September 2009 – Roxanne Krystalli – Cairo, Egypt

September 2009 – Roxanne Krystalli – Cairo, Egypt

September 12, 2009 – Cairo, Egypt

After a whirlwind tour of embassies and consulates to obtain the right documents, I have arrived in Cairo and begun working with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). I will be a Fellow with the organization until the end of November and during this placement, I will be working with local partners and international organizations to devise a comprehensive plan for the training and assimilation of newly elected female politicians into the Egyptian National Parliament.

Background and the role of UNIFEM

Earlier in 2009, the government of Egypt approved an increase in the size of the parliament, effective in the 2010 elections, from 454 to 518 delegates and dedicated the 64 new seats to women. Critics of affirmative action have spoken against this measure, while other minority groups, particularly of religious affiliation, are now lobbying for similar quotas for their constituencies. However, the increase in parliamentary representation in itself is only a step towards improving the position of women in Egyptian society.

Politicians, NGOs, international organizations and the public have all identified a need for ‘capacity building’ of female parliamentarians to ensure they are maximally effective in their new positions. UNIFEM, in partnership with the National Council for WOMEN (NCW) and local NGOs, is responsible for creating the framework within which these women will best adapt to the demands of politics and the public sphere, ranging from offering training to establishing support systems.

Project Paper on Training and Integration of Female Parliamentarians

By the end of November 2009, I need to have collaborated with my colleagues to complete a Project Paper detailing the implementation of this kind of training/assimilation/support program for female parliamentarians. This involves understanding the particular need, assembling materials from public speaking modules to negotiation training and multimedia integration, and coordinating partner organizations. My role is focused assembling the materials, and defining the parameters; sadly, I will likely not be here to contribute to the conduct of the trainings or to see it into fruition. This is not uncommon for Insight Fellows given that they are required to uproot themselves every three months to serve a new community, and I am already very pleased to have a narrow, precise project with a very specific deliverable, but it is personally challenging to not be able to see the project through its completion and make adjustments as it unfolds.

Phase I: Needs Assessment (or: Questions, Questions, Questions)

My plan for the first stage of the project is to focus on devising a needs assessment. As Martha Nussbaum discusses in Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, a common misstep of such undertakings is the transplantation of a Western curriculum, syllabus, or methodology to a culture that does not necessarily operate under the same norms. My task for now is to ask questions, understand, listen, and learn from everyone I can identify – from female journalists, politicians, academics, and activists to the staunchest critiques of affirmative action, female parliamentarians, or even female empowerment. Questions boil down to seeking an understanding of how women imagine themselves within the public realm in politics and society. What are their role models (both male and female) in the public sphere? Who do Egyptians consider an effective politician/public speaker/diplomat, both within the country and abroad, and what features do these individuals share? Which boundaries—cultural, religious, traditional, family, otherwise—do they consider immovable and which are sensitive yet malleable? What skills do women, especially politicians and other public personas, wish they had to be more effective? What do they identify as their greatest obstacle? How do they sense their portrayal in the media, in their neighborhoods, and respective communities? I am looking forward to wading through these answers in the next three months and to moving on to the second phase, namely that of devising what the U.N. dubs a Logical Framework for the implementation of the project.



September 18, 2009 – Cairo, Egypt

“Egypt is a great place for contrasts: splendid things gleam in the dust.” –

Gustave Flaubert

I have lived among the contrasts of Egypt for half a month now and am growing to love it more with every paradox I encounter. In addition to the work with UNIFEM chronicled in my previous entry, the past fortnight has been filled with opportunities to experience Egyptian culture and reflect on the role religion, tradition, and family can play within a community.

Solemnity and Exuberance

Witnessing Egyptians observe Ramadan, whose first days coincided with my arrival in Egypt, has dispelled my prior conception of this month of fasting, prayer and reflection as just a somber period of reservation and solemnity. Reflection and prayer are indeed ever-present, from the bahwabs who read the Quran in the mid-afternoon to the marked decrease in the instances of verbal harassment at women, for which Cairo is sadly notorious. Yet, the reflection is coupled with a liveliness and celebratory ambience I had not expected. On my first night in Cairo, I attended a Sufi dance performance in the middle of Islamic Cairo, complete with men spinning around in circles for over 45 minutes while painting beautifully dizzying imagery on the stage with their colourful costumes. During a visit to a mosque, I saw children dancing, sliding across the marble courtyard, playing hide-and-seek and occasionally more violent games.

This image of celebration is complemented by religious observation. On a recent Friday, my friends and I traveled to Alexandria. As we sat at a café for breakfast, we debated the propriety of ordering food to be consumed in public during Ramadan. Non-Muslims are not obliged to observe the daytime fast, but it is a courtesy to the fasting population to not eat or drink in public. As we discussed the topic, the Friday noon call to prayer bellowed from mosques across town. For the next twenty minutes, a sea of people converged in the same direction, as they came out of houses, most women in hijabs and some in full body covering, heading solemnly to pray. Watching the pattern of this movement and witnessing people bound in such a visible way by religion and tradition was novel, thought-provoking and a little moving for me, prompting me to reflect about the place my own faith occupies in my life and to perhaps research the tenets of my belief in a more thoughtful, systematic way.

The intertwinement of sanctity with exuberance has nuanced my conception of Islam and religious observance at large and navigating the seeming paradoxes of Ramadan has uniquely colored my time in Egypt.

From Sunrise to Sunset

I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself. -Maya Angelou

In a passage of White Noise, Don DeLillo’s narrator remarks on how sunsets at times and places of high pollution can be breathtakingly, inappropriately stunning. A series of such sunsets has defined the first weeks in Cairo, immediately succeeded by the call to prayer that ends that day’s fast. For the three hours that follow, Cairo streets are virtually deserted, as Cairenes gather for iftar, a shared meal during which they break their fast. The food at iftar is very familiar to me as a Greek both in quantity and in kind, given the shared tastes across the Mediterranean and families’ propensities to feed their guests until they are stuffed.

In the company of my two lovely roommates, one of whom is part Egyptian, I was fortunate to attend iftar at a family home, where the three of us were received as old friends and “no, I am full” was an unacceptable response to the refilling of our plates. More recently, my roommates and I even assembled our own iftar for our friends here, as we scrambled to make our milk and dates appetizer, countless pieces of chicken pane and beef kofta and a pie I had seen my mother make half a decade ago. After iftar, Cairenes gather in coffee houses for freshly-squeezed fruit juice, Arabic coffee, tea and sheesha-smoking, often until the first call to prayer echoes from mosques across town. Despite the distinctly different religious environment, restrictions on the conduct of women, and language barrier, the Egyptian emphasis on community, attentiveness to friendship, fostering of family gatherings and accompaniment of all those occasions with food and desserts steeped in honey has created an atmosphere of warmth and a sense of home.