not necessarily “the partner” or “the wife.”
When we allow others to define our worth, we lose our own perspective and a part of ourselves. Sadly, we become subjected to perceptions of ourselves that are not necessarily our own but of family, friends and community. We are left to follow an artificial script which requires us to meet others’ expectations of whom we should be. The results can be painful, leading us to lose our sense of individuality, worthiness and freedom. Thus, our aspirations become limited and controlled.
We women need to be reminded how strong and influential we really are. We are the movers and shakers. We are the artists of our society. We are the workers, the thinkers, the lawyers, the athletes and the politicians. We are doctors, scientists, teachers and journalists as well as wives, sisters, daughters and mothers. We contribute. We get things done and we do them well!
So what is the path to a better future for Egyptian women and all women? How can we avoid the distraction of being labelled? The answer is to stop thinking about an “opposite” sex and to appreciate what individuals have to offer when they are perceived as full-fledged human beings. This means looking beyond labels and viewing ourselves in a different light. It means moving past conventional expectations by empowering ourselves politically, economically and socially.
Women need to be politically active and aware. We need to run for public office and vote. We ought to participate in decisions that affect our social and economic standing. We ought to involve ourselves in education and public policy. We should stand together and spread the message that we can make a difference. We should reach out to women in the hinterland, to those outside of the major cities. The way to do this is through increased literacy, general education and gainful employment. This is the key to independence for these women and it leads to increased awareness of their rights.
There is power in numbers and we have the numbers. In May 2012, Egypt’s Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics reported that Egypt’s population had reached 82 million. 49.3 per cent of that population is female and, according to UN Women, 23 million of those females were eligible to vote in last spring’s election. So, yes, we make up half the population. All we require is a sense of solidarity, a stronger and more unified approach. This is the message of empowerment that I am keen to impart in my fellow women, particularly those in the Middle East. It’s time to extricate ourselves from labels.
Written by: Noha Hassan
Edited by: Joanne Madden