Wearing a brown galabiya, black headscarf and slippers, she arrives at a stationary house located in a poor neighbourhood. Old women sell vegetables on every corner of the street. Kids play barefoot and run after a shabby ball or old bicycle tires. Men and women line up with their carton boards over their heads to buy baladi bread for the day.
As Om Hamada walks through the front door of her work, the store appears to be anything but a conventional stationary house. It looks emptier than stationary houses you would see in other affluent neighbourhoods. The shop is equipped with an ancient Canon photocopier and shelved with old style notebooks, files, pens and pencils for sale. Everything looks coated with a sheet of dust which matches the piles of dust and mud that cover the bumpy street outside.
Om Hamada grabs a towel and embarks on her regular chores. She rolls up the sleeves of her galabiya and starts wiping surfaces, sweeping the floor, sprinkling water on it then mopping one last time. Before putting down the mop, the first customer greets her, so she strides to where he is standing and takes the papers he wants to photocopy.
Om Hamada is a natural beauty; slim with amber eyes and olive complexion. By the looks of her, this woman is never thought to be turning 40 in a couple of years.
After she finishes copying stapling the papers, the customer leaves. She sits down on a wooden chair and sighs.
Growing up in the village of al-Shabanat in Sharqeya with a family of nine siblings, she had six brothers and two sisters. They barely got by with the bare minimum for sustenance. However her father, a worker at the railroad station, allowed her to study at a vocational school for girls.
She narrates her story with a proud tone. “I wanted to finish my education to help my father buy things for my marriage because I knew he had much on his plate already,” she says.
She wanted to continue her education, but her father thought differently. That’s why at the age of 18, Om Hamada finished her vocational education and got married to a man 15 years older than her and moved out to another Sharqeya village, Mosha’et Aboul Akhadar.
“He was a good man. I never knew him before I married him. He was a teacher at one of Al-Azhar’s schools and right after our marriage I gave birth to Hamada,” she reminisces.
She gave birth to another girl and a boy later on, increasing the size of her small family.
“My husband’s monthly salary which was equivalent to $60 became too small for us, but he did not want me to work and leave our kids. So I decided to help him from home. I raised chickens and ducks and made falafel and sold them to neighbours,” she recounts.
Om Hamada’s small business helped along with her husband’s miniscule salary. However, his sickness was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“When Hamada turned five, my husband got Hepatitis C and had to be hospitalised,” she continues. “I visited him with food and took care of him, but people like us do not get good medical service, so he died.”
Hamada’s father died when he was seven years old, his sister was five and his youngest brother was a year and half.
Om Hamada did not have much money, but she insisted on making a funeral for her husband. “I wanted everyone to pay respects to my deceased husband, so I help make a small funeral, because he was a good man,” she says.
After she became a widow, Om Hamada’s responsibilities multiplied. She had three children to parent alone, a small chicken business to run at her house and a tiny inheritance to get a grip on.
“I felt I have taken on the responsibilities of a man and woman, but I did not complain. I pledged to raise my children, provide for them and to be self-sufficient,” she says proudly.
After her husband’s death, his pension was inadequate for the small family. However, she saved up the money from here and there and bought cattle to help along with the selling of chicken eggs.
“I bought two cows and sold their milk. When one of them became pregnant, I kept the mother and sold the baby for cash. For a few years, I followed that system till I accumulated some money,” she explains.
The redbrick house
Interrupted by several men and women who greet her on their way to work, Om Hamada seems to be loved and appreciated by many people in the neighbourhood. One woman brought her foul for breakfast. Another man gave her some baladi bread. A third woman bought her a vile of magical liquid to spill around the house for protection against evil. She playfully says “thank you” to the woman and hides the liquid in her purse.
Coming back to her chair, she continues her story.
“My house was made of mud bricks, and it got infinitely smaller with the cattle and chicken in it. Also, my children were growing and I needed space. So I started saving money to demolish it and build redbrick one story house in its place. I said to myself if I didn’t do it now, later on my children’s expenses would be even more and I wouldn’t be able to afford it,” she says.
Building a redbrick house in the village means security, stability and status for families in rural communities. With no one by her side, Om Hamada had to complete this mission by herself. Her own extended family was back in Al-Shabanat and the only people around her were her husband’s siblings, who were not helping much; on the contrary, they were defensively waiting for her to demand her husband’s inheritance.
Om Hamada and her children inherited the few metres from her husband, but with her husband’s many siblings, she had to suffer to get that inheritance. She spent a year travelling back and forth to the village notary to get it.
“I was lucky that the man from the notary sympathised with me and helped me finish all the paperwork in no time. I think when you’re intention is to do good, God sends you people to stand by your side,” she says nonchalantly.
After receiving the tiny piece of land she sold it along with the cattle for cash and started the process of demolishing the mud-bricked house.
Finally, the house was down and she was left with the mission of erecting a redbrick building in its place.
“After building the house… everything started to change for me. The people in the neighbourhood and my husband’s family started acting weird,” she adds. Although she was financially independent and did not ask her husband’s family for money, they were not supportive of her.
“I don’t know what they thought, but when people saw me doing all this on my own (raising kids, building a house, saving money) and when you become successful, they become envious. They envied the one story house I built, the bathroom’s new tile I installed and the sewage disposal tank I dug,” she says tearing up.
Om Hamada explains that she achieved some progress in her life financially through saving each piaster in credit associations, a system where individuals save their money together in rural communities and rotate yielding the cash flow among themselves. She credits herself for always having been an honest and smart businesswoman.
“When the children grew older, their expenses increased. Their schools required private lessons and so I decided to look for a job in the city. Luckily I found one at this stationary store,” she says.
Widows in Egypt
According to the 2008 census conducted by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, the number of widows in Egypt is around nine million.
In Egypt, widows are generally respected and aided by the government and their community. Anecdotal evidence shows that the societal support they get increases, if widows remain unmarried. Additionally, the government, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and charity organisations provide some aid.
The government does provide pensions for widows who do not have any other income or those whose husbands do not have pensions. This pension is known as “widow’s pension” and is legally regulated and supervised by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Insurance. Widows are also exempted from certain levies, such as real estate taxes.
CSOs and charity organisations, such as Al Orman Association and Resala Association, create sustainable development programmes for widows and orphans. For example, Al Orman Association, that operates many of its programmes in Upper Egypt, helps widows to establish micro-financed businesses. Most of these projects are like setting up kiosks if the widow is in a city, or if in rural areas it might be similar in nature to Om Hamada’s project of raising cattle.
However, issues between the widow and her community can occur if she remarries. Many widows would be discouraged and even rebuked if they thought about remarrying. A widow who remarried is sometimes viewed as less loyal or loving to her children. This view changes for widowers who are often encouraged to remarry and even helped by the community to find candidates.
When Om Hamada started working in the city, she suffered from problems and complications with the people around her.
“Suspicion and doubt,” she adds. “People slandered me. Everyone used to say I’m acting like I’m the man… coming, going, selling, buying and building a house by myself and now travelling daily to work in the city. This was too much.”
Nehad Aboulkomsan, a lawyer by training, is the head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) and a member of the civil society advisory group for UN Women. ECWR is one of the most prominent women’s rights centres in Egypt, providing legal assistance to widows and divorced women.
Aboulkomsan explains the challenges widows come across in Egypt. “The challenges for widows are amplified in rural communities where extended families still exist. A widow could have problems with inheritance and guardianship issues,” she says.
“For widows, the mother is the third person to get the guardianship after the grandfather and uncle. So this legal role affects the status of a mother and her children,” she adds.
For Om Hamada, any financial problems that arose with her husband’s family were minimal because the inheritance from her husband barely existed. Also, she did not face problems with guardianship because his family was too poor to raise three children. However, her problems came from a different source, that Aboulkomsan speaks of.
“Widows, specifically in rural areas, would face certain social restraints such as many people intruding in her decision, especially from the husband’s family. She is usually under the tutelage of her own family or her husband’s family,” she adds. “Other social restrains come in the shape of limiting her movement.”
This was Om Hamada’s case.
People in her community spoke of rumours about her getting married in the city and that she is seeing a man, or even secretly married to the owner of the stationary house.
“This was nonsense, of course. I lived 13 years without a man and I did not mind because I have my children to take care of. My husband died when I was 25 years old; if I wanted to get married, I would have done it sooner. But people are people and their talk made my life hell on earth,” she tearfully says.
“I am a strong woman. I really did not need a man in my life, but being so sufficient alone while you’re young makes you fall prey to the judgment of your community,” she states. “All I want in this life is to live self sufficiently for my kids.”
Om Hamada takes the day shift of a stationary store where she photocopies paper, cleans the store and sells pens and notebooks until the owner comes later on and works the rest of the day.
At first she stood up to people’s talk, but when it became too much, people advised her to get married and take away the suspicion and rumours. If Om Hamada’s refused, she ran the risk of gaining a reputation that could affect the chances of her own daughter getting married. So she decided to sit with her children and asked them what to do.
“Hamada told me to do it and that he’ll be the one who supervises the marriage procedures. However, we all agreed that this marriage would be one of convenience,” she explains.
After 13 years of being a widow, Om Hamada married the old man who helped her demolish the old mud brick house. He was the candidate everyone seemed to push on her.
“He is 53 years old and I saw a father in him. I did not want to marry him really, but also I didn’t want to get married at all. Even with my low income I make more money than him. He did not have a stable income and he is already married with six children and he is illiterate, but all I needed was a shield from rumours or people’s talk and that’s what I got,” she says
Aboulkomsan explains that there are many variables that would impact the status of widows such as education, social class and work status. She says: “All these variables impact the status of widows. For example, if the woman is financially sufficient, her problems with her husband’s family over inheritance may be lessened.”
Om Hamada feels burdened by her new marriage, but she says she’ll do whatever it takes to deliver her message to the world: to raise up her children and to make them successful in need of no one.
“I married him, but he became a liability for me. He gives me 50 EGP per week. Then after a while he asked me to stop going to the city; to stop working. I told him I would never leave my job. My work is the only guarantee that my children will be better off,” she says.
“I know this is another test in life and I know that I’ll pass it like the ones before. I believe I have good intentions and thus my good deeds will benefit my children after I am no longer with them,” she adds.
“In the meantime, I’ll continue to be strong for them.”