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Cairo streets where girls dress as boys to eke out a living

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Life is hard for the children who scrape a living on Egypt’s streets.
They deal daily with horror and hunger, but for the girls the struggle
is worse – which is why some of them dress as boys. PATRICK KINGSLEY
hears their stories.

The Cairo streets where girls pretend to be boys Life is hard for the
children who scrape a living on Egypt’s streets. They deal daily with
horror and hunger, but for the girls the struggle is worse – which is
why some of them dress as boys. Patrick Kingsley hears their stories.
‘It’s not just girls on the street. It’s whole families now’: a young
mother and her son at the Hope Village shelter in Cairo.
Manal and Ahmed don’t look alike. Manal holds her infant son, who
plays with the folds of her hijab. Ahmed looms from a photograph
behind her, a baseball cap on his head. Manal is a shy young mum,
Ahmed an aggressive young man. They seem like different people.
Except, they’re the same person. “That,” says Manal, pointing at the
picture of Ahmed, “is me. And my boys’ clothes are downstairs.”
We are in a shelter for homeless women in Fustat, southern Cairo, the
oldest district in the Egyptian capital. Not far away stands Cairo’s
oldest mosque. A few of the women here, on the other hand, are
examples of a much more contemporary phenomenon.
They are street girls – homeless women and children – who sometimes
dress as men. Now 23, Manal is the mother of three children, all born
on the street. She first became homeless when she was only eight years
old. At 10, she shaved her head, and started dressing as a boy. Then
she started taking jobs traditionally reserved for Egyptian men. She
worked in a café. She drove a tuk-tuk. People who didn’t know her
started calling her Ahmed. The name stuck.
“Boys get complete freedom on the streets – it’s different for girls,”
Manal says of her choice. “I just wanted to be a boy.”
To understand why, or at least to try, is to understand a little of
what it is to be a child living on the street in Egypt. There are
homeless young people in every country of the world – including 1.6
million in the US alone. But the problem is particularly obvious in
Egypt. Thousands of children and teenagers eke out an existence in the
alleys and thoroughfares of Cairo. Many of them, like Manal, stay
there even into adulthood.
To many Cairenes, they are only visible at traffic lights or on the
curb outside shisha bars. They are the nameless faces who sell you
tissues or beg for change from the other side of your car window,
before disappearing in the vanishing-point of your wing mirror. They
fall outside of most Cairenes’ lived reality, and as a result the
discourse surrounding them also borders on the surreal. Mooted
responses to their existence have ranged from the far-fetched – the
creation of a special city just for the homeless – to the macabre. One
columnist for a leading private broadsheet called for “widespread
cleansing campaigns” in which street children could be “executed like
stray dogs”.
Amid this hue and cry, the humans concerned are rarely heard from. And
it is attempting to hear their stories that brings us to Manal and her
comrades, to the social workers and psychiatrists who work with them,
and the schools and shelters they sometimes frequent. It is work that
leads from the streets in the shadow of Egypt’s presidential palace,
to the road to the pyramids. From the cliffs of Mokattam, Cairo’s only
hill, to ancient Fustat.
There in Fustat, amid the warren of streets where once stood Egypt’s
first Islamic capital, sits a modern four-storey terraced house.
Indistinguishable from the rest of the street, it has special
significance for children and young people who sleep rough. This is
one of the centres run by Banati, a charity for street girls, and it
offers respite by day, and occasionally by night, to the likes of
Manal and her friend Hadeel.
With a quick wit and an easy grin, Hadeel does not give the impression
that she has had a hard life. But her story hints at the complexity
and intractability of street life. She ran away from home at eight,
and two decades later she is still homeless. She has had at least two
marriages, each ending with her returning to the street, and in one
case, in the murder of her husband. She has six children, two of whom
live with her, while the rest are with their grandmother, who also
lives on the street. Born outside the system, the kids have no birth
certificates, and so no ID cards. To the state, they essentially don’t
exist. So whether they like it or not, the life of their mother and
grandmother is likely to become theirs, too.
“Right now, we’re working on the third generation of street kids,”
says Hend Samy, a social-worker at Banati, who’s known Hadeel for
years. “Now it’s not just girls on the street or boys on the street.
Now it’s families, and they’re creating families on the street.”
How many people are in the position of Hadeel’s children, no one can
quite agree. In January, the government released the results of a
survey that said Egypt has little more than 16,000 street kids –
16,019 to be exact. But as recently as 2007, Unicef estimated there
were at least 600,000.
“You can never know the real number, because you can’t track the
children,” says Nelly Ali, a volunteer who works with street girls,
and is writing a PhD about their experiences. “They move around. They
don’t have birth certificates. And they die.”
Born outside the system, the kids have no birth certificates and so no
ID. To the state, they don’t exist
The discrepancy is also a question of definition. No one agrees on
what a street child actually is – not even the children themselves.
There are those who are as young as six, and those closer to 16, not
to mention superannuated street children like Manal and Hadeel. There
are children who weave through Cairo’s streets by day, badgering
shisha smokers for loose change – before returning home to their
parents each night. There are the children who run away from home from
time to time, before returning a few nights later. And then there are
those who have made a conscious choice to leave home permanently.
For Ghada Waly, the government minister who released the 16,000
figure, this is the definition that makes most sense. Street children,
she says over coffee in her office, are those who “left the
governorate where the family is, and lost ties with the family. These
sleep under bridges, [in] empty homes. These are the children who are
most at risk. These are the ones we surveyed.”
But ask people on the street themselves, and you might get a different
answer each time. Manal thinks the concept is much more fluid than the
government makes out. A boy who spends most of his day in the street,
and is part of the street’s complex hierarchy, is still a street kid
“even if he goes home every day,” says Manal. “He’s part of the group
on the street, he’s in the street, so of course, you can call him a
street kid.”
Another street girl even thinks the term is only for “ignorant people”
in the first place. It implies, says 15-year-old Nadia, that street
children are all the same. But, in fact, street children each differ
in terms of age, gender and background – differences that mean each
child’s experience on the street is unique.
“There is no such thing as ‘street children’, no ‘street boy’ or
‘street girl’,” Nadia told Amira El Feky, a researcher on street
girls. “The street doesn’t give birth, it doesn’t raise children, it
doesn’t do anything.”
The cliffs of Mokattam jut unexpectedly from the suburbs of eastern
Cairo, rare topographical landmarks in a city that is otherwise flat.
At Mokattam’s highest point stands one of the outposts of a charity
called Hope Village, said to be the first in Egypt to focus on street
children. Down a quiet residential street, and high above many more,
the house seems a world away from the melee of Cairo. But inside its
walls, it nurses some of those most bruised by the city.
It is here that around a dozen teenage mothers are given respite from
the street, and a safe space to raise their babies. And if few can
agree on when exactly it is that someone becomes a street child, the
stories of these women give a clearer sense of why some of them want
to go there in the first place.
Years before she reached Hope Village, Maya left home at seven after
she says her stepmother confined her to an imaginary circle in a
single room for three years – a space in which she had to eat, sleep,
and excrete. Finally let out, she was forced to become a maid for her
younger half-sisters. A mistake in the kitchen brought further
punishment: her stepmother cracked her skull with a garlic-crusher,
before her father dragged her to the roof for a beating. Enough was
enough and she left soon after.
Twelve-year-old Farah refused to join her uncle’s prostitution ring.
By her account, he then chained Farah up and raped her every day for
months. Then one day she pretended she would do what he wanted. So he
unchained her, and immediately she sprinted to the fourth-floor
window, flung herself out, and broke several bones on landing.
Miraculously she survived, and was hospitalised. After leaving
hospital, she moved to the street.
Perhaps surprisingly, poverty is not typically something that in and
of itself draws children to Egyptian streets. “Poverty is one of the
things that causes families to become abusive,” says Mahmoud Ahmed,
the centre’s manager. But it isn’t itself a primary cause – unlike
repeated sexual abuse, or family breakdown. “A lot of the kids on the
street in Cairo have siblings who are still at home,” says Nelly Ali,
who has interviewed many of those who live at Hope, and who first
recounted the stories of Maya and Farah. “If it was just about
poverty, they’d all be on the streets.”
Society’s permissive attitude to domestic abuse is also a contributing
factor to a child’s decision to run away. There are laws to deal with
abusive parents, and hotlines to report them. But in a culture where
many feel parents should have the right to deal with their children
how they like, legislation isn’t always followed. “A man could beat
his son to death in front of a police officer in the street,” explains
Shaimaa, an in-house psychologist at Hope. “But nobody would intervene
because it was his son.”
As a result, the street may literally become the only avenue left to
abused children. And once there they become fair game for adults other
than their parents.
It is 9.30pm and long past dark. Shaimaa, the psychologist, is in
northeast Cairo, walking the streets of an upmarket suburb. Wealthy
locals sip coffee at tables lining the pavements, or queue to buy ice
cream from one of the city’s fanciest parlours.
If I go to help a girl being used by a group of men, then I’m a
target. I’m taking a source of income from them
But Shaimaa is not here to meet them. As she often is, Shaimaa is
searching for a missing teenager. Sarah was abused by her parents,
became a prostitute, and ended up sold by her pimp to men from the
Gulf who kept her in a flat in Cairo. Somehow she escaped, and later
started turning up at a drop-in centre, where Shaimaa first met her.
But now Sarah has disappeared again, and Shaimaa wants to find her.
Some of the other street girls said she might be here in Korba.
It is often dangerous work, doing what Shaimaa does. Founded in 1988
by an expat Brit, Richard Hemsley, Hope Village now runs several
day-centres and long-term shelters that aim to gradually rehabilitate
street children back into mainstream society. Many of the girls
Shaimaa coaxes into the shelters can’t stand the imposition of a
routine – so, like Sarah, they sometimes disappear. One of Shaimaa’s
jobs is to find them.
But finding them is tough. Coaxing a girl back to the shelter might
disrupt a prostitution ring. In any given area, Shaimaa needs the
blessing of the local street leader – otherwise she might get
attacked. “If I’m going out to get a girl that I know is being used by
a group of men, then I’m a target,” Shaimaa says. “I’m taking a source
of income from them.”
Sometimes the attackers come to the shelters themselves. At one
drop-in centre, four men once entered with machetes and said if a
certain girl wasn’t returned to them, they’d cut everyone’s heads off.
And, occasionally, the threat comes from the girls themselves. In a
fit of self-loathing, one teenager staying at a shelter stormed out of
a group meeting, took out a blade and began to cut herself, slashing
Shaimaa when she came near. As a matter of course, Shaimaa and her
colleagues at Hope Village have bi-annual check-ups and immunisations
against various diseases. Some of the girls they work with are HIV
positive, or suffer from hepatitis