Women's talk: five Egyptian women engage in debate while queuing to vote

Dena Rashed, Tuesday 29 Nov 2011

Women from different backgrounds in queue to vote find that delicate balance of freedom of speech, democracy and sympathy in post-autocracy Egypt

Women voting
Women queue on the second day of voting in Cairo to cast their ballots (Photo: Reuters)

People always say that if you don’t want an argument, avoid talking on religion, politics and football. Yet, on the first day of Egypt’s first presumably free elections in decades: What is there to discuss other than politics and religion?

Football was, mercifully, not the topic in an all-female voting station. The queue looked like that ancient game of snake in the first version of the Nokia mobile phones. In notoriously disorderly Egypt, many hoped that the process would be organised and that everyone would respect each others’ turn in the queue.

Like a ride on a train, you hope the strangers around you are friendly, but not too nosy. With a woman in niqab (full face veil) another girl who only veiled her hair, a brunette and one with lighter hair, I took a deep breath and hoped for a smooth ride.

With cautious, short sentences, the conversation began as soon as we stepped in queue.

The woman in niqab, who happened to be an Arabic teacher, piped up and declared that we shouldn’t disclose to each other who we will vote for, since the brunette was the curious one.

We couldn’t help but agree since it was clear that our choices would be different and socialising is unavoidable. Yet, with every step we took around the primary school in Nozha, Cairo, where we were assigned to vote, it was evident that we are in the primary stages of democracy in all its forms.

Even today, however, there is still this fear of “the other,” be it the liberals or the Islamists.

I understood why the Arabic teacher must have wanted to guard herself, since she was one of the few wearing the niqab. I have been in her position, in the reverse situation: feeling judged with my hair uncovered on my back amidst black veils.

As long as the conversation was about social issues, like mothers’ rights, transportation and civilised behaviour, there was a mutual agreement within the group and understanding of the hardships women face in life.

However, once the brunette, who appeared clueless on whom to vote for, started slamming public figures, like the Muslim leader, Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi, the niqabi teacher couldn’t help but defend him and started slamming his son, a poet and TV presenter, who sides with Tahrir protesters.

As we were in the district where liberal Amr Hamzawi is a candidate, the brunette called him a Masonic in the middle of many young women who were going to vote for him. The teacher replied, “isn’t he one of those liberals?”

As soon as I tried to explain who he really is, the conversation died and another figure was discussed.

While the agreement was “keep who you will vote for to yourself,” it was only minutes before our political affiliations were out of the bag.

The Egyptian Bloc was a choice for the veiled woman, who kept defending Naguib Sawiris, the founder of the Free Egyptians Party for promoting work ethics against, again, the brunette.

While joking about the need for coffee and food, it was evident that tension was hiding behind the small talk as the liberal group behind me started discussing their choice.

When I struck a conversation with the girl with the lighter hair, who is against the Muslim Brotherhood ideas, accidently in English, I knew that the gap just widened between us and the teacher in niqab.

Jokingly, I asked if it offended her as an Arabic teacher. “Once I heard the English language, I moved away from you,” she admitted.

A cute girl in her early twenties was considering trying to convince Muslim Brotherhood voters to vote otherwise, but the group dissuaded her.

I only imagined how upset the teacher would be after she promoted the Muslim Brotherhood as experienced in politics and religion. She ruled out the harder-line Salafists in part because she says they only know about religion.

After two hours of waiting it seems the tension eased a bit as each person silently wished that the other would simply respect their choice.

It was evident in their talk and enthusiasm that these women went out in fear of losing their status in society and their own version of freedom.

The women stood in union, with different backgrounds, but with one goal: to believe in a better future.

A domino effect starts when you share a controversial idea: people’s inhibitions crumble and they start sharing the ideas they keep only for their friends in fear of being judged.

Hours of social talk between the different women proved they can live peacefully only if they respect each others’ boundaries and don’t try to change each others’ perspectives and core beliefs.

Thrilled that their turn came, there were no goodbyes. We are with everyday women like us every day.

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