Sunday, July 1, 2012

Najla, The Servant's Wife

Asalamu Alaykom,

I would like to introduce you to Um Ahmed, "Ahmed's Mother".  This is the way respectable ladies of Egypt's middleclass are introduced.  We are called by the name of our first son.  Um Ahmed has four sons and one daughter.  Her eldest is now Dr. Ahmed, a urologist in Saudi Arabia.  She is 50 years old and a grandma to three grandchildren. 

We don't really call each other by first names in public, though of course we have them.  Um Ahmed's name is Najla.  She retains her family's last name, as is traditional in Islam; a woman does not lose her essential identity.  She is Najla Mahmoud not Najla Morsi. Her husband is the newly elected President of Egypt, Dr. Mohamed Morsi.

So, is she Egypt's First Lady?


Najla Mahmoud says, “There is nothing called Egypt’s First Lady.  There is something called Egypt’s First Servant because we are all citizens with the same rights and same duties.  I also can be called Um Ahmed, or ukht; sister, Najla or Haja, pilgrim.  Islam does not distinguish between a woman and another or between a man and another. We are all Egyptians united for the sake of our nation.”

"Islam taught us that the next president, is the first servant of Egypt, this means that his wife is also the servant of Egypt. Any title that has been forced upon us must be gone with, it should disappear from my political and social dictionary".

Isn't she an Amazing Muslimah?  I think so!

Her life begain in Cairo back in 1962.  You only have to watch old movies from the time to see how permissive a society Egypt was back then.  Beehives and short skirts danced around at parties with boys.  Why not?  Egypt was then trying to be Western. 

Eventually, Najla would go to the West go be with her husband.  She went as far West as you can go (both literally and figuratively).  She went to California.  SOUTH CENTRAL, LOS ANGELES!  Can you stand it?!  That's a tough 'hood! 

Did it change her?  No.  Maybe it polished her to make her shine more but it did not recreate her.  She increased her faith, helped her husband increase his and even encouraged new reverts to learn about Islam when she translated Arabic for them.

What I find really inspiring is how she gave birth to two children in America.  It's hard to think of being pregnant and having babies away from your family.  She did!  Not once but twice she gave birth in America.  She felt a pull to raising her children in The States but her husband disagreed and in the end they returned to Egyptian life---even after knowing all the promise which America holds.

It must have been hard to come back to face the problems ordinary middle-class Egyptians were facing.  The middle-class face issues that the upper-class never do.  This is true no matter where you live.  Najla can relate to fuel shortages, the price of meat, and the importance of education in the public schools (not just the private). 

She can also understand what it means to fight for justice and sacrifice for your country.  For eight months, in 2006, she found the patience necessary to wait for her husband's release from prison.  This was due to his activism which she also participated in ---not to a lesser degree but in a different direction.  The Muslim Brotherhood was revolutionary to the Upper Class ruling Egypt long before January 25, 2011. 

After Dr. Mohamed Morsi's release, he stayed active in politics despite the hardships.  His wife supported him.  The Tammy Wynette stand-by-your-man philosophy is easy in theory but hard in practice.  It's even harder when you never felt like you were meant for the spotlight.

Could a reporter interview her?

Could a photographer take her picture?

“Only if your photos make me look younger and a little thinner,” she joked.

Um Ahmed's khimar is a stark contrast to the former First Ladies.  In fact, she is the first wife of an Egyptian President to wear the veil despite Egypt being 90% Muslim.  What the reason for that? 

Maybe it has something to do with the last three ladies being of mixed heritage.   Tahia Kazam, the widow of Abdel Nasser was half-Egyptian since her father was Iranian.  Jihan Sadat was half-Egyptian and was raised by an English mother.  Suzanne Mubarak was half-Egyptian and was raised by a Welsh mother.  Najla is the first fully Egyptian spouse since 1954.  That's 58 years ago!

Read more about what blogger Manisha wrote in Egypt's First Ladies.

Click over here to see pictures of Egypt's First Ladies.  Which one has "the look" which Um Ahmed needs to copy?  Is it Suzanne Mubarak's carefully coiffed hair, full make-up, and designer pant suits? 

This photo of her accompanied the article, "Suzanne Mubarak Released After Turning Over $4 Million in Assets to Investigators." 

It's good to remember that the polished look of dressing to impress during the Mubarak regime took money directly out of the pockets of Egyptians.  For every Egyptian who admires the way Suzanne wore her clothes, please remember that some children walk the streets right next to you with no shoes.

Some like to think of the former first ladies as being "modern" thus forgetting that Islamic modesty is for all times.  The difference has sparked criticism, as if Egypt doesn't have room for both kinds of women.  It's strange how those who wanted freedom in Egypt now can't seem to extend it to this lady and how she dresses.

On Twitter, there were so many negative comments that  #BackOffUmAhmed was created.  It wasn't the Muslim Brotherhood fighting back.  Some of the people tweeting support for this modest lady didn't like the politics of the group but disliked even more the attacks on personal appearance.

TV host Reem Maged addressed the issue on her show.  It's in Arabic but you can watch the short clip and get the gist.  She was disgusted with the mistreatment, especially since 40 million Muslimahs in this country observe their faith with the veil.  It goes against adab ettiquette to talk this way about a lady who is exactly like our Egyptian moms and aunties.

One commenter on albawaba defended her as well, saying, "Shedding all remnants of your culture doesn't make you more civilised nor modern. As an Egyptian living overseas, I am proud that this civil servant is the absolute opposite of the last, who was hedonistic, arrogant and indifferent to the plight of Egyptians. Bismillah mashallah! I am proud to call myself an Egyptian now."

Another wrote, "Some people feel so inferior that until you look like westerners, you are not civilised. This is inferiority complex of the worst type. They are not proud of anything theirs, they just look to others to define civilisation for them."

In addition to the direct criticisms, there are also sideways remarks.   You can hear the smirk in reports of Najli being only a teenager when she wed her cousin Mohamed.  Those who wish to throw aspersions on her forget that Suzanne Thabet was 17 years old when she married Hosni Mubarak.  Jihan Safwat Raouf was 15 when she married the 31-year-old Anwar Sadat. 

It's really very common place in Egypt for girls to marry young and it is more respectable than odd.  An Egyptian teenage girl marrying is as respectable as an American teenage girl dating.  Likewise, marrying your cousin is very typical.

Yet to be seen is,  "Will she or won't she shake hands of male dignitaries?"  I hope she doesn't.  I know that I don't shake men's hands and I'm better for it.  My marriage is better for it as well.  Alhumdulillah.
So, if she is so controversial in the public eye, why doesn't she simply hide away in the Presidental Palace?  The very first First Lady, Aziza M. Labib, isn't on record as making any public appearances and was rather an invisible wife to General Mohammed Naguib.

The logical First Lady explains why she can't do the same.  “They will say that Mohamed Morsi is hiding his wife because this is how Islamists think.”

Besides, it is good to see the other half of the partnership which the new President of Egypt calls “the biggest personal achievement of my life.”

To learn more about Najla Mahmoud:

Al Arabiya News Egyptian president’s wife rejects ‘first lady’ title with a good overview of First Ladies

The Daily Star An Unlikely First Lady, Egypt president's wife rejects title

New York Times  An Egyptian Everywoman in the Presidental Palace

Telegraph Mohamed Morsi From Cairo to California and Back

Voice of America Future First Lady Discusses Egypt's Future with a transcribed video interview


egyptchick7 said...

You know, when I first saw her, my initial reaction was sorta shock- like is this a "First Lady"??? And then someone on a blog or news media made the excellent point that she looks like the average Egyptian Muslimah- She could be my aunt etc...Proving ever more so that this is democracy at it's best. She is obviously not influenced by money nor power...Good for her and good for Egypt!!!

MarieHarmony said...

Different from the previous President's wives but with her own voice, she looks kind and seem to have exprienced the hardships of life. I hope she will be an exemple for the many women of Egypt.