Magda al-Nowaihi Graduate Student Awardee Examines Dating in Cairo
Young women in Bulaq al-Dakrur, a low-income neighborhood in Giza, have become increasingly mobile, whether because of school or jobs, and as a result, have become more independent in seeking romantic relationships, particularly outside their neighborhood.
These observations were part of the graduate thesis, “Urban Geographies of Romance: Meeting and Mating in Cairo,” by Elaine Van Dalen ’14, a Middle East studies master’s student and this year’s recipient of the Magda al-Nowaihi Graduate Student Award in Gender Studies, which recognizes student theses that focus on gender issues in any discipline. Van Dalen received the award at the annual ceremony that was held on May 12, 2014.
“Marriage is a well-researched domain in Egyptian gender research, yet, Elaine’s spatial analysis, phenomenological framework and outstanding fieldwork constitute an original contribution to the field," said Martina Rieker, director of the Cynthia Nelson Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies, which administers the award.
Van Dalen spent a year collecting information on the ways in which young people in the informal neighborhood of Bulaq al-Dakrur meet and date. Much of her research depended on speaking directly with young women from the area. Her main focus was how young people use social space to meet and go on romantic outings. “I brought in the angle of the neoliberal city and how a city like Cairo provides spaces where people within a neighborhood have to act one way, and on the other hand, it provides space where they can go out and have some freedom,” Van Dalen explained.
She added, “The people that we see walking along Qasr El Nil bridge, for example, come from these informal areas with lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Such places outside their neighborhoods give them the freedom to hang out with each other. The places are close for them, and it’s cheap to get there. At the same time, these spaces provide anonymity.”
The freedom these couples experience outside of Bulaq al-Dakrur is something they cannot do within the neighborhood. “It enables them to act differently,” Van Dalen affirmed.
However, she also observed how this independence receded following marriage. “Once they marry, these women become very obedient toward their husbands and are fine with never leaving the neighborhood anymore and sitting at home most of the time,” she noted. “Their husbands restrict the mobility that they previously had.”
Established in 2003, the Magda al-Nowaihi Graduate Student Award in Gender Studies was named in memory of Magda al-Nowaihi, a 1978 graduate of English literature from AUC who made lasting contributions to the fields of Arabic literature and gender studies. Al-Nowaihi, who passed away in 2002, was associate professor of Arabic literature at Columbia University. “The most important thing about the Magda al-Nowaihi award is that it brings together and showcases theses in gender studies across departments and centers at AUC, and that’s very exciting,” said Rieker. “It’s also the only award that a student can receive in gender studies in any discipline on campus, so it’s an honor and people are excited to receive it.”