By Alexander Harvey.
In Egypt, things feminine go by contraries. Young women of sixteen are employed as hodcarriers, mason's attendants, and builders. They do not seem to mind it either. It is an odd sight for an American to see a young woman sedately carrying a hod of mortar to a man who is building a wall. She is graceful about it, it must be said, and somewhat spectacular, too, for she wears golden bracelets on her legs and bangles on her arms the while. Meantime, there's hardly to be found in Cairo a woman who "looks after the house" as we understand it here. The women perform no household duties. The men do all that. The American and European wives who settle in Cairo are compelled to hire men to cook, to wash, to sew, to sweep and to clean. If they do not like the idea of a man's doing plain sewing or washing the family linen, they must do the sewing or the washing themselves, for the women are too busily engaged elsewhere. Besides, the women do not know how.
However, there is one line of feminine industry to which the Egyptian woman will turn her attention for hire, if called upon. She will act as nurse for the children. Her own children come up practically on the hit-or-miss plan and the misses are about as frequent as the hits, a fact that causes no particular concern in that fecund country. She is not a glittering success as a caretaker of young foreigners, though, for she insists on wearing her veil while looking after the youngsters, and the youngsters do not like women who wear veils and they protest lustily. To tell the truth, the youngsters are not far wrong, for a woman shrouded in black and enveloped in a black veil is not a thing of beauty even to adult eyes. Nothing will persuade the native woman to go without her veil, while she is out-of-doors, at least.
There is another handicap, too, that the native woman who would take care of children must suffer. She does not know how to carry a child in her arms. An Egyptian mother is never seen — so far as observation in Cairo goes — carrying a babe as a fair-skinned mother does. Baby is perched on mama's shoulders, where he retains his seat by firmly grasping the hair on mama's head. If he cannot hold to the hair, he may get a bit of support from mama's hand, but that is only when very young. Generally, when baby is too young to twist his fingers in his mother's glossy black hair he must needs stay at home because of his very inability to hang on.
The Egyptian baby has no cradle. He is not rocked to sleep in his mother's arms, not crooned to dreamland on his mother's lap. When the Sand Man comes the Egyptian child is usually laid across mama's shins. Her upturned feet form the side of his bed, making it impossible for him to slip off to the floor or street. Walk through the streets of Cairo at sunset and you will see dozens of mothers sitting with babies resting against their insteps—the mother's insteps, of course, for even in that ancient country a baby could hardly rest against his own insteps. It seems to be a general impression among the foreign population—the American and English women who want nurses for their children — that women with such notions of maternal duties are not exactly the most desirable persons with whom to leave the destinies of children that have hereditary preferences for arms and cradles.
It is not curious, then, that Egyptian women have queer ideas about their husbands. No native woman would think for a moment of walking out-of-doors with her husband. They consider such a proceeding grossly indelicate and undoubtedly hold up their hands in amazement at the forward women of other nationalities who are seen in public with the men whose names they bear.
Social customs are somewhat lax in the country And a girl of the fellaheen class works in the fields without her veil. A girl of that class, too, may go about with her father or her brother or her husband without compromising herself, but when she visits Cairo or Keneh or Luxor she hides her face with a veil and proceeds about her business alone or in company with others of her sex. Not even a fellaheen will be seen in a center of population in company with her husband. Trust her to know the proprieties. In the fields it may be permissible, but in town, never!
The missionaries have made some inroads on the veil-wearing habit during the last ten years and some native women in Cairo go about with their faces uncovered. The custom is not at all general, however, and that there is anything improper or indelicate in displaying her nether limbs. She cannot imagine why she should conceal her legs. Far be it from her, she says, to acknowledge that there can be an occasion when it is not proper, eminently proper and innocent and all that, to display such charms of limb as may be hers. To hint that it is not exactly the right thing to tie one's garters on the public highway or if a woman is young and pretty and unveiled she attracts much attention in Cairo, and is very likely to have to submit to bold stares and unseemly rudeness.
And right here the paradox is observed again. While the native woman blushes with shame to think of showing her face to the casual observer on the streets, she is surprised and indignant at the suggestion to raise the dress above the knees is to arouse suspicion of one's good faith.
Nothing appeals to the Egyptian woman's idea of what is recherche in dress more strongly than gaudy striped stockings, and the gaudier and more striped they are, the greater the appeal. She is inordinately fond, too, of wearing a bracelet just below the knee and an anklet or two of gold or of as much gold as may be. Thus, when she goes for a walk what is more natural than that she should elevate her skirts a bit and display the jewelry and the stockings? No Egyptian woman can conceive of what earthly use multicolored hosiery or bright bracelets or finely wrought anklets are unless the populace has a chance to see them. Not for her is the consciousness that she has them on a sufficient reward for their possession. She wants them to be seen, and they are seen, conspicuously and universally seen.
All this applies only to the women of the middle or working classes. The women of the upper classes, the aristocrats, live in strict seclusion. They are not supposed to be seen or mentioned. They are in the world, but not of it. To ask an Egyptian gentleman about his wife or wives, or to make any inquiry concerning health, well-being or number of the ladies of his family, is an unpardonable breach of decorum. Wives, in Egypt's upper circles, are private property. The women cannot go beyond the limits of their own side of the house and garden. Occasionally they may take a ride two together, with a pair of grooms running ahead to warn away the curious. That is as near as they get to contact with the life of the city. And they, poor things, do not complain. In the first place, it would not do them any good to protest, and in the second, they are brought up to live in just that way and the idea of mingling freely with their fellows is inexpressibly shocking to them and never to be thought of for a moment.
Of course, the poor cannot afford thus to keep their wives secluded and in such luxury. Thus their wives must have recourse to the impenetrable veil. And, as in every country, the rich man has other advantages his poorer brother cannot hope to enjoy. The rich man can have four wives, the full legal number. The poor man can have four wives, too, if he can support them, but two is usually the limit of the poor man's household. He cannot afford four wives all at once, but if he is industrious and utilizes his opportunities for divorce he can have more than four before he dies. Indeed, the workingman of Egypt usually finds one wife as much of a burden as he can manage, but when that one wife begins to pall he can divorce her at a moment's notice and hunt up another.
This is the reason why the Egyptian wife has so strong a prejudice against the accumulation of property by her husband. She will not let him lay by anything if she can possibly help it. Should he get something ahead, she argues, the temptation to enjoy the fruits of his industry and economy with some other woman will be too strong to be resisted. She knows the weakness of the race. And she looks to it that there is nothing left at the end of the week or whenever the wage should be spent.
On the other hand, the Egyptian is always ready to buy gold bracelets for his wife. He deems them a safe investment. In the old days, before the English occupation, when all sorts of property could be confiscated out of hand by corrupt officials, the purchase of gold trinkets afforded the one refuge for savings. The custom continues to a great extent to this day. At the same time, a man must be pretty sure of his wife before he bestows many such trinkets upon her. The moment he begins to ask about her trinkets, she suspects a divorce and acts accordingly.
One peculiar feature of Cairo is an omnibus system exclusively for women. The bus is a rude cart on two wheels, drawn by a donkey and guided by a male driver. The women of the poorer classes pay a sum equal to about one-tenth of a cent American money for the privilege of riding on one of the carts. There are scores of these primitive conveyances and they do a thriving business. Sometimes a string of such vehicles, each heavily laden, will pass by in squalid procession. No male — except the driver — can ride, unless it be an occasional male child who is brought along because his mother has nothing else to do with him.
To recur to the babies, the native baby, of whom there is an inexhaustible supply with no particular demand, brings up the fact that the Egyptian mother has little conception of her duties toward her off spring. Travelers in Egypt have for years commented on the number of natives who are blind, one-eyed or otherwise optically disfigured. The reason is not far to seek. Ophthalmia is an almost universal disease. Most babies are born with sore eyes. The climate of Egypt predisposes its inhabitants to this disease. No Egyptian mother will lift a hand to drive away the swarms of black, pestiferous flies that swarm about her baby's face. That is not to be thought of. Nor is the simple expedient of washing out the baby's eyes to be considered. And as a consequence, thousands of eyes are permanently injured. When the remedy for this disgusting state of affairs is pointed out to the Egyptian mother, she stolidly refuses to take the matter in hand. Her religion, she maintains, forbids her to interfere with the ways of God. The child's eyes are allowed to go to ruin precisely as that sublime example of Moslem architecture, the mosque of the Sultan Hassan, is allowed to go to ruin, because the Mohammedan religion is inflexible.
As regards beauty, the women of Egypt are difficult to judge. No stranger is afforded adequate facilities for arriving at a reliable opinion. Someday, perhaps, pictures of really high-class Egyptian women will be obtainable and then the world can know whether the poets who have sung of the fascinations that are shrouded behind the veil and kept within harem walls knew what they were singing about or were merely taking their traditional license. But even now, the tall figures, slender and erect, the black hair, lithe limbs and pretty hands, together with the infinitely graceful walk, hardly ever fail to inspire admiration.
The natives are especially enthusiastic over a full, round feminine countenance, and when they wish to climb to the dizziest heights of fourteenth night, borrowing a figure from the effulgency of the marvelous Egyptian moon.
When the fellaheen girl marries, she turns to the plow and makes a good farmhand. Sometimes she gets to the metropolis to sell vegetables, flowers or trinkets in the bazaars or in the streets. There are a few, a very few, successful business women of this class who have made themselves as independent as an Egyptian woman can hope to be by this sort of work. The sellers of sugar-cane deserve especial mention in this class, for they are the most prosperous of the female vendors. The very antithesis of the business class is the water-carrying class. These women visit the Nile daily with great, rude earthen jars which they fill with water and carry home on their heads. Such has been the occupation of the matrons of Egypt since Pharaoh's time, and this work constitutes the only labor of the household to which they are addicted.
Women of all classes are treated with respect, as a rule, by the Egyptians. Men have, what we consider strange notions concerning the sex, but many of them are coming to our way of thinking, and are endeavoring to make their wives and sisters conform to some civilized customs. Still, the success has not been especially flattering. Egyptian women are very conservative. Nor must we judge them by our own standards. They are modest and refined after their own fashion and according to their lights.
The marriage customs of ancient Egypt still flourish in all their vigor and beauty. The first bride is taken to her husband's house in the exquisite arabesque bower and on the backs of camels, as were the brides we all have read about in the "Arabian Nights."
Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. January 1900.