The Remarkable Women of Egypt

Cleopatra! Did I presume right that you thought of this remarkable woman when you read the title? Except that Cleopatra was really not Egyptian, but actually Greek of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Nevertheless she was the first in this long line that spoke Egyptian (on top of another eight languages) and was thus accepted, if not straight out loved, by the Egyptian people. Cleopatra was actually the 7th Cleopatra of the dynasty and she was exceedingly smart, capable, ruthless (you had to be to be a queen and a pharaoh), and beguiling (after all she had seduced two of the strongest Roman statesmen– Caesar and Marc Anthony), but she definitely was NOT as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor in the bellow photo (no copyright infringement is intended)who portrayed her so famously in the Hollywood spectacle of a movie. In fact Plutarch writes that:

her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased…”

According to (a weird pharaonic) tradition Cleopatra was early on nominally wed to her younger brother, actually two successive brothers in order to rule Egypt. After they were effectively disposed of, she partnered up with 32 years older Roman consul Caesar and had her first son Caesarion. She even went to Rome to try and secure her son’s future. But after the murder of Caesar, she realized her lover chose his nephew Octavian as his successor and she fled with Caesarion back to Egypt. She was not very lucky in the choice of her second man, either. Mark Anthony claimed he was in love with her since he first met her when she was 14. Nevertheless he married twice, second time a prominent and rich Roman widow with whom he had two sons. When he met up with Cleopatra again he started a fateful relationship and fathered her twins, Alexander Helios (Sun) and Cleopatra Selene (Moon), that he never saw until they were three years old. When his powerful Roman wife died unexpectedly, he agreed for political reasons to marry his co-consul Octavian’s sister and then for very personal reasons also had two daughters with her.

After Cleopatra bore him another son – Ptolemy, he married her in Egypt and only then divorced his wife back in Rome. That really pissed her brother Octavian and then when on top of that Mark Anthony started giving away chunks of Roman Empire to his Egyptian wife and children, Octavian’s cup runneth over. The miffed brother in law got his revenge and defeated the joint navy of Cleo and MA, after which they both committed suicide. Octavian had Cleopatra’s eldest son Ceasarion expediently killed, but did bring the other three kids to Rome in golden chains no less. He dropped them off to his jilted sister to bring up along with her own kids, their half sisters. Only Selene lived and even became a minor queen of Mauretania.

If Cleopatra was the last remarkable and famous Egyptian queen, the first to undeniably achieve the status of pharaoh, the position reserved for men only, was Hatshepsut, 1400 years before. Because the name was so hard to remember we were given a fun mnemonic device to remember: Hat-ship-suit. Hatshepsut became queen of Egypt when she married her half-brother, Thutmose II, around the age of 12. Having had only one daughter, upon the death of her husband, she began acting as regent for her stepson, the infant Thutmose III, and soon decided to take power into her own hands. She persuaded the top religious bras to concoct a story of her divine birth so she could proclaim herself a pharaoh. She donned the false pharaonic beard and all other insignia of pharaohs and started a construction spree, building hundreds of projects and the tallest of obelisks. The most impressive is the immense Hatshepsut temple at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings. We were fed an exciting story of intrigue about her marrying her daughter to her stepson and then slyly sending them far off to “mature and gain experience”. When her son in law came back, he killed her, sacking the temples and erasing most traces of her, including her name cartouches on the walls.

But this story seems to have been made up just to entertain the tourists. In fact her stepson was quite happy to be her general and recently Hatshepsut’s long lost mummy was discovered and she did not die a violent death at all, but died of bone cancer in her fifties.

I find Hatshepsut’s statues and portraits quite beautiful, as I do many others. The beauty, of course, is always in the eye of the beholder.

But no one compares to the strikingly beautiful Nefertiti. Her name in fact means The Beautiful Woman Has Come. Her most famous portrait is in Berlin, but even this unfinished bust from the Cairo museum conveys her beauty and the regal bearing. Owing to the colorful Berlin work, Nefertiti has become one of the most famous women of the ancient world, and an icon of feminine beauty, but she was much more.

She was the Great Royal Wife of the rebel pharaoh Akhenaten and was elevated to a co-ruler status. Unusually she was not his sister and though he had a number of secondary wives, she was indeed the number 1 in all aspects. This marriage seemed like a true partnership. Together they introduced the worship of sun god Aton and moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to Amarna. They also revolutionized the artistic style of the time from highly stylized to exaggeratedly realistic. Some of the depictions of the whole family with their little daughters are very sweet.

Nefertiti bore no son, but six daughters, one of whom married her half brother Tutankhamon.

It was a strange coincidence that one of the first contemporary Egyptian women we encountered was famous in her own right. As we were waiting for the luggage at the Aswan airport I noticed a perfect on board roller backpack. I am always on the lookout for a better travel bag with wheels–something small enough to take on board, but large enough to pack all the stuff I need. This one looked just the thing. It belonged to an attractive woman with short dark curly hair. Of course I asked her where she got it. Bought it online in the States! We started to chat a bit about travel when an older woman approached us.

She said excitedly, “Excuse me, are you dr. Salima Ikram?”

“Yes, I am,” responded my luggage consultant.

“Oh, I always watch you on TV,” gushed the woman, but then her luggage arrived and she left us.

Turns out dr. Ikram is a famous Egyptologist. She was on her way to a dig at a nearby Philae temple, where some exciting new finds started to come to life. She was very modest and gracious, gave me her business card and agreed to a fun photo. After I had a chance to google her, I found out that she is not Egyptian at all, but Pakistani, a distinguished (and very popular) professor at the American University in Cairo and amongst many other illustrious designations also a preeminent expert in animal mummies! Wow! I am sooo impressed with her intelligence and manner and love to watch her interviews and programs.

We have been lucky to have met a whole range of women in Egypt that were surprisingly, even shockingly open in conversations about life and position of women in Egypt.

As you might remember we always try to connect to Servas International members on our travels. If we do not have an opportunity to stay with them for a few days, we at least meet with day hosts. In Cairo we had two wonderful opportunities to spend time with dr. Elham, an eye doctor, who upon our arrival took us on a night exploration of the city, including tea at the famous tea shop with musicians and a fabulous, entrancing performance of Sufi Dervishes.

Elham was an epitome of a fun loving, modern, progressive Egyptian woman.

She insisted on NOT covering her hair, refused to wear the hijab or any kind of scarf even when we visited a mosque. Yes, of course she gets a lot of slack for her attitude, but she is very firm in her response that hijab is not a requirement in Koran and that her religion is between her and her god. It was therefore very interesting to come across two young women taking selfies at the mosque. I quickly offered to take their photo together and then of course we had to have one of all of us.

“I wonder what made the girl wear a niqab (the face cover),” I commented to Elham. “Why don’t you ask her?” She suggested. “I can’t, as she will take it as an affront. But you can, as a foreigner.” And so I went to talk to them and soon I had to ask Elham to translate. The girls were both university students and they were quite happy to chat. They wanted to be teachers. They were both adamant to finish their university studies before they were going to get married. And then I asked the big question. The answer surprised me and incensed Elham. They were taught at the university that prophet Mohammed’s wives decided to cover themselves fully to be closer to god. So, she too, wanted to be like the prophet’s wives and be closer to god. Elham did tell the girl that this certainly was not written anywhere in the Koran, but I could see she was not going to get far against the whole university establishment.

“They are studying at a very conservative Muslim university,” she explained when we left.

Another young Muslim girl we met on our own outside the mosque at the Citadel right after the prayers was a student of dentistry. She did not wear a niqab, but was covered head to toe. She had a bright smile and a sweet, friendly face. She was distributing literature about Islam, but nobody was interested. I guess it was a clear case of preaching to the choir. She was an optimistic young thing, very convinced of her rights as a Muslim woman. “I have a right to education and a right to speak my own mind,” she explained fervently. She was going to be a dentist and she would find a kind, loving husband. She told us that Koran explicitly instructs men to be kind to their wives. Of course, she said, sometimes they are not, she did have a neighbor, whose husband beat her all the time.

“What was the neighbor’s recourse?” we asked. Obviously this was going on for awhile and nothing changed, so it was hard for her to answer. She did mention a possibility of divorce. But we knew that it was very easy for a Muslim man to divorce (saying on three occasions before witnesses “I divorce you” is sufficient) and much more difficult for a woman. Besides she could only keep custody of her children until 15 and would loose it no matter the age of children if she remarried. That’s why the majority of divorced mothers never remarry.

We found out from one of our women guides, Gi Gi in Luxor, it was quite difficult to remarry if you had children. She was a widow with 5 children, whose life turned upside down when her lawyer husband suddenly died. No Egyptian man would want to take on another man’s children and she certainly would not leave her children behind with her parents.

She was a vivacious woman, who knew everyone and everywhere we went people greeted her with smiles and admiration. We were told she was instrumental in the Association of Tourist Guides and had helped many a young guide. Yet, just under her gregarious surface there was a lot of sadness and frustration for the loss of her husband and the way men went after her as an easy prey. She told me she did not leave her house for a year after her husband’s death and when she realized her well to do husband’s brothers were not going to help and she had to take care of her children, she took off her mourning clothes and got to work, just to be met with wagging tongues. She invited us to her home for tea and we met her three daughters and her parents, who were helping her with the kids while she worked. Her parents would have wanted for her to remarry very much if only for the grandchildren to have a better future. They wanted a better education in private schools for them, which was now not possible any more.

Women with husbands though complained bitterly about the lack of support for their working. In Cairo the manager of the hotel customer service volunteered information about only ever being able to have one child if she wanted to have a career in hospitality. My husband won’t lift a finger when he gets home and handling more than one kid just wouldn’t work.

“I know women who are much higher up the career ladder, but they never married or had children. I had to make a compromise, at least I have one.”

We had two other women guides, a Coptic Christian in Giza and a Nubian Muslim in Aswan and both said that in order to be able to work as guides (and incidentally bring home much more money than their husbands) they had to get up at 4 am to get all the cooking and home duties done so they were not faced with too many domestic complaints.

But then at least they were allowed to work. One evening we were invited to our driver Muhammad’s home for tea. He had only recently been married and had a young son of about 18 months. Muhammad could speak only a few words of English but his wife could speak and understand much more. After leafing through all the wedding albums and drinking some strong black tea, his young wife told me that she had really wanted to finish her studies at the university and then work. Her mother was very willing to take care of the baby, but our dear Mohammad would not allow her to study or go to work. We tried to persuade her husband through his wife’s translations that a Happy Wife meant a Happy Life for him. We told him she will be a better, more educated mother to his son. He laughed and his wife sighed, “He is an Egyptian man, his mind is closed!”

We left thinking of all the hopeful young girls we had met who thought their future husbands will be different.

And then on our day of rest we met Noor. She was swimming at our Luxor Hilton hotel swimming pool with her mother. They both wore bikinis! I had to swim over and ask some probing questions. They cheerfully indulged me. Noor’s English was fabulous so we could really delve into many subjects. One of them was a question of dress. I told them about my encounter with the girl covering her face. Noor’s mother said this never used to be the case, but there was radicalization coming from the Gulf states to Egypt. Many young women were now dressed all in black and many little girls wore head scarves, especially to school. It was a refreshing exception to see a little girl with her hair free. Noor’s parents were divorced and she had travelled with her father and his new family. While they were living in Morroco, she studied design. Now she was back with her mom, and both were working at the Hurgada Hilton. They got a free vacation and they enjoyed their time together. Noor told me the story of her classmate in Morroco that never finished her courses after she got married. Her husband promised she could, but then he became more and more possessive, waiting for her after class, calling to check where she was. One day she just stopped coming to class. Noor had seen her mother go through divorce. She has learned her lessons carefully. No silly dreams of princes on white horses for her. If she ever got married she will weigh her options carefully. She will look at it as an economic transaction. It worked well for her grandparents. It was an arranged marriage and it worked well for all their lives.

9 thoughts on “The Remarkable Women of Egypt

  1. Hello Ksenija.

    Oh My. I was so engrossed in your stories that I was searching for more. Thank you for sharing so many perspectives.

    I was at IKEA in Seattle recently and a young woman was sitting at a table in the full black garb, face covering etc. Her sisters wore scarves. I had to find out where they were from. Shock of shocks. They were born in USA to a Bangladeshi father and American mother. The one fully covered was so engaging and eager to share. I missed my opportunity to share MY frustrations with her covering. If I saw her again – how would I know it was her? How does anyone know who THAT person is. And you are denied observing any facial expressions and warmth.

    Eager for your next epistle.



  2. When my youngest was 3, he saw three muslim women in head to toe black, face covered, and he said, “Look Mami: three black ghosts, no three black human ghosts”. Children tell the truth?


  3. First, I think you should write World History According to Ksenija – much more readable

    Next, great interactions with women.

    See you soon, Gail


  4. The book I want you to read about Egypt is “The Yacoubian Building”. A great novel that shows how what you discovered;and more, play out in the lives of both men and women in modern Cairo. Sometimes with humor as well as sorrow. . I recommend it to anyone who is interested in Egypt or is Egyptian.
    I’m not sure the former comment Iwrote will show up in your comments.


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