By: Alexandra Kinias –
The posters on the walls of 36- year- old Noha Montasser’s office are of women’s athletes and body builders. More posters are hanging on the wall of the gym which she had built exclusively for women in a Cairo neighborhood. She pointed at the colorful image of a young woman in ski gear standing in the snow.
“This is Elham Al Qassimi from the United Arab Emirates, the first Arab woman to reach the North Pole.”
The music was blaring from inside the fitness room. Noha’s clients were lifting weights. It had taken her months to convince them to join the class.
She said: “The message I am trying to give women is that they can do just about anything a man does. I don’t want women to think that gender is an obstacle to achieve their dreams, even if they live in a society that wants them to believe otherwise.”
Noha is a petroleum engineer turned fitness instructor after her application to work as a field engineer was rejected by oil companies. She was young to realize how important it was to save the rejection letters that denied her the job because of her gender. She wanted to show them to the world.
Noha was still mourning her mother who had died of a sudden heart attack. The humiliation she encountered when she went to court to settle her mother’s estate left angry and hurt.
“Growing up in a male dominant society, I felt like a punch bag. What had happened in court was yet another jab.”
As an only child whose mother had survived all her siblings, Noha was shocked when the lawyer informed her that the sons of her deceased maternal uncles (not the daughters) were entitled to a share in her mother’s estate. The sons of her aunts were excluded.
“That was another reminder that women will never be counted as a whole. I was struck by how the laws had been cleverly drafted with minute details to assure their submission to their male guardians. Not that I was unaware of the laws, but I have not anticipated their extent.”
Inheritance laws in Islamic countries are derived from Sharia, favoring men over women. Females do not inherit property and land on equal basis with males. The Islamic Laws do not equate between mothers and fathers, between brothers and sisters, between daughters and sons, and between spouses. Siblings of a deceased father who doesn’t leave behind a son are entitled to share the inheritance with the widow and daughters. Women don’t object. They have been brainwashed over the centuries to accept the status quo. Since these laws are mentioned in the Koran, any objection to them or an attempt to change them is a direct challenge to God’s words and considered a heresy.
The nightmares created by her father’s siblings after his death were still vivid in Noha’s mind. Technically, her uncles and aunts became partners in everything her father owned. From previous experience in dealing with the legal system she learned that rebelling against the existing laws created more nightmares where she ended up the losing party.
Inside the courtroom Noha was received by a male chauvinist judge whose power resided in his signature. As the ultimate authority, if he refused to scribble it on a document no one could challenge his decision. The judge studied her from head to toe, smirked and asked her in a loud voice whether she was a Muslim or Christian. The question caught her off guard and it took her few moments to recover from the shock. It wasn’t just inappropriate and irrelevant, but also unnecessary. Her file had her full name which was unmistakably Muslim. Not to mention that her faith was printed on every government paper that belonged to her, including the ID. In spite of the anger that boiled inside her she responded that she was a Muslim. Without taking his eyes off her, he asked why she was not veiled. That question came as a blow to her face. It became apparent that the judge’s intent was to humiliate her.
“My body trembled in anger. I took a deep breath to calm down and responded that hopefully one day I will be guided to the right path. ”
Veil was not something Noha believed in. She belonged to the school that refuted veil as a religious obligation. Her inability to challenge the judge and stand up for what she believed was degrading. She resented herself for her cowardice to confront him. She resented the society that gave him power to abuse her.
“I stormed out of the courtroom feeling equally humiliated and betrayed. My temples were throbbing as my blood pressure soared. The pain in my heart was intolerable I wanted to scream until my lungs burst, but instead I went home and cried all night. I lied to my daughter when she saw me crying. I couldn’t tell her I felt betrayed and that the person who swore to bring us justice was the source of my devastation.”
In spite of the challenges she faces and the despair created by her circumstances, the single mom is raising up her six years old daughter to believe that women and men are equal.
“In spite of my successful business I don’t want my daughter to grow up in this environment. I want her to grow up enjoying all the rights I was deprived off. I despise the day she finds out that she could climb Mount Everest, yet she is counted as a half. It was painful enough for me to go through life treated as such. How can I tell her that women and men are equal yet the society treats women inferior to men, discriminates against them and deprives them from their personal rights and freedoms.”
Noha is considering leaving her homeland. Maybe, she confesses, if I left before my daughter grows up, I won’t see the day when she discovers that I had lied to her all her life. And perhaps she won’t feel disappointed by her own country.