What’s your label?
BY REHAM BARAKAT
I drove to the club with my exercise partner and walked in silence until our routine was interrupted by a pleasant lady who asked if she could join us to improve her pace. We immediately engaged in a very enjoyable conversation, discovering mutual interests, ideas and outlooks, and then she left. My friend then turned and said, “That lady is really nice but she’s obviously very different. Typical Egyptians don’t normally approach each other that comfortably.” For some reason I found myself agreeing with her, as though there was a silent rule as to what “typical Egyptian” means so I nodded.
A few days later, I found myself alone exercising at the club and feeling a little bored. I noticed a man my age and I thought, “I’d love to ask him if I could join him but I don’t want to be misunderstood. I don’t know what he’ll think of a woman asking to join him.” So I continued exercising alone curious as to why I was so concerned about social labels and what the man would think of me. I figured that my fear is he would think I was promiscuous in some way, or husband hunting for that matter or just outright strange; labels I didn’t want to find glued invisibly to my forehead. And then I recalled that the reason for my fear might have been an incident that happened to me in the UAE when I lived there.
I was invited to a gathering by an Egyptian woman and most of the people attending were also Egyptian. One man was new to the country and was complaining that he didn’t have any friends and that life was a bit lonely. So immediately, I offered him my number and told him to call me so that I could introduce him to my friends. And I felt good that I had supposedly done a good deed.
I gave one of the Egyptians attending the gathering a lift and as soon as we got into the car I was given a proper social hiding. “How can you give out your number out like that so easily to men, don’t you know what he might think of you?” I was flabbergasted, found myself losing my temper and launched a very bitter diatribe about how anyone who judged me for trying to help someone is nothing but mentally disturbed and complexed to say the least. And to calm myself down, I just reasoned that this person had my best interest at heart but was a “typical Egyptian” and that’s why they thought that way.
And so it was established that there is a social label called “typical Egyptian” that somehow governs how we perceive and define others as well as ourselves against the “society” — a term I dread using, it being no more than an intangible concept we create in our minds and allow to haunt us as we come to believe that it’s something real that is scrutinizing our every move.
I cannot put my finger on exactly what it means to be “typical Egyptian” but like anything it is a very relative term. What I do know is that it has a negative connotation in the minds of most people because it’s associated with stifling and conservative modes of thinking.
It’s a label that we use very easily to define people and box them into a category in the name of supposedly understanding them better when in fact we don’t. And because we don’t, we label them. But in the process we harm others through false perceptions or limit our social dealings with others for fear of how we will be perceived.
The pensive academic who thrives on his personal space is an introvert in need of therapy. And if he’s over 30 and not married then he is either homosexual or psychologically disturbed. The single woman who is friendly with the opposite sex is judged as promiscuous, husband-hunting or outright desperate. The man with a long beard is a Salafi who oppresses his wife and is judgmental. The woman wearing the niqab is oppressed and needs to be liberated. The person who doesn’t miss a prayer is pious and beyond reproach; and the woman in the short tennis skirt is either a Christian or wants to attract attention because she’s ethically challenged. The feminist has male-related issues; and the rebel with a cause is outright insane, and of course the insane, pitifully should be avoided. And the list goes on.
At the end of the day, we share this world and this country with each other, whether we like it or not and whether we know each other or not. In the spirit of the January 25 revolution, if we don’t break down the invisible barriers we have created in our minds about ourselves and others, we will never really get to know one another so we can live in some sort of harmony and compassion. We will never allow ourselves to connect with each other on a humane level let alone allow ourselves the opportunity to be surprised or inspired enough to notice the potentially beautiful details that makes us different from each other in a positive way, in a way without labels.
As my pleasant lady friend at the club taught me when she asked to join me in my exercise routine — strangers can become a source of learning, enjoyment and potential friends. -The Egypt Monocle.
Reham Barakat is a Cairo-based commentator and creative writer.