Book Review: 'Tales of Women from Our Land,' an approachable read about gender

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Thursday 17 Mar 2022

Elham Fateem’s collection of vignettes about successful Egyptian women in nontraditional careers makes an interesting and approachable read about gender for specialists and the the public alike.

Tales of Women from Our Land, by Elham Fateem
Tales of Women from Our Land, by Elham Fateem

Hekayat Setat men Baladna (“Tales of Women from Our Land”), by Elham Fateem, Cairo: Mahrousa Center for Publishing, Information and Press Service, 2022

A book about gender is normally not an attractive read for the public, yet putting it in the form of stories rendered Hekayat Setat men Baladna (“Tales of Women from our Land”) an interesting read for the specialists in the field and regular readers alike.

The writer is Elham Fateem, a veteran in the human development field who has worked for decades on developing womens’ and childrens’ skills and capacities. She was able, in a smooth writing style, to present stories of regular women and show their strengths while explaining the paths they took and the obstacles they faced.

The subject is women who broke the society’s taboos in choosing nontraditional careers such as diver, butcher, mechanic, carpenter, marble worker and others. The tales came from her fieldwork and interviews across Egypt’s governorates. The writer states that writing about the women she worked with has been a dream of hers for a long time. Taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, she finally wrote and published it.

The writer chose different examples of women that she considered heroines for taking the route they chose in their life. The subjects are diverse; they come from different backgrounds, whether educational, financial or social ones. The choice of jobs depends on each woman’s circumstances, choices and inclinations.

The writer chose seventeen women to profile, which is still just a drop in the ocean. The subjects are more than we can imagine. Oppressed women and those who have lost their rights by the society are all over the media and can be seen in day to day life, but those who are successful in a non-traditional ways need some digging to show the difficulties they had to face in order to stay on the paths they chose.

One of these women is named Hadeer.

Hadeer was given the nickname – in English – “the cute butcher” by her clients; the word cute has become part of the Egyptian colloquial language.

She lives in Sharqiya governorate, nearly 90 kilometers northeast of Cairo. She slaughters animals and cuts meat with a professionalism that makes her the envy of any man, butchers included. Historically and traditionally being a butcher is a man’s trade. Women seldom enter that field particularly if they did not inherit it from a father or a family.

Hadeer is a traditional woman, living a conventional life of a middle class woman, but is nonetheless active on social media.

Before starting her career as a butcher, she was afraid of blood, but not satisfied with her job at a cosmetics company. Then the idea came to work with her father -in-law who traded in sheep. He noticed her intelligence and business sense, taking her under his wing.

She slowly learned the different kinds of sheep, promoted the business on social media, created a clientele that purchased their needs only from her. Then the idea of slaughter came to her mind; instead of delivering the animal, she would sell the meat ready to cook. The butcher that collaborated with her taught her the professional way to cut the meat and prepare it for sale.

True enough, she overcame her fear and started doing it herself, despite the fact that dealing with sharp knives while a struggling animal is fighting for its life cannot be a pleasant experience.

Her story has many details, but the most interesting parts were the obstacles that she faced from her family, friends and other butchers who were unhappy that a woman got into the business. The jealousy of others and the fact that they used unethical tactics to drive her out of business made her more persistent and intent to succeeding. Her story ends with a message “women simply need support and no one can stop them from achieving their dreams.”

Another successful woman profiled by the author is by herself a message. Samar Noseiri was given a nickname by her own mother “the fruitful tree.”

People throw stones at a tree to reap its fruits and because she was successful, people threw stones at her. Her job is as a truck electrician, a very unusual job for a woman. Samar is a success story in the making, but she has not achieved her goals yet.

Our heroine has a BA in English literature, worked as a translator then as a teacher, but her true passion is trucks. Samar’s father was a truck driver and in her youth she saw her mother help her father with the truck’s maintenance. When she grew up a little she helped her father in the maintenance when he returned from his long trips, managed the expenses and rode next to him when possible and ultimately learned the truck’s secrets.

Doing this, she discovered that her passion was trucks. The ball rolled and her father took her to one of his friends who owned a mechanic’s shop. He asked him to teach his daughter how to be a truck electrician. At first, the workshop owner was surprised at the request, then reluctantly allowed her to get some training. He hid her from the clients to maintain appearances; having a girl in a workshop is not good for business.

After proving herself bit by bit, she moved to another workshop. She was not received well by male coworkers, she heard stuff like “if you work on trucks, shall we stay at home?” and similar comments that expressed the same idea.

Her village, Qasr Nasr Eldin in Gharbiya governorate near Kafr Elzayat city, did not receive Samar well. The challenges and the initial rejections made Samar put in extra effort learning about how to repair trucks through, watching videos on YouTube and lectures given by European technicians.

Samar’s success story is not complete yet.

Her short term ambition is to travel to Germany to get licensed by a well-known company to be able to work anywhere or open her own workshop (she loves working on Mercedes), but financial constraints have stopped her from travelling.

Her long term goal is to get her own truck diagnostic scanner, which will will improve her abilities to repair trucks. The message that Samar gives to the reader is that her success story is not complete yet. It is a story of defiance, but she is certain that she can make it.

The author made each of her characters some sort of case study. Each of them had her guardian angel, whether a husband or a parent or a relative, and they also had those who stood against them, whether people working in the same field or their own community. In each case, these women made a conscious decision to work in the field of their choice.

The capital needed for studies, learning and starting the businesses sometimes came from family and personal savings. Taking loans from banks is not a strong suit for the middle class in Egypt. Our heroines applied the principle of “thinking out of the Box.”

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