Nehal Elmeligy is Making a Scene

Nehal Elmeligy is pictured outside in the sunshine, wearing large earrings and a blue shirt.

When she was younger, Nehal Elmeligy didn’t have a word for feminism. The school books in Cairo didn’t mention anything about it. Her peers ignored the topic because they didn’t know the topic existed. The concept just was not there. It wasn’t until Nehal’s early twenties that she discovered what she truly was; a self-identifying feminist with a craving for knowledge and the power to create the life for herself that she always wanted. Now a second year master's student in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Nehal’s research focuses on young Egyptian women and the ways in which they challenge the patriarchy and honor themselves—the ways in which they choose to make a scene.

But first, let’s rewind a bit.

After graduating with a degree in English language and literature in Cairo, Nehal taught English to adults in Egypt. Several years of working at the language center passed, and the spark for teaching left her. She got bored. Something else, it seemed, was meant for her. “I didn’t know what to do. But I took it as a sign. There used to be so much passion. But I couldn’t feel it anymore,” says Nehal. “I had gotten tired of Egypt. It was after the revolution, things were just getting worse in terms of the economy and the instability of the country.”

This was around the time she discovered Nawal El Saadawi.

Introduction to Feminism

“I remember, it was 2011 when I first read her. Her name is not one you come across easily. Nawal El Saadawi’s books are not sold in bookstores. Some of them are banned. She’s a very big feminist icon. She’s a physician and grew up in the 1940’s. And basically, being a doctor and seeing a lot of women dying from female mutilation first made her question, why is this happening? This doesn’t need to be happening.”

As an Egyptian writer, medical doctor, feminist and activist, El Saadawi is seen by many in the Middle Eastern realm as a radical. She is commonly considered “the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world” and “the godmother of Egyptian Feminism,” and serves as the founder and president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights. In 1981 she helped to publish one of the first ever feminist magazines in Egypt, Confrontation, and because of this was temporarily jailed by the then-President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat (one of her over-forty books was born from this incident, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison).

Her country disapproves of her. She is never not fighting for women’s social and intellectual freedoms, all the while reporting from the forefront of that fight. And, yes, Nawal El Saadawi is still alive.

“She’s such a major figure in Egyptian history, she causes a lot of trouble. But the first time I ever came across her name was in 2011,” says Nehal. “This isn’t going to be in the school books—nobody was thinking about feminism. We didn’t hear about these things when were kids growing up. This is the point I’m making: I realized I was a feminist so late in life. I’ve always been one, but I didn’t know it was a thing. I went through a lot of stages. I took it step by step, it was gradual.”

Nehal had finally encountered what she had been searching for. An Egyptian woman who critiques the government, critiques religion, who is outspoken and graceful and real. She devoured El Saadawi biographies and recognized them for what they are—feminism—and, in that, she saw herself.

New Outlets for Expression

She turned to writing. It was something that she’d always loved, occasionally writing articles for media outlets and state newspapers. And her favorite content to cover? Women, of course.

“I don’t know if you’d call it feminist,” recalls Nehal, “but it was definitely women-related. I was like OK, if I don’t want to teach anymore, maybe I should give writing a shot. I got hired but I couldn’t find a full-time position. So, fine, I’ll continue writing but I still need stable money. You know, it doesn’t matter how many articles you can write a month, it’s just not going to be a stable income.”

Knowing she held the power to create the life for herself that she’d always wanted, Nehal continued on. Somewhere within that journey she found UC. Or rather, UC found her. A friend who attended UC (and happened to be studying in the WGSS department) introduced Nehal to the program.

“He said to me, ‘Nehal, I see the articles that you write. I see your Facebook statuses. You know, Nehal, you’re a feminist. You’re really a feminist. Why don’t you do the master’s that I’m doing?’”

She began browsing WGSS courses online and immediately felt a connection. The program combined all of the things she loved: theory, writing, politics, feminism. “The course titles, the descriptions… I was like, these are all the things I love. These are all the things I already write about, the things I already read about—when I go to a bookstore, I almost never buy novels, I always buy something about religion or national issues or feminism—all the controversial topics. I love theory, I love writing, I’m a good student, I like being a student. And I wanted to get out of Cairo.”

She had found her perfect match.

What followed was a year of saving money for her upcoming move to the U.S., working a job she didn’t want to work (teaching a classroom full of screaming and crying, but sweet, 6-year-old boys), and one she did (doing freelance journalism on the weekends). Her nights were spent voraciously studying for the GRE. It was difficult, but she managed.

“I am a hard worker. There are things that I did—they may not seem like a big deal now—but at the time seemed very, very hard. And it took a lot of work to do them. But it’s a good thing. Whenever there is something I need to do that I think I cannot do, I always remind myself of all the other things I thought were difficult that I managed to do anyways.”

Making a Scene

Fast forward to present day, Nehal is doing what she’s always wanted to do. Her master’s research paper is titled, “Making a Scene: How Young Women in Cairo Challenge Patriarchy in the Public Sphere.” She means this literally. She wants to expose the space, the location, where women express themselves freely and fiercely; where women are their realest selves and honor those selves through radical truth and self-respect.

“My topic is inspired by my life and the people I’ve known in my life. And how young people in Cairo, young women specifically, are currently changing or have changed from traditional views to liberal views.”

Still, she was unsure of what she’d find. She’d grown accustomed to observing the general understanding amongst her peers, that one should be very non-critical of the patriarchy, non-critical of sexism, and non-critical of oppression, to the point of ignoring the topics completely. It seemed to her very probable that the majority of women may not acknowledge feminism nor the need for it.

But something had changed.

Nehal interviewed a handful of Egyptian women (her ultimate goal is twenty total) consisting of Cairo-educated college graduates between the ages of 25 and 35 who moved to the U.S. after graduation. They’ve been living state-side for no more than three years. The majority identify as Muslim.

She asked the women controversial questions. She asked them questions that, forty years ago, would have perhaps landed her in a jail cell next to Nawal El Saadawi. The questions pertain to the “preoccupation with virginity, the heavy burden of the family’s honor that women carry, the division of society in public and private spheres, and the lengths to which men go to police the lives and the behavior of the women in their family.”

In other words, why are men treating women this way? Why does it feel like religion is oppressing us, whether that be Christianity or Islam? How do you feel about moving out of your parents’ house before you get married? Do you go out alone? Do you smoke in public? Do you wear miniskirts? If you do any of the following you’re a slut, right? Who supports you?

What the women tell Nehal is both profound and brave.

They were all forced to wear the hijab as young girls and teenagers. As adults they do not. Salwa, 32, describes her mother’s hysterical reaction to her rejection of the hijab. Every day for six months after Salwa returned home from work, her mother would wait outside her bedroom and scream, drop to the floor, and slap her own face. “And once, she really scared me,” says Salwa. “Her eyes were red behind her tears, and she told me that she wanted to burn my hair while I was sleeping. I told her: ‘Mom, do you want to kill me because I don’t want to be veiled?’ She said, ‘Yes. I imagine you burning in hell. I can’t live.’” 

She goes on to describe the hostile environment women are forced to combat in Cairo, one which had encouraged her to attempt invisibility. She once chose to only wear loose clothes and a straight face, an intentional and unflinching frown, so she could “move freely” and avoid harassment.

“Well, [women] are being punished. In my opinion, the common notion is that men own and dominate [the] public space… Their presence in it is normal and essential,” says Salwa. “On the other hand, women’s presence in [the] public space is seen as exceptional… [Men] can’t prevent them from the street but they cannot accept them as a native either.”

Noha, 27, describes in detail the mold in which a woman must abide in order to go unnoticed and unbothered in public:  “It’s the ‘moderate veiled woman,’ the one who wears a headscarf, long sleeves, and a top that goes a little bit below the waist…Anything other than this… she starts getting looks of criticism in the metro, in the street… if a woman returns home early, doesn’t go out much… if she spends time with females only, then that’s accepted.”

Noha smokes in public. She likes to put her cigarette packs on her desk at work for everyone to see. It’s the little rebellions like these, the little things women do as acts of defiance and self-love—often so easily taken for granted by those comfortable and well-acquainted with true freedom—that maybe are the most important within this resistance. Noha speaks of the, “support we get from people like us,” meaning, non-traditional Egyptian women actively supporting other non-traditional Egyptian women; a sisterhood of sorts. They are defying the patriarchy, and doing so holding each other’s hands.

Nehal laughs and says, “It’s like, the more I change, the more people I find who are changing, too.”

And the women she finds are honest. They are suspicious of rules. They know that men (and the world) are oppressing them. They want, and thus do, move out of their parents’ houses before marriage. They live in tiny apartments with their boyfriends. They have sex. They wear miniskirts. They know they are not sluts, but do not care if people wrongly think so. They support themselves while choosing to support other women at the same time. They are no longer abiding by the rules of the classic patriarchy. They have awakened. They are feminists.

“The world has always told us: a polite girl doesn’t make a scene. This is not the case now,” says Nehal. “My generation is fed up. I’m asking women, what did you used to believe? What do you believe now? What made you change? In what ways do you challenge society and the patriarchy in the public sphere?

“Will these individual acts of defiance ever amount to large-scale social change or enhance the feminist movement? While no one can answer this question with complete certainty, these women are slowly going in the direction that… could eventually lead to an Arab feminist renaissance.”

It seems that, along with Nehal, the rest of the world is continually changing, and for the better.

Written by Danniah Daher, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School Office