You Go, Girls

I have bought the tiniest pair of patterned Ali Baba trousers from a stall in Dahab to take to a one-year-old girl’s birthday party today. I’ve been looking at them every time I visit, wishing I had someone to buy a pair for, and finally that moment has arrived.

I met the baby’s mother – a Norwegian woman who is married to an Egyptian – when I was walking into town to meet friends one evening and she asked me to walk with her. Another man had been hassling her (despite her being married with a baby) and she wanted me to talk to her as we walked past him. Turns out she was really nice and we met again for coffee a few days later.

We agreed that there is an unspoken alliance between women when it comes to hassle from men – I understood what she needed immediately and it was no problem. We’ve all been in that situation, in any country. This happened on the day that I’d had to deal with hassle from a British man here in Dahab so I was feeling ultra-protective of myself and women in general.

The day after this happened, a young Egyptian woman who works at my hotel asked me to go to the doctor with her. She’s twenty-three and she has come to Dahab on her own, which I gather is a very rare thing to do in Egypt. Women here are policed by family and strangers in a way that is horrifying to me. A few days earlier she’d been made to go to a police station where they called her parents to make sure they knew where she was. A friend of hers had overhead one of the police officers refer to her as a ‘whore’, simply because she was alone, and unveiled, it seems.

Anyway, she was afraid of going to a male doctor alone, so I was her chaperone. She only needed her ears syringing, but I was glad I could offer comfort, having had it done a few times myself. Earlier, my young friend had told me about her ambitions to be a journalist, but that her intelligence is seen as a threat. There is so much fire in her eyes – I told her to stay strong and to keep doing what’s she’s doing. I will do what I can to help.

On my last visit to Dahab I went on a ladies-only boat trip to Ras Abu Galum and had a wonderful time. The women were a mixed group – some Egyptian, some European, most married to Egyptian or Middle-Eastern guys. They told me about Dahab’s ‘woman problem’, which turned out to be feminism. Yes, it’s right here: women doing things that men don’t like. Having heard male friends comment that a woman shouldn’t be smoking shisha in her hijab because it’s ‘disrespectful’, I’ve seen it here for myself. I look at those women admiringly, and think, ‘you go, girl’.

On that boat trip, we were given lunch by a Bedouin woman and her daughter and I asked about the numbers of Bedouin girls running about in Dahab selling bracelets. Isn’t it dangerous? Apparently not. It’s only when they hit puberty that they are taken indoors and covered. I’ve been told that some mothers are hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the male members of their family to preserve their freedoms for a precious while longer. Again, ‘you go, girls’…

When I first came to Dahab I couldn’t see any local women in public and assumed they were all being kept indoors. I think it was just the time of day that I’d arrived in town, because now I see them everywhere, particularly at night, when families come out for tea and cake. There are lots of young girls doing the ‘hijab and skinny jeans’ thing I’ve seen in the Middle East, and then a few who are completely covered. The best thing I saw on my last trip was a large group of the former on quad bikes, heading towards the mountains one evening. You go, girls!

I think Europeans like myself come here with a lot of preconceptions about the lives of local women which can only be challenged or vindicated by meeting them and hearing what they have to say for themselves. I’m constantly told by local men that the women are ‘free’, and that may be true in comparison to their Saudi neighbours, but the level of policing of behaviour here tells me the real story. The women *can* do what they like to a certain extent, but they may be called names by anyone for doing it.

On my first visit to Dahab I was invited into the house of a Bedouin woman who’d just had a baby. I was told that hers was a love marriage – she in her twenties, he in his forties – but they had encountered problems conceiving. Then along came Aida, the miracle baby. I was led into the woman’s bedroom, where every single female member of the family was gathered. It was like an all-girl nativity scene, with Aida as the centre of attention. She had a shock of black hair and was sleeping, swaddled in cloth. I was offered Helba tea, made from fenugreek seeds, which is a popular Egyptian health drink. We sat round, me only able to communicate in appropriate cooing sounds, looking admiringly at the baby and the sublimely happy mother.

I was invited to the feast to celebrate the seventh day of the baby’s arrival, at which they would slaughter a goat. As the person I’d gone with was vegetarian we politely declined, but the hotel guys told me I was really missing out. When the Bedouin party, they really party. I wasn’t brave enough to go on my own, and I didn’t know anyone else in Dahab back then.

So today I will go to the birthday party – one that doesn’t involve goat sacrifice – and celebrate all the women I’ve met in Dahab and how many I now count as my friends.

You go, girls.

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Things I’d Tell My Daughter

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m childfree-by-choice, but as my life fills with young female friends, I find myself thinking about what I want to pass on to them – in a wise-woman way. I so enjoy their company and I love talking to them about how they navigate the world of work, relationships and, well, just being a young woman.

If I’d had a daughter when I was thirty, she would be eighteen now. So these are the things I’d like to say to her, and weirdly, lots of them are things my mother said to me, but I didn’t quite understand them at the time.

Be yourself

It sounds like a hackneyed phrase that all (good) mothers say to daughters as they walk into the world, but I mean just that. Be your own self. Your life doesn’t have to be defined by being a partner, a mother, or even having a stellar career. Just know that you have a choice in all of this. Define yourself by the life you choose to live, and by the people you choose to experience it with.

If in doubt, don’t

My mum used to say this all the time. But oh how true. If you have any doubts about a relationship you’re in, any at all, leave it. Don’t wait for ‘the day’ to come. It won’t and you’ll have lost valuable time. Never settle for something that doesn’t feel right or compromise your own sense of what is right to please a partner. Your gut will tell you that something is wrong – listen to it and take action.

Love your body

People started commenting on your body from a young age and it will be monitored by those around you (male and female) as you grow older. Look in the mirror and look into your own, makeup-free eyes before you monitor your own body. Make an agreement with yourself to see someone beautiful, strong and taking up space in the world. Never starve your body – eating properly makes you all of these things.

Look out for toxic people

Some of the people you choose to surround yourself with will make you feel good about yourself, others will do their damnedest to try and bring you down. These people are usually insecure and jealous of beautiful, strong, young women who are confident in the world. Surround yourself with the good ones, ditch the toxics. Don’t try and hold on to foul friendships – they will just bring you down. It’s ok to let friends – and family – go.

Be in the space

Take up space in the world. If you’re out walking, running or doing yoga in the park – take up the space. If you’re in the office in a meeting, let your voice take up the space. If you’re online and you feel strongly about something, let your words take up the space. Never flinch if people question why you are there, and they will – make your presence felt and your voice heard.

Be confident in your sexuality

Whatever your sexuality is, people will try and make you feel as though you have to hide it, that it is shameful, that you should not seek sexual pleasure just for its own sake. Do everything you want to do, safely and confidently. Do it and never wake up with regrets. The only regret you’ll have is that you never did it.

Compliment other women

Tell other women that they’re good at things. Things that don’t involve hair, makeup, losing weight or wearing a fab outfit. It will change their lives.

Don’t dread getting older

Don’t. Good things happen and they are unexpected. Your body and brain will have a way of coping with the transition that means you will discover each milestone isn’t as bad as you thought it would be. Older women are smart, beautiful and supportive of younger women. Don’t believe the myth that they’re not any of those things – it’s a lie constructed by society because older women are immensely powerful people.

Don’t lead a tick box life

Question everything. Never do anything just because everyone else is doing it. Feel the peer pressure and question it anyway. You can construct your own set of tick boxes that are different to other people’s. Don’t believe what others tell you about people, places or other cultures – find out for yourself.

Do things on your own

Even when you’re young, it’s important to commune with yourself, not just your friends. Do things on your own, such as going to the cinema, walking, going for coffee, even on holiday. You’ll never regret it.

Look out for controlling partners

Beware of signs that your partner is trying to control you. It can be oh so subtle, and before you know it, your life is completely in the control of another. If they make negative comments about your weight, what you’re wearing, or stop you seeing certain friends, the red flag is waving. Get out.

There are wonderful people out there

You’ll know the signs. They will be kind to you, your friends, their friends and their family. They will celebrate your successes and be there when things go wrong, without a sly smile on their faces. They will offer to connect you to people they know to help you in your career, and notably, women will help other women.

Say sorry

There will be times when you regret your behaviour, or saying something that has hurt someone else. Tell them you’re sorry and they will forgive you. If you don’t, the guilty feelings will just build inside of you and make you more likely to hurt someone again. We’re all flawed – think of apologising as a flaw release valve.

Have fun when you’re young

Don’t hide away from fun times. Work hard, play hard – get into all the corners that life is offering you. Make mistakes. If not, you will spend the rest of your life trying to make up for missed opportunities.

Ignore all of this and find out for yourself

Because I did when my mum told me.

Wild Women

This week, I wanted to write something in response to seeing Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild on the big screen, brought to life by Reese Witherspoon. More than any other book I’ve read, this story has resonated so much with me that I can’t believe someone has lived it and told it. I first heard the author reading it out loud on the radio and I was transfixed by it. Who was this woman singing my life with her words?

In her twenties, Cheryl set off on a journey of self-destruction, sleeping around and taking heroin, until she didn’t recognise herself. She cheated on her loving husband. When her mother died suddenly at 45 of cancer, she divorced her husband and decided to become the woman she told her mother she would be. She began with a baptismal trek through the wilderness – a 1,1000-mile hike along the US’s Pacific Crest Trail.

Now I’ve never done heroin (or any other hard drug for that matter) but I know what it is to walk out on a husband who is a nice guy, a safe pair of hands, and step out into the unknown. Something compels you to go and much of that has to do with living a life that your mother hoped you would live, or the one you think she wanted for you. For women in particular, it is a baton that gets passed on from generation to generation, even if they never vocalise it during a lifetime. There is an understanding that somehow you will improve on the life of the woman that created you, and that it is your duty to do so.

There is a point in the movie when Cheryl snarkily tells her mother,“I’m just so much more sophisticated than you were at my age.” Her mother retorts that that was always the plan. We constantly see ourselves reflected back and forth between generations of women, and although I’ve never had the privilege of having a daughter of my own, I feel the same way about my friends’ daughters, or young women among my group of friends.

It is always the plan. I know my mother wanted more for me than she had had herself, professionally, romantically, economically and everything-ally. And I have spent my life trying to make that happen, especially since she died sixteen years ago.

For me, the grieving for her mother in the movie was the note that struck home. In a series of flashbacks, we see Cheryl’s vibrant, playful mother, played by Laura Dern, making a life for herself and her children away from an abusive husband. She is a woman who decides to go to college at the same time as her daughter (the college runs a special mother-daughter scheme), and who sees herself as a mother first and foremost, an independent woman second. She passes the baton to Cheryl, who puts herself through an independence right-of-passage, on the infamous PCT.

My mother was an exceptionally bright woman who couldn’t go to college because the Second World War got in the way. She entered into a very happy marriage with a man she loved, but I could always tell she wanted to see me get more out of life than just being a housewife with kids. When I finally tore myself away from the family home at twenty-two to go to college, she vicariously shared in my academic and subsequent professional success every step of the way. I always felt as though every A* grade or job offer was a gift for her and in many ways, I’m still offering her my personal achievements. I think she’d have liked this blog.

The grief for her passing hit me like a steam train. I’ll never forget how physical it was – I felt as though a boulder had been strapped to my chest. I suddenly realised the real meaning behind getting things ‘off your chest.’ It sat there, pressing down on me, unwilling to move. For days I found I didn’t cry – I just moved around in a fug, unable to really grasp what had happened. My sister and I threw ourselves into the paperwork and logistics of sorting out a funeral – I still think all that stuff is put there deliberately just to keep you busy.

I remember going into her local supermarket in Wales a few days later, just to pick up a few things. I suddenly had a flashback of her standing there, holding a basket with a few strange things in it. A tin of salmon, a carton of yoghurt. That’s when the grief got me.

Cheryl Strayed had her moment on top of a mountain, as she watched her walking boots bouncing away down the side of it during a rest stop. She was left to construct some shoes to walk to the next town in, out of duct tape and a pair of sandals. But she carried on.

And this will sound like a cliché, but someone once told me clichés are there because they’re true. We are all wearing our mother’s shoes but at some point we have to construct a new pair of our own to walk in.