I was born in a patriarchal society, into a conventional family with ordinary behaviors and average education. My mother was fifteen when her family arranged for her to marry my nineteen-year-old father; marriage was one way to keep his behavior in check.
My mother gave birth to me shortly after she turned sixteen—a child giving birth to a child, I always thought. I was raised in the midst of my parents’ teenage dreams and the uncertainty of their new adult lives. Memories became lost in the flow of life. This made us forget what had been and simply carry on moment to moment.
Each of us grows, and inside are the lost dreams and thwarted wishes of our mothers. You are the origin of her dreams’ demise. You are asked to rise to the appointed challenges because, in spite of being a woman, you will face this world and prove you are worthy to exist within it.
Girl after girl after girl was born, and the dreams of our mother broke around us, their shrapnel scattered and then reshaped into another dream far away from us—the dream of the male. The boy. No matter how abundant and well-bred girls may be, they can never make up for the absence of a boy.
As I grew up, this conflict left a crack in my identity. I was the eldest daughter, the one responsible for the long line of sisters that followed. Each time my mother gave birth to another girl, faces would frown and the sky’s colors would fade. Strangely, I didn’t see this disappointment in the males of the family. But the tears of my mother, the gossip of my grandmother, and the words of my neighbors haunted me. “It’s okay. May God compensate you.” Even the word mabrouk—congratulations—went unspoken. However, we girls continued to grow, one after the other, and we were treated with compassion.
My memories of my father during my childhood are limited. He was a workaholic, too busy providing a life my mother insisted should be better. She would not accept the idea of sending us to public school, despite the fact that we were girls. Instead, we were sent to expensive private schools that only the rich and highly educated could attend.
Though my grandfather was a tyrant, he invested in our education, as he had done for our aunts before us. Perhaps he had done the same for the boys as well, but his sons were not as diligent as his daughters. One of my aunts attended college in Egypt in the 1960s, and my youngest aunt, who is not much older than me, went to a private school, the same school my sisters and I would later attend.
I can’t say whether or not the school was a fundamental turning point in the formation of my character, or if my life changed there. The school community was completely different from that of my home environment. My classmates came mostly from elite, educated families, and their religious backgrounds varied. I had a more modest upbringing. Nevertheless, the fact that my parents could afford the expensive tuition for decades made my classmates assume we were rich.
From my father, I learned modesty and self-sufficiency. From my mother, I learned to face and overcome challenges. I lived my life by these qualities—modesty and richness, contentment and ambition. Still, there was always one thing I had to remember : I am a girl.
Behave like a man but remain a female. Be responsible and never forget that your strongest weapon is your beauty. Grow tired, strive, struggle, and resist, yet, of that one thing always remain aware: You are a woman. Your horizons are limited. Your mother keeps your freedom locked up, and your father holds the key. Your actions come with great responsibility. Any misstep is a black mark that will later reflect on your sisters. Never forget that your arrival was a good omen, but only conditionally. After all, seven more girls trailed behind you.