We are often raised to be proud of our familial histories, and the emphasis on it is something that will likely resound with a significant portion of Egyptians. Individual families display their points of pride much the way an athlete would their trophies – see families of doctors, engineers, academics. My family’s pride has always, near exclusively, pertained to our women.
The manifestation of familial ego, an identity prescribed to us as a collective that we discuss passionately and habitually, is something that has been a point of pride to the women of my family, stemming back to my maternal great-grandparents. I’ve always perceived it as, primarily, a numbers game, considering my family has a 5:1 ratio of women to men – there just happens to be a lot more of us.
Compound that with some unfortunate early visits from the proverbial Grim Reaper, and it stands to reason that most of the accomplishments my family would typically take pride in were by women, considering we’re a radical majority, almost certainly a matriarchy.
Much the same way some families put pressure on their children to join the family business and continue the legacy, our legacy has become empowered women.
“Your great aunt wrote the history of the Coptic Church.”
“Your great aunt was the first woman to attend AUC.”
“Your great aunt studied music in Italy in the 1930s.”
“Your great aunt once drove a car in Riyadh.” (My personal favorite)
While you might think this one woman led a fascinating life, these actually refer to four of my nine great aunts. So much of what we’ve taken pride in, the stories that we’ve been raised on, are notable because of the glass ceilings they broke. The drive in Saudi would never have been notable otherwise. The theologian would have been simply that (as opposed to the female theologian). The musician would have probably been perceived as whimsical and told to pursue law or medicine instead, and the AUC graduate would have been expected and unremarkable.
So where does a deeply uncompetitive, moderately unambitious, wildly indecisive, possibly mediocre 25-year-old descendant of this legacy fall? In front of her laptop, contemplating the phrase “wasted potential” and wondering whether she’s a disappointment to her family.
My great-grandfather’s pride was deeply rooted in having accomplished daughters, not necessarily in what was accomplished. This was necessary in the 1920s and 1930s. Contemplating this through a modern lens calls to mind the “Fleabag” (watch it, seriously) dialogue that referred to a Women in Business award as “It’s ghettoizing. It’s a subsection of success.”
My grandfather inherited this feminist outlook from his father and ran with it. He would tell me the story of my mother’s (his firstborn) birth, how the obstetrician was known for congratulating fathers personally on the birth of a son, but sending a nurse if it were a daughter, and how throughout the labor he hoped and prayed he’d see a nurse approach him. What amused me about this is that he’d tell the story with my uncle sitting next to him at the dining table, smiling genially.
Despite the fact that being strong-willed and self-sufficient was considered the gold standard for our family, I still witnessed my mother be both lauded and criticized, occasionally over the same thing, for the choices she made regarding my sister and I. Encouraging assertiveness was allowing us to be stubborn. Telling us to be honest made us crass. Emphasizing our autonomy was a disregard for so-called cultural values – with all the cans of worms that come attached to that phrase (@Egyptian families).
Even among my set of extended cousins, 14 women to three men if you’re wondering, the vast majority of the accomplishments our grandmothers compare and compete over pertain to the granddaughters. Test scores. Post-graduate degrees. Professional successes. Engagements and marriages. These continued successes feed the collective ego. The successes of our women on multiple fronts.
Do not mistake this for a blind treatise to my family. We can be smug, judgemental, and cold. We commend ourselves on being “heavy duty,” which always struck me as a dressed-up phrase for “had to go through a lot.” We have had the notion of self-reliance drilled into us to an almost pathological degree, and what we call pride in our identity all too often morphs into vanity.
Our values weren’t without serious ideological flaws. The ambition to become a homemaker isn’t one they would take as seriously or respect as much, although not for lack of acknowledging the labor that goes into it. They’d just quietly believe we could have done more.
My path was typical to the rest of the family: high grades, an abundance of options, and encouragement to find a passion and pursue it. I cannot understate the range of fields my family would have supported me in, I only had to choose something. But all I could do was freeze under the burden of our legacy, offering up silent panic.
With this panic also came the guilt of the privilege I have. How many other women in Cairo would do, give and say anything to have been born into this environment? To have a mother who was financially capable and willing to send them to study abroad. To be given the emotional support to take a year off from studying because of a depressive episode. To then be encouraged to start another degree from scratch because it seemed more engaging. If there’s one area where I feel even a modicum of ambition, it’s in being engaged. Not in the matrimonial sense (apologies to my grandma on that front), but in terms of finding something that mentally stimulates me.
Now I’ve deeply reconciled with not being the most (traditionally) successful member of my family and thankfully as the decades have shifted, so too has the way in which success is framed. Rather than being the best, they want us to do our best, and be happy as we do it.
Self-fulfilment (as long as it’s financially self-sustainable, of course) is the new metric. However, cross-generational belief systems like ours don’t fade away because some of us decide they’re antiquated. And so, I find myself oscillating between knowing this isn’t my problem and picturing my great aunts synchronously rolling in their geographically scattered graves.
In a recent conversation with my aunt who was formerly a high-powered, high-stress, first female CEO of an advertising firm, I made an offhand comment about how since retirement she has been embracing more colorful patterns. That singular observation encompassed so much for me. In pursuit of success and strength, a significant amount of traditional feminine qualities and modes of expression were sacrificed in order to conform to patriarchal values, under the guise of “professionalism.”
My sister, our latest thriving career woman, is on an opposite trajectory where she was trying to embrace the feminine qualities we’d previously been conditioned to avoid in professional settings. Those qualities are probably the only arena where I might be more successful than my immediate family members. I’m the softest one and the most comfortable with feeling her feelings – shoutout to my therapist(s) for that.
That identifier used to be said affectionately, but with the slightest edge of amused condescension, almost like I was the weakest member of the pack. As they’ve all gotten into traditional and non-traditional therapies, they’ve also embraced the idea that emotional constipation produces its set of limitations, quelle surprise.
Trying to find where I fit into this newly evolving matriarchal legacy is an ongoing and occasionally demoralizing process, but it’s not like I have anything more pressing to do at the moment. I speak of my family with the same pride I’ve just spent a portion of this piece criticizing, and as you’ve read, some of the opinions I hold directly contradict the values I’m trying to maintain.
I’m admittedly more apathetic than ambitious, more tranquil than driven, indecisive and self-contradictory, although not without the ever-present drum of needing to achieve self-sufficiency beating in my head. To tie this all up in a neat, neutral-toned (I’m still not a fan of bright colors) bow, I’m trying to find engagement, both as a metric of personal success and because I don’t want to be bored, having mostly embraced the notion of not wanting to find my own ceiling to shatter, and despite all of this, not wanting that last statement to feel like a betrayal of the empowerment that got me here.