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Fitting the Stereotype, or Resisting It?
December 8, 1998

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Dr. Bibars and friend
Backward. Unproductive. Dependent. Poor. Untrustworthy. Stupid. Ignorant. Dirty. Unhealthy.

These words hurt. What happens if you hear them all your life? Do you start to believe them? You just might if you're a poor, illiterate woman in Egypt trying to cope in a male society.

Especially if you're a woman trying to raise a family on your own-the head of your own household-you are "stigmatized, oppressed and abused," says Dr. Iman Bibars. "Their marginal positions are decided for them." She is speaking heatedly about co-wives, divorcees, widows and women who have been deserted, or who have "useless" husbands (meaning they do not work or are under-employed).

stigmatized- disgraced
marginal- at the outer or lower limits
patriarchal- male-dominated
squatter- one who settles on public land without the right to do so

The concept of a female heading her own household was only recently recognized by the government, thanks to Dr. Bibars' work. "I'm an activist and I wanted to do something," she says of why she undertook a study presented in hopes of changing Egyptian social welfare policies and programs. State policies, she claims, "are two-tiered. They favor men over women."

For example, to access social services in Egypt, you need an ID card, but 67% of poor, illiterate women over age 40 do not have one. To get an ID card, you need your birth certificate AND two signed, stamped forms from a government office. These are difficult to get if a daya happened to assist at your birth, and especially if you can't read or write. State policies did not recognize the rights of female heads of households to receive social services.

Dr. Bibars points out that these policies arise from ingrained stereotypes that discriminate against women. She relates in her study that the women she researched were simply trying to survive in a patriarchal society. They were beaten and abused, even to the point that two of her subjects died: they burned themselves to death out of frustration and depression.

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You are cordially invited...

"A system manipulated is a system reinforced," she explains at the American University in Cairo, where she gave a lecture on her paper, entitled, Female Heads of Household in Egypt: Victims or Survivors-The Issue of Resistance? "The dominant values are reinforced by the weak. In an attempt to appease, women act in a certain way, thus reinforcing [the system]."

Help me think about an example of this in your own life. Have you ever played along with something or somebody, knowing that you didn't want to or that it wasn't right and would perpetuate a stereotype, BUT still did? Did you do it because you wanted to get out of the situation? From her research, Dr. Bibars found that women in Egypt use culturally-specific coping mechanisms, but that this manipulation or opposition never really becomes true resistance. One woman, for example, would burn her husband's shirts as a way to "get back," and would enjoy the beating she would get, as long as she saw the anger and irritation in her husband's eyes. But that doesn't really change anything. "All of them recognize they're not happy, but not all can articulate why," Dr. Bibars says.

For her study, Dr. Bibars visited seven urban areas throughout Cairo: four squatter areas, two areas in Islamic Cairo and one earthquake resettlement camp. She identified female leaders in each community with the help of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) she was working with, and then met with women, hearing their stories and documenting their lives.

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Dr. Bibars talks about resistance
She found that the women fit into stereotypes which other people believed of them: they would tell others that they were poor, ignorant and unhealthy; they would use personal ties to gain access to information; and they would exchange favors in order to get specific forms or an appointment at a particular office. They were, in effect, bargaining, but being women they were bargaining from a weaker position.

"As a feminist researcher," Dr. Bibars says, "we keep saying women are resisting, they're not oppressed; but they ARE oppressed. We have become relaxed about our demands...I think it's serious and dangerous if we don't get back and reflect."

Learn more about female circumcision by following these links:
Rising Daughters Aware
What is FGM?

Audience members also had strong opinions. One issue raised was that of "cultural sensitivity." For example, if you're a foreigner working in a culture with different values from your own, and you see something that's wrong in your eyes, can you just say you're being "culturally sensitive" and that way accept it? One example which sticks out in my mind is the issue of female circumcision. About 3/4 of women and girls in low-income or very rural areas of Egypt are circumcised, and this process also occurs in about 30 other African countries. Is this wrong? Is it the custom? Is it not my business? One comment voiced was that cultural sensitivity "can be a way of condoning or copping out" of acting on an issue. As you study, learn about and do research on different issues, try to find out as much as you can about these issues. Be objective, but also remember to reflect, as Dr. Bibars suggests, on where you're coming from and what's important to you.

Dr. Bibars thinks the women she met through her study were not taking any stance to affect people around them, mostly because they were so vulnerable, particularly those with small children. Later, at her house overlooking a lively block of downtown Cairo, she tells me that "even if you're being beaten, the concern is to get food on the table... Going and creating a system for themselves is not a part of culture here. In a country where everybody is suffering... you learn to survive and you learn to cope. And you fight if you can fight." As a fighter herself, Dr. Bibars told me more about her involvement with the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW), a group begun to directly address the needs of poor, illiterate women. Please read this dispatch to learn more.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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