From Hope to Destitution: Life Inside Egypt’s Women-Only Village

The village of Al Samaha lies 120 kilometers from the bustling city of Aswan, Egypt, founded by the government as a “project” for divorced and widowed women who are typically ostracized in Egyptian society.

Al Samaha was meant to provide the women residing within it with a rare space to be self-reliant—but an attempt to create a haven for women exiled for their lack of male guardianship has become a prison for its residents.

Egyptian women gathered to rally for equality on International Women’s Day in 2011. (Al Jazeera / Creative Commons)

In Egyptian society, divorced or widowed women are often left with little to no means of financial sustenance. Women make up the majority of the nation’s unemployed population: A 2015 study revealed that 25.8 percent of women are unemployed, and that men are three times less likely to face unemployment. Furthermore, the social stigma surrounding divorce and lack of a male guardianship is deeply embedded in Egyptian culture, which forces divorced women to be looked down on and socially shunned—especially those from villages in Upper Egypt.

In 1998, in an attempt to alleviate government spending on welfare-dependent widows and divorcees, the Ministry of Agriculture created Al Samaha to mitigate government spending, propel women to enter the agricultural realm and provide relief from the negative social backlash these women face.

Instead, Al Samaha is a dead end.

Few interviews with older women in the village allow their true grievances to be expressed—but the residents, when given the chance, have been outspoken about the conditions they face.

Each of the 303 families housed in the village is given a hut-like home subsidized by the government and six acres of land to farm, but many women there say that the land is desolate and barren, making it nearly impossible for most crops to grow.

They complain of a lack of clean running water; one recounted that “the water is so dirty it is making our children’s skin peel.” Children in the village show symptoms of severe skin infections and diseases that they contract from the contaminated water that runs through it. In order to drink clean water, residents must wait for a truck from a neighboring village, which often does not come for weeks. For the duration of the time in-between deliveries, residents remain thirsty.

“If no truck comes for a week and suddenly we see one approaching,” Faiza Ismail, a village elder, explains, “we celebrate and cheer and let the rest of the village know that the vegetables have arrived and for everyone to hurry and collect their own vegetables and water… We don’t have any here.”

There are no health facilities in Al Samaha. Children run to the nearest village when someone falls ill to ask permission to use their trucks; the residents must be driven to Aswan for medical attention. “We need an ambulance,” Ismail declares at a convening of the village’s women one evening, “so if any of us fall ill after a long day of work we have a way to get them to a doctor or the hospital.” Most of the sick residents of Al Samaha do not have the luxury of traveling 120 kilometers for care, and so they are left with no options, even if they are stricken by curable and preventable diseases and illnesses.

The children of Al Samaha, by and large, are illiterate. There are no schools in the village, and they thusly have no means of education. They spend their days working in fields with their mothers.

“My husband passed away when I was 34 years old,” Ismail told Al Jazeera in a video interview. “I stayed here and raised my children and educated them and now two of them are married and the other two are with me. If I have a gallon of water I’ll share it with the other women in the village and if they have some water they share it with the rest of us. If we don’t hear from one of the women in the village we knock on her door to make sure she’s okay to make sure she hasn’t fallen ill or fainted or died from exhaustion.”

Although the living conditions in Al Samaha are extremely difficult, women like Ismail are persistent in their fight to carve out lives for themselves. “We know that one woman is stronger than ten men,” she tells the camera crew, repeating a common Egyptian phrase. “Otherwise we would not have survived here.”

Salma Elakbawy is a political intern at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She currently attends Rutgers University where she studies Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies.

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