Thursday, January 20, 2011

Spending time in Egypt


Kochi-born and London-raised, Sunita Rappai works as a freelance journalist in Cairo. She talks about life in Egypt and also gives her perceptions about Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

A couple of years ago, there were wild celebrations in Egypt when the country won a football match against Algeria. Groups of young men rushed out into the streets and began dancing and waving Egyptian flags. Kochi-born Sunita Rappai, who works as a freelance journalist in Cairo, was in the Downtown area with a friend. “Immediately we were surrounded by a group of youngsters,” she says. “They were in an excited mood.”

The men tried to grope them even though they were on a brightly-lit street. “We went through a panicky situation,” says Sunita. But, thankfully, other Egyptian men came to their rescue.

“There is a great deal of harassment, because of the sexual frustration among the men,” she says. “The more repressed a society is, the more pestering a women will experience. But at the same time there is a lot of respect for women. In a bus, a man will not sit next to a woman.”

Indeed, Egyptian men have a traditional attitude when it comes to marriage. “Everything is dictated by the man’s pride,” she says. “If a wife respects that, and is modest in appearance and behaviour, then it is fine.”

Sunita who has lived in Cairo for a few years says that Egypt reminds her often of Kerala and India. “The family is the backbone of society,” she says. “Young people follow the family’s dictates in terms of their career and marriage. It is a good thing, but it is restrictive. It eats up a person’s individuality. But Egyptian society is gradually changing.”

This can be seen by the increasing rates of divorce: 40 per cent of all marriages. There is a new law called the Khula that allows Muslim women to get a 'no-fault' divorce. “The divorce is easier, but the woman has to forfeit her financial rights,” says Sunita.

Like in India, there is a class divide. The super rich live in exclusive gated communities, wear the latest designer labels, travel abroad often, and move around in BMWs.

On the other hand, there are huge slums in Cairo. The largest is called Ezbet Kheirallah. “However, there is very little begging on the streets,” says Sunita. “Charity plays a big role in Islamic culture. There is a strong sense of community. People help each other.”

But what was a revelation to Sunita was how tolerant Egyptian society is. “More than 90 per cent of the Muslims I met are liberal and respect other religions,” she says. “So it is sad to see Islamophobia spreading all over the world.”

Sunita, of course, is a liberal herself. She was born in Kochi and, in her teenage years, went to London where her parents had settled. After her post-graduation in public relations, she worked in various jobs as a public relations manager and a journalist before she developed a wanderlust and travelled all over the world. In Cairo, she was drawn by the pulsating energy of the city and decided to stay on.

Sunita had recently come to Kochi to spend time with her mother. And she has many things to say about Kerala. “There is a parochial mentality,” says Sunita. “People look at me strangely because I am not married.”

She is also alarmed by the outward migration. “Whenever I have gone on family visits, I have noticed that all the children are abroad: either in the Gulf, the USA or Canada,” says Sunita. “This has happened time and time again. This brain drain is affecting the development of Kerala. It is difficult for a society to progress without the input of its talented youth.”

Sunita also feels strongly about the suppression of women. “They live under the dominance of the men,” she says. And they receive very little respect. As a result it is dangerous for a woman to walk alone on the streets after 7 p.m. “If you go to a nightclub or a disco, it is like a gay club,” she says. “More than 90 per cent of the people present are men. It is not a comfortable environment for a woman.”

And so thanks to her travels, Sunita is able to analyse societies with empathy and perception, but in the end, you feel sympathy for her when she states, “I am a person with no roots. I belong nowhere. I am like a BBCD (a British-born confused desi), but I am comfortable with that.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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