Old Wives' Tale

08.28.134:45 AM ET

Performing Manhood In Modern Egypt

In her new anthropological study of manhood in modern Egypt, "Live and Die Like A Man," Swarthmore professor Farha Ghannam explores the fraught topic of gender relations and how women are often as invested as men in maintaining the norms of masculinity. Below, an excerpt from her chapter on how a wife's behavior is seen as critical to a husband's public image.

Husbands And Wives: Love And Domination?

The concerns that Zaki’s family have been expressing over his relationship with his fiancée and her family, especially his willingness to give into her demands and show too much affection and dedication to her, are rooted in an anxiety about his relationship with his future wife. In addition to a husband’s role as the provider for his wife, the relationship between them is one of the most important elements that could enhance or undermine his standing as a man, especially during the early years of marriage. A husband’s ability to assert his domination and the wife’s acceptance of (or at least appearing to accept) this domination significantly reflect on a man’s standing. He should show that he is able to shape his wife and her conduct while clearly resisting her attempts to influence his ways of doing and being. Since sisters and mothers are fully aware of the strong role women play in the production of men, they are especially sensitive to the relationship between married relatives and their spouses and usually seek to limit the role of a new wife in affecting the conduct of her husband as much as possible. An examination of one of Zaki’s older brothers, Muhsen, will illustrate some aspects of this relationship. Muhsen is a particularly good example as he was frequently used as a point of reference when criticizing Zaki’s conduct. Unlike his brother, Muhsen was considered by his family to be a real man. Besides being a good provider financially, he had been exemplary in his ability to assert himself in front of his wife and in-laws.

In the summer of 2010, Muhsen, at the age of 44, was a worker in a printing company in another part of Cairo. He had been married to Manal for 12 years, and they had three children. Muhsen worked six days a week; he usually left home around seven in the morning and returned around eight in the evening. However, when he worked overtime, which he did frequently, he arrived back home closer to ten in the evening. His wife worked as a clerk in a company in a middleclass neighborhood; she worked five days a week and also left home around seven but returned at four in the afternoon. In addition to her job, Manal was the one who did all the household work and provided
all the child care.

Most of the time, Muhsen was well regarded socially for his conduct as a man. He was credited for being generous but reasonable, assertive but not antagonistic, and kind but still able to stand up for himself. Examples about his standing as a real man drew on his premarital days when he was still engaged and always expressed his views in front of his tough father-in-law. Unlike Zaki, who accepted occasional mistreatment by his future father-in-law, Muhsen never tolerated any lack of respect. For example, Zaki had to put up with Fatma’s father’s refusal to let them go out together. Depending on the financial abilities of the man, such outings might be a walk in the neighborhood or a visit to a relative, a stroll near the Nile, a meal at a restaurant, or a movie in downtown Cairo. Unlike his brother, Muhsen would not accept restrictions imposed by his in-laws. I was told several times by Muhsen and his family of one occasion when he angrily departed from his fiancée’s home because he had wanted to take her out and her father had refused. Muhsen stayed away for several days until the father-in-law himself called and told him to take Manal out the next day. Unlike Zaki, who often accepted new demands even when he knew he would not be able to fulfill them, Muhsen
knew when to stand his ground. Even though he worked in Kuwait for several years and earned a decent living, he always made a point not to exaggerate the gifts he sent to his fiancée and wisely managed his money so that he could secure an adequate home in the future.

Upon marrying, Muhsen wanted his wife to quit her job. He made it very clear that his income was enough and he did not need his wife’s salary. This was important for him to assert because women’s work after marriage is not highly regarded and could be viewed as a sign of the inability of the husband to adequately provide for his family. After much negotiation, he accepted the argument of Manal’s family and several of his friends that it would be imprudent to force the wife to leave her job and lose her benefits, especially her future pension. His father-in-law as well as Muhsen’s friends assured him that he would retain the right to ask his wife to quit if at any time he felt she neglected him or their home. Due to this agreement and because, as he said several times, he does not want his wife to get used to his assistance, Muhsen made a point of not helping with any household chores. When he saw her looking exhausted or when she uttered the slightest complaint about all the work she had to do, he would simply state that she could just stop working if she was too tired or if she could not balance her duties as a wife, a mother, and an employee.

When Muhsen was in Kuwait, his mother and sisters were key in reinforcing his standing as a man in their neighborhood by saving his money, helping with securing his apartment, buying the furniture needed, and maintaining good relations with his in-laws. Manal and her family soon joined them in repeating stories that celebrated his abilities, financial success, and wise management of his resources. Through these actions and narratives, they collectively produced him as a good and successful man. After his return and marriage, his sisters and mother proudly pointed out that because of Muhsen’s standing and firmness, his wife meticulously kept the couple’s big apartment spick-and-span, carefully looked after the children and their education, always made sure a hot meal was waiting for her husband when he returned back home in the evening, and quickly responded to all his needs (such as ironing his clothes, matching them in colors, and making sure they were ready for him to wear whenever he needed them). Manal’s family has been a strong source of support and significantly contributed to her ability to satisfy the needs of her husband and children and combine work inside and outside the house. Her mother and unmarried sister in particular have been instrumental in helping her take care of the children and fulfilling some of her household obligations. For example, the mother looked after the younger child, who did not go to school, and prepared for Manal some of the time-consuming dishes (such as stuffed vegetables) while the sister helped with an assortment of chores (such as ironing and cleaning the apartment for major events). At the same time, the couple has been careful to invite Muhsen’s family for special meals during Ramadan and other appropriate occasions. Manal would make a point of serving an array of foods that showed her skills as a cook and a housewife. She also tried to visit Muhsen’s family as often as possible, exchanged gifts and foods with them, and attended important social occasions (such as engagement parties, birth celebrations, and funerals) related to his extended family. From his success as a provider and assertiveness in front of his in-laws to his ability to father children, control his wife, and make his preferences respected, all of these achievements were interpreted as signs of his status as a real man, who was consistently able to enact the proper norms in the
right context.

The focus on the relationship between Manal and Muhsen is part of a broader pattern that places the wife–husband relationship at the center of a masculine trajectory, especially during the early years of marriage. The broader view on this matter was well summarized by a 40-year-old man: “The wife is the one who can make the husband feel his ruguula. If she respects her husband and his family, obeys his wishes, especially in front of others, takes care of their home, looks after the children, and does not complain about him to others, then he would feel he is a real, good man. Other people would judge him as such as well. Alternatively, a woman who seems to be out of control, leaves the house whenever she wants, fights with the neighbors, publicly disobeys her husband’s instructions, and neglects her home and children could undermine her husband’s standing as a man in front of his extended family, neighbors, and friends.”

In contrast to the ideal exemplified in Muhsen’s marriage, when parents and relatives perceive a clear destabilization of the hierarchy that privileges men over women, they are troubled and will work to reestab-lish the domination of the husband over the wife. After marriage, relatives, neighbors, and friends keep a close eye on the relationship between the husband and wife and deploy several strategies such as joking and teasing, direct criticism, verbal instructions, and, in few cases, physical discipline, to ensure that the hierarchy between the two sides is maintained. They closely monitor the interaction between the couple and pay special attention to bodily gestures (such as the way she looks at him) and language exchanges (such as the wording and intonations of her reactions) to confirm that she shows deference and obedience. The case of Muhammad, a plumber in his late thirties, illustrates some of these points. Muhammad got married when he was in his early thirties to a woman he deeply loved. His work in Saudi Arabia allowed him to offer her a nice big apartment and she was considered very lucky by many of Muhammad’s neighbors and family members. He was severely criticized, however, by both male and female acquaintances because he went out of his way to help his wife, who did not work outside the home. He made a habit of buying all of their daily supplies (including vegetables, which is usually done by women) and allowed her to stay with her family in another neighborhood for extended periods of time. When she became pregnant, he started helping her with daily chores, such as mopping the stairs, cleaning the bathroom, and washing the windows. In a (male-female) mixed group discussion, he explained to us that he worried about her falling and hurting herself while pregnant. His male friends did not approve of his explanation and conduct. One of them asked, “Why marry if you’re going to do all this stuff?” Another one went on to criticize Muhammad’s wife because she often made hissing sounds from their apartment’s balcony to call her husband home, even while he was in the middle of a conversation with his friends. While Muhammad saw her behavior as a sign of love, his friends dismissed his reasoning and saw his wife’s action as a sign of disrespect and an indication of her dominance. After Muhammad’s departure, one of his friends explained to me that Muhammad is not able to control his wife (yushkumha), which undermines his standing as a man. The women present also strongly criticized his ways, especially doing chores like mopping the stairs, that could be publicly seen by others. The women understood that there might be times when the husband should help his wife (by looking after the children if the wife is too busy, ironing his clothes if she is sick, or fixing his breakfast if she has to be away), but they emphasized the need for such help to be discreet and kept away from the eyes of others. Visibly defying social norms usually invites criticisms from others, who interpret the conduct of the husband as an indication of the domination of the wife and evidence of a shift in the hierarchies that structure the husband-wife relationship.

Over the course of marriage, we see more interdependence cultivated between spouses, most of whom mutually support each other. Husbands may offer help at home and wives may use their earnings (few work outside but some do part-time work such as selling clothes, spices, juices, or cooked food) to help support their families. At the same time, the definition of manhood expands to encompass other matters, such as fathering and educating children, marrying one’s daughters and sons, and maintaining good relationships with others. Moreover, most women learn to uphold the appearance of men’s domination while expanding their ability to exercise power in various aspects of daily life. Umm Ali, a woman in her late fifties and the mother of four children, brilliantly mastered the art of making her husband seem like the driving force in their life while in reality she oversaw the important decisions about almost everything related to their family. Since I met her in 1993, when she was in her early forties and her children were still young and in school, I have been impressed by how efficiently she managed her household and cared for her children. She was savvy about managing the family’s limited budget, securing its daily needs while saving as much as possible, and keeping track of her children’s schooling and social relationships. Over time, I watched her make almost all the decisions related to her children’s education, marriage, and the new home that the family eventually built in another part of Cairo. Abu Ali, who had two jobs and worked very hard to provide for his family, was rarely present and often went along with whatever his wife decided. Yet Umm Ali always made it seem as if he were the one who made all the decisions about their life and would always claim to the neighbors that she was going to check with him on even the most mundane decisions. She often used his authority in strategic ways when she wanted to avoid undesirable obligations. When she did not want to do something or hesitated about it, she would tell a neighbor, a friend, or a relative that her husband would not approve of it. She was always eager to compliment and praise him in front of others for his hard work and often put herself down to underscore his important role in her life. She would describe how he taught her everything she knows and repeatedly emphasized that, without his knowledge and support, she would have continued to be the peasant girl she was when she moved from her village to Cairo after their marriage. Such acts and verbal statements helped support the standing of Abu Ali as a man and ultimately garnered for him the kind of public recognition and legitimacy central to a masculine trajectory.

In other cases, when a wife visibly defied the expected conduct by ignoring her children and apartment and disobeying her husband’s requests, social consequences were expected. The husband may be encouraged by family members and friends to reassert his standing and make sure his wife abides by his wishes, even through the use of physical violence. Divorce may result if the wife does not amend her ways, especially early in the marriage. The case of Abdu highlights this possibility. Abdu married a woman he very much loved. She was beautiful and strong but had a bad temper and quickly managed to antagonize her husband’s family and all the neighbors, whom she frequently insulted and fought with. No matter how much Abdu reasoned with his wife, she did not change her ways. Eventually, he had to find housing in another neighborhood and leave al-Zawiya to avoid, as he said, the embarrassment caused by his wife’s conduct. After the birth of their first child, he returned from work one day to find that his wife had fought with his mother, who was visiting them to help with the baby, and slapped her on the face. This was such a grave offense that it could not be ignored. He felt that overlooking her act would have totally undermined his standing as a man in front of others, especially his family. Though he still deeply loved his wife, he felt that the only appropriate response to her offense against his mother was divorce. Even though divorce is not encouraged and is usually viewed negatively, in this case, people reacted positively to Abdu’s decision and commended his assertive stand.

Other cases proved to be much more complicated than Abdu’s and divorce was not a practical possibility, leaving a husband with no tangible options. This was clearly the case for Safwat, a man in his late forties, who has been working in Kuwait for the past ten years. He usually spends two years or so abroad before returning for two or three months to see his wife and five children. When he returns, he is loaded with gifts for his family, neighbors, and friends. Soon after he arrives, troubles usually start between him and his wife, Hana’, a strong and skilled woman but “not a good wife,” as described by Safwat and his relatives. They complained that Hana’ does not pay enough attention to the couple’s small apartment, which is usually filthy, untidy, and infested with insects. She does not care enough for her children either, who run around in soiled clothes and with uncombed hair and dirty faces. She is also socially awkward and managed over time to strain her relationships with Safwat’s family and friends. On top of all this, she is a jealous woman who suspects that her husband is having or will have an affair with any woman he encounters. In particular, she became very unhappy when he returned to al-Zawiya in the summer of 2011 and saw that he had lost a lot of weight, had fixed his teeth, and had dyed his hair, which made him look several years younger than his real age. Observing these changes, Hana’ became convinced that he must be planning to take another wife. They fought constantly and he left their apartment for a couple of weeks until she, under pressure from her family, apologized to Safwat and begged him to return home. Soon after he returned, however, they started fighting again and Safwat found himself with few options.

Safwat’s case is remarkable because it defies many of the stereotypical expectations about the Arab man, who supposedly enjoys unlimited power in managing his family (especially in terms of his presumed right to divorce and remarry). Although Safwat is a good man, has a great sense of humor, and is liked by many, he became helpless when dealing with his wife’s conduct. He tried reasoning with her and asked their relatives (both male and female) to mediate and talk with Hana’, but this failed to alter her behavior. He tried violence and occasionally beat her, but that did not prove to be effective either. He considered divorce, but feared what would happen to his young children. He considered taking another wife, but that would be expensive and would compromise his commitment to the well-being of his children. Safwat found the best solution was to continue to work abroad away from his wife. This option allows him to fulfill his obligations as a provider (he sends his wife a monthly allowance) while staying away from continuous and direct interaction with Hana’ and having to work hard to reassert his standing as a man in front of her and others.


From Farha Ghannam's Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt.
Published by Stanford University Press (2013).