26 September 2016
Women continuing to push for change in Egypt are bearing the psychological toll of a rigid post-revolution politics and society.
“When there is no school, my family keeps me at home and it’s like a jail. I have been depressed for a very long time now, but they would not allow me to seek help,” explains Hagar (not her real name), a 23-year old student of literature and philosophy from Cairo university. “My father beats me up because he disagrees with my ideas on everything, society and politics. The only way out I can see is to try and escape marriage and leave the house, even though for the moment I can’t even so much as suggest the idea to my family.” Hagar is one of the many Egyptian women who suffer from depression or other psychological disorders, stemming from a desire to shake off the weight of tradition and expectation from their families and society.
Tension within families has mounted over recent years in parallel with Egyptians’ struggles for freedom, as young women seek independence and agency over their own lives and bodies. Comments can be commonly heard to the effect that for religious reasons, a woman is not free to dress or behave in any way she wants—of course, people say, this should also apply to men, yet for social reasons the burden invariably falls more heavily on women.
Photo: A Tahrir Square protest against the Military Trial for civilians, September 2011. Credit: Oxfam Novib.
“Most girls may leave the family house only when married. Marriage is a compulsory institution, that perpetuates the patriarchal system,” says Sohila Mohamad, who seven months ago founded Femi-Hub, an organisation to help women make transitions to an independent life. However, she notes that contrary to her initial expectations of focusing on job or flat-hunting for young women, they have first had to deal with what makes them want to flee the house: namely, “their fathers, husbands, brothers— cases of domestic violence, emotional, physical, sexual abuse.” There is a sense that controlling female behaviour or venting frustration on women close to them has become a second-best for many Egyptians who feel dispossessed of control over their own lives. At the root of this dispossession are entrenched economic and political factors, but these social and familial dynamics have come to mirror Egypt’s military regime (the only system of rule the country has known for decades), relying on relationships and power structures of force and obedience.
Egypt’s high levels of domestic and gender-based violence, including mass sexual assault, are well documented by human-rights groups, with almost fifty per cent of married women reporting abuse (though the majority of cases go unreported). Mostafa Hussein, an Egyptian psychiatrist, says that this has in turn lead to post-traumatic stress disorder among victims or the uncovering of existing psychological problems, triggering latent anxieties and insecurities. Hussein recalls an extreme case several years ago during his residency at a state hospital, when a poor family from Cairo brought their catatonic 12 year-old daughter to the burns department. The girl had already been taken by her family to see several sheikhs for her condition after she stopped speaking and became completely expressionless. The sheikhs had attempted various traditional healing treatments, culminating in one administering burns to her hand in order to “snap her out” of her state. The wound was so bad it brought them to the hospital, where ICU doctors instructed the family to take their daughter to the psychiatric ward.
“The understanding of mental health problems is not widespread in Egypt,” Hussein says. “People from uneducated backgrounds would rely on religious figures before thinking of psychologists or psychiatrists—but it happens in all walks of life”. As he explains, after three weeks of medication, his adolescent patient started talking again and finally told the staff her story. “Her family wanted her to get married and she was already living in an abusive environment, with probably an incestuous relationship in the family,” he recounts. Monthly check-ups after her release showed gradual improvement, but after the third month, the young women began displaying troubling signs again. “We found out that they had chosen her another husband. She stopped coming to the ward after that.”
There are no statistics documenting mental health issues in Egypt. Psychiatrists suggest that a perceived increase in mental health problems could be linked to the fallout of the country’s political struggles, as well an increased overall awareness of the issue—albeit still among a limited class of people. And while awareness of mental health is growing, broader knowledge of and access to healthcare has yet to take hold. (Anecdotal reports of mental health problems seem to be reflected in statistics which indicate that Egypt witnessed 400,000 attempted suicides in 2011— quadruple the number recorded the previous year.)
Yet for fellow psychiatrist, Nabil el Qutt, the issue is bigger than therapy. “It requires social change,” he says. El Qutt recalls one of his recent patients, describing an attractive and intelligent student of politics and economics who he diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and depression. She was suicidal and self-harmed, but after attending his clinic for several months, following individual and group therapy and taking antidepressants, she appeared better. She found a job while studying and started a relationship. However, a year after she stopped coming to see El Qutt, her mother called to say she was self-harming and had again attempted suicide. He called her several times to fix an appointment but she never showed up. “The conflict was between her and her family, her uncle more precisely, who was controlling everything she did. I told her mother to let her live more freely but to no avail,” he recalls.
“This young woman had taken part in the 2011 uprising, if she hadn’t, maybe she would have adapted more easily to the society,” El Qutt speculates. “Many think they are depressed, but depression is about internal conflict. They actually live in an oppressive society, with an oppressive government. All the people who supported democratic change and saw their dreams crushed may feel that they suffer from depression, when they are reacting to external circumstances.”
Photo: Protestors in Cairo denounce President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Credit: AFP / Gianluigi Guercia.
There are many young women who participated or were swept up in the years of political activity that flowed from the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Ideas circulated freely and crossed the borders of class, religious and political beliefs. Quietly, without necessarily joining a women’s rights movement, many also claimed a greater degree of independence. Some battled for the apparently simple right to go out with their friends—but, even then, the curfew issue was frequently unbreakable. Some want to live alone, which is an often unattainable goal but made easier if a women works or studies in a different city from her family. Many have also refused arranged marriage (or “gawaz salonat”) or insisted on determining their own degree of religiosity. But the country has since 2011 undergone push-back on some fronts, with the new lives that were almost obtained snatched away from Egyptians. Many sense that with its free-falling economy and several years of chaos and political repression, Egyptian society is generally tenser, and more violent. This perception may also stem from the fact that people have now actively asserted themselves and demanded their rights, which many (especially from lower social classes) may not have done in the past.
Hagar also credits the 2011 uprising with what she describes as a shift in her beliefs and personality— a “metamorphosis” into who she really is. Aged seventeen at the time of the revolution, she like many others from her generation, recounts how the events reshaped her worldview. She began questioning everything, from the propaganda she would hear on TV to the rules and protocols she was instructed to obey by her family and society. “By nearly jailing me at home they think they are protecting me until I get married,” she explains, “but I don’t see getting married as my goal in life. Very often your parents prevent you from doing something not because they’re first and foremost convinced it is wrong, but because they’re afraid of what the people would say.”
Hagar can tell her mother about her professional dreams of becoming a journalist, but other subjects are off-limits for her conservative interlocutor: smoking, for example, is taboo, while the prospect of sex before marriage would see Hagar deemed out of her mind. Many young women say they are puzzled at their mothers’ reactions—mothers who at their own age worked three jobs, came home late, or themselves decided not to wear the hijab. Some attribute this shift in perceptions of women’s role to successive waves of conservative religiosity: first inspired from Saudi Arabia for Egyptian families who either fled Sadat or migrated to the Gulf for work, and later by a post-Iraq war wave of opposition to the West.
In this environment, Hagar feels compelled to lie in order to live according to her principles. Explaining her decision to remove the veil (which she was obliged to wear from age twelve) two years ago, Hagar says that she at first didn’t tell her parents that she was taking it off outside her home, but grew increasingly unhappy at the sense that she was living a double life. “So I started talking to them about it, trying to convince them with logical arguments. But it didn’t work so I keep hiding it from them. They first accused me of having become a Christian, then an atheist,” she says. “I can’t talk at all to my father, who acts as if he would like to beat me into submission.” Since the day Hagar got into an argument with a father over a pro-regime TV host who she despises, he stopped talking to her. “He expects me to apologise for my opinion. He thinks the internet and the university ruined me.”
Nonetheless, even Hagar thinks that with time, things might improve. She expects that she will find a job and leave home—that she will face tremendous opposition from her family, who may not talk to her for a while, but that eventually they will concede. She knows of Femi-Hub and has heard other stories of women managing to live independently, despite enduring extreme initial hardships.
Another patient of Nabil El Qutt is one such reason for hope. The daughter of very conservative parents, the young pharmacist joined a leftist party and stopped veiling. Her parents railed against everything she did, and even took her to a doctor for a virginity test. She sunk into severe depression and began self-harming. Nonetheless, she eventually managed to leave her family home and no longer felt the need for therapy. She even convinced her mother leave her own emotionally-abusive husband.
It is in these outcomes that some silver-lining can be found for the present conflicts. “Domestic violence and gender-based oppression may not have increased recently, but it feels like it because we do talk more about it,” Sohila Mohamad says. For her, women no longer feel as ashamed about coming forward about the oppression they face or the psychological toll it takes on them. There is more social awareness, and more solidarity. More women seek help and in turn help others, unwilling to spend their lives in despair.