Sunday, February 17, 2008

"If anyone asks, you are virgin"

My roommate and I were a little taken aback our first night here when Salwa, an Egyptian girl who lives in our dorm, asked us if we were virgins five minutes after meeting us. Salwa remains the only person to have posed that question to me, but every day I'm inundated with reminders of Egypt's obsession with sexual purity. I live in an all-girls dorm, but we have about eight male guards downstairs. They aren't really necessary, but they're very friendly, and handy when you're running away from a cab driver who claims you need to pay him more (I actually did this, and felt like kind of a bad-ass later. Cab drivers will rob Westerners blind here, but more on that later.) The guards, who double as repairmen, sporadically come upstairs to fix appliances and check on things. Any time they do, the cleaning ladies will shout, "Man on floor!" and all the Muslim girls will double-check to make sure their heads are covered. There is one co-ed dorm where AUC students can live, but girls and boys actually have separate entrances. There are no co-ed floors, and girls and boys are forbidden from entering each others' rooms. There are guards stationed at each entrance to make sure no miscreants break the rules. Who knows what would happen if raging hormones were allowed to collide?

This weekend, I met up an Egyptian woman named Naglaa, who is the cousin of a woman I worked with in DC. Naglaa was incredibly nice, and told me that Egypt has grown increasingly fundamentalist over the past years. After reading this article, her statement makes perfect sense. Apparently 60% of Egypt's population is under the age of 25. There are no jobs, and the unemployed masses are increasingly choosing to turn to the Qur'an. Apparently wearing the hijab used to be an anomaly. Now every Muslim girl wears one. In this religiously-fueled society, sex is prohibited before marriage, and sex-ed is something most people have only heard of. Someone in my dorm mentioned to Salwa the other week that her stomach hurt. Salwa asked if the girl had had sex. The girl replied that no, she had just eaten something bad. Apparently it is thought by some here that if you have sex out of wedlock, your stomach will hurt. The ache is the evil invading your system and making you feel bad.

I feel like sexual repression in this country has reached epidemic levels. Because employment is so high and marriage is so expensive, people are waiting longer and longer to marry, and thus have sex. I certainly would not want to excuse the harassment women have to bear by men when walking down the street, but the incessant cat-calling makes sense when one considers that most of these boys are probably virgins. I think the problem would probably be solved if the government boosted the economy, providing jobs and lessening the desire for people to seek religious guidance. Jobs would mean help for the huge youth demographic, and a probable turn away from fundamentalism and the sex taboo. That day may not come anytime soon, but the topic sure makes for interesting conversation in the meantime.