“Would you consider yourself to be a closed minded woman, Injy?” was Oprah’s first question addressed to me on her episode on marriage around the world, broadcast live from Chicago on 13 January and first aired in the Middle East exactly two days ago, on the 26th. She had asked me the question teasingly, with a girlish look on her face, a suppressed giggle and a mischievous bob of the head. Her semi-rhetorical query, and my answer, made us both share a laugh that was to set the tone for the rest of our encounter: reciprocal esteem, underlying the mutual awareness of our cultural differences, and the consciousness of the significant role our conversation would come to bear on the global community. The Oprah Winfrey Show is, after all, the most popular talk show in the world today.
“How did you land this?” a friend had asked me when she heard I was interviewed on Oprah; “It landed on me!” I blurted excitedly, recounting how it all happened. It was a perfectly regular afternoon. I was sitting at my laptop, fiddling with my photography, when the cell phone’s ringing drilled through Anouar Brahem’s piano wafting in the beautiful afternoon light bathing the apartment. A dear friend on the line asked in a haste: “Oprah is looking for Egyptian women for an episode about divorce and marriage, are you interested?” Sure, why not, had been my casual reply. Little did I realise, at that initial moment, the seriousness of my answer.
A producer, Lindsey, called from Chicago on the same day to chat for what I assumed to be a preliminary interview. The line was terrible; we resorted to Skype – my first experience with the ingenious software. Curled up on my couch in Cairo, I was bombarded with question after question on Egyptian women, and it suddenly dawned on me – as I labored to offer as comprehensive and clear answers as possible to this American lady who was clueless about life over here – that social, religious and cultural dimensions of life in Egypt were even more complicated and contradictory than I had hitherto thought. I ventured to explain to Lindsey that “when you say ‘Egyptian women’, you refer to one entity whereas, in truth, it is constituted of so many different layers that to answer any of your questions comprehensively could take hours; religion, as a set of rules, versus its current application in Egypt, could take days.” Lindsey was surprised, but hopeful that we could still shed some light upon these matters to Oprah’s wide public, who was just as clueless as she was about life in Egypt. “Anything you say will provide at least some information; we know so very little, in the West, about how things really work in Egypt, the Middle East and Islam,” she encouraged.
It is then that the sheer magnitude of the responsibility I would be assuming if I participated in this episode appeared to me – overwhelming. At a time when misconceptions, misrepresentations and mistrust all but rule the relationship between the Western world and the Middle East, every word I say would bear the potential to either bridge the gap a little, or widen it. Despite the responsibility it placed over my shoulders, or maybe because of it, I realised that I must embrace this opportunity. I prayed; for three days, I prayed, asking God to guide my words and to make of me a means through which understanding and respect between the two polar worlds could increase, if only a little bit. Let there be love.
Stage one of the episode’s segment on Egypt took the form of a round table discussion between sexologist Dr Heba Qutb, environmental economist Dr Hala Abou-Ali, interior designer Heba Shunbo, and yours truly, moderated by Nanna Norup, a lovely Danish lady whose participation Oprah had requested in order to draw contrast between the cultures. For over two hours, at Dr Qutb’s home, we spoke of premarital sex, divorce, marriage, the veil and all their entwined subtopics including education, employment, intramarital financial dependence and single parenting. There were many laughs, but also moments of tension engendered by a couple of judgmental remarks – an increasing feature of so-called “religiosity” in Egypt – that served no purpose other than feed Western perception of Islam as a rigid and prejudiced religion. I hoped that said remarks would be edited out of the show, as we were informed that only about eight minutes of our discussion were to feature in the episode to be seen around the world. Sadly, they stayed.
The big day was finally upon us in stage two: Skype interview with Oprah, live. I experienced a strange combination of serenity and nervousness: I was internally calm, yet my hands remained icy. The world would be watching. The crew adjusting the light in the studio, setting up the camera and microphone to connect them with Skype provided welcome distractions until 4.55pm Cairo time. Then the countdown began and, five minutes later, in walked Oprah on the studio plateau to applause. I thought the audience could hear my heart beating in my chest all the way in Chicago.
Lady O was her usual welcoming and casual self, deflating the apprehension we were experiencing on the Nile Corniche studio as we anticipated the questions. The producers’ choice of interviewees had settled on Heba Shunbo and me – each of us representing a different Egyptian female voice, for a more realistic demonstration of the complex fabric of current local society. I had already answered questions about my hijab during the stage one discussion, and knew I could expect more to pop. I was right. The local disagreement about the necessity of the veil in Islam, the women who wear it without any conscious understanding of it but out of cultural conformity, the girls who adopt it over highly suggestive clothing and heavy make-up, those who take it to self-imposed extremes never required of them and the back and forth judgments cast among them all understandably confuses the West. Nor does the current Muslim world’s slipping into a general focus on appearances and neglect of spiritual essence, translated into behavioral trends that are often self-sabotaging, help in advancing its cause at all. Of course they are confused. We are confused.
It is quite telling, and closer to an accurate image of Egypt, that Oprah’s questions elicited two opposing answers from her two Egyptian guests almost invariably. What seemed to come as a surprise to Oprah, however, was that the veiled woman felt the less “repressed” of the two. “Do you feel oppressed, Injy?” My honest answer was “no”. Coming back for more, O asked again, “But do you wish you had more freedoms, Injy?” Again, in all honesty, “no” – “Fill a room with women from around the world,” I told Oprah, “and you will find that Egyptian women are just as qualified to compete ‘as a woman’ on all levels as any other, if not more. We are educated, we have a mind of our own…we have our obstacles and our challenges but we are perfectly ‘capable’, as women.”
Divorce in Egypt, which, according to Norup, was found to have reached the highest rate in the entire Middle East, was another hot topic. My answer to Oprah’s question as to why so many marriages ended in divorce these days was simple: “Men are no longer really men any more, nor are women really women. There is a serious identity crisis here. Men and women still have a prototype, in their heads, of what a man should be like and what a woman should be like. Neither of them complies with this prototype, yet each of them expects the other to comply with the prototype. The result is disillusionment, frustration, and, hence, divorce.” The more I spoke, the more I realised how confused our society had really become.
Oprah, who sent me a beautiful gift following our encounter, described our conversation as “fascinating”. The world now has a clearer perception of today’s Egypt. My wish is that my fellow countrymen, briefly in the global spotlight by proxy in every home around the world that watches the Oprah Winfrey Show, would seize this opportunity to take an objective glimpse at themselves through the answers provided on the show – whether they agreed with them or not – by attempting to answer them themselves. Why do women wear the veil? Why is divorce on the rise? Why do men and women not comply with the prototypes they still retain of each other in their collective unconscious and what are they replacing them with? Why is the economy not helping young couples marry at a reasonable age for sexual gratification in an Islamic country? Why do we judge the West while we lack basic understanding of our own culture? And why, just why, do we judge each other when we have so much work to do on ourselves?