First impressions are often wrong. First voices are seemingly wrong too. Noel King’s blue-teetering-on-green eyes against her soft tan pigment are an archetype of the Egyptian woman. Accordingly, we expected a voice punctuated with an Egyptian accent. What we all heard instead was someone who could’ve been our pediatrician. But even her surprise voice couldn’t shake me out my slumber state. My mood was sterile – I couldn’t find the mental strength to formulate words into a sentence. One day of house arrest (which is a week in American time) can do that to you. I stepped on to the felucca, blank mind in tote, unprepared for the woman I was about to discover.
The sun setting, our felucca sailing, and the Nile being the Nile, we all embraced the first comforting breeze that came from somewhere other than our apartment’s A/C. I sat next to Noel, not really knowing what to expect from the ambiguous teacher-figure.
Noel King is a radio journalist, but to confine her description to those two words is criminal. First off, she cursed. Not many adults are willing to let one slip in fear of political correctness. Secondly, she casually let parts of her life slip that she portrayed as almost trivial, but with further explanation, were actually super freaking awesome. Sitting next to her gave Dylan and I access to her life story – one that included the threat of mauling grizzly bears, sleeping on strangers’ couches, and returning from Guatemala – shoeless.
Remember what I said about first impressions? Noel King threw mine out the window and let it burn with the rest of Cairo’s trash. Leaving Brown University to travel, she took an unconventional route and conquered the forests and highways of the coast instead of boarding a plane. She backpacked along the West Coast and ventured into the Yukon Valley for safety (safety is a euphemism, the obscure forests of Canada were merely a step up from the areas of California that were still inflicted with the post-Charlie Manson fear of wandering travelers). With $400 dollars in her pocket and a loaf of bread and peanut butter, she did something that is foreign to our generation. We’re taught that hitchhikers don’t get picked up and served a nice home-cooked meal. They get kidnapped and locked in a trunk.
The Yukon Valley and Guatemala weren’t enough for our resident badass. After returning to Brown and earning her degree, she went to Sudan to start her career as a reporter. Only thing was that she actually had no form of reporter training. From Sudan to South Africa (and still broke), she got her required training and returned to Sudan on a teaching visa and taught classes in the day while writing pieces at night.
Speaking to us about her reporting in Cairo during the elections and her previous work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she proved to be articulate, strong and confident. Every question was answered with a dignified answer – even if it was contrary to Professor Lo’s opinion. She was able to carry a running dialogue with Ryan, the political heavyweight of our group, with relative ease (this is no easy task – 97% of the time I have no idea what government policy or law Ryan is referencing). By the end of the discussion, we were all entranced.
Noel King is a shining example of powerful women in the Middle East. Although not Egyptian, she shares similarities with other individuals we have met that have expelled our notions of stifled women in Muslim society. The women at Kayan are bright, inquisitive, and hopeful. The singer featured below showed that Egyptian women could still be as every bit as seductive as the next, albeit fully clothed and fabulous.
While women make up a majority of the student population at American University of Cairo and other universities throughout the city, they are still subjugated to harassment and limited presence in the public social sphere. While the increased presence of women in the education system shows trends towards progressive female rights and new career paths, the conflicting pressures of the traditional patriarchal society and the desire to excel in both the home and the school are serving to be a complex battle for the women of Egypt. However, the struggle of the Egyptian woman cannot be extradited from the struggle of the Egyptian. In a society where one’s socioeconomic status predestines one’s future, upward mobility being somewhat of a romanticized dream, the education system must be restructured to provide more individuals – not just the affluent and the top 1% of a graduating class – with opportunities to lift their country out of its current state.
The women that I have met in Cairo, whether members of the upper class or volunteers at one of our NGO’s, are willing and able to join the fight for freedom. The Western perception of Muslim women convolutes the idea that Egyptian women, just like the women of the States, are acutely aware of their ability and potential to revitalize Egypt. The power is in every Egyptian, whether in Tahrir or not, who has vowed to make a concerted effort to make a change for their country.