Once a sanctuary for divorced or widowed women, where men are still not allowed, the village has now become an endless cycle of government negligence they can’t escape.
SAMAHA, Egypt — There is a town in southern Egypt, thousands of kilometres from Cairo, that is exclusively for divorced and widowed women. Men, married women and single mothers are barred from entry, not allowed to live in this remote town.
To see how this informal microcosm works, you would need to take a train from the heart of Cairo to Aswan, which is 1,202 km away in southern Egypt, and then another bus to get you to Edfu, another 67 km away.
The further you get from Cairo, the harder the journey becomes. It’s tricky to hitch a ride from Edfu to Wadi Al Saaydeh, from where, if you’re lucky, you might find a pickup truck willing to take you on the unpaved roads that eventually lead to Samaha, where low-lying brick houses fan out around the partly-tarred roads that cut through the sparse landscape.
Breaking old norms
Married life is considered central to stability, especially in Upper Egypt, where marriage is sanctified. Therein there are some who arguably worship the role of women as wives and caretakers, their roles being to preserve sacred family relations, reflecting a society that firmly enforces inherited traditions and norms.
The divorced and widowed women of Samaha village usually get up very early in the morning, bearing their poleaxes over their shoulders. They farm and harvest throughout the day, and in the evening, sit in front of their houses watching over their children. Such is the meticulously structured lives of these women.
It does not come easy for those women, particularly considering some of the pressures the gender bias in Egypt places them under. For example, the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture enabled these female-only households to have lands they could depend on to earn a living. To have full ownership of the land, they must have resided there for at least 15 years.
Experiences in the village
Children playing with cattle, elderly women and one-floor houses with small barns for poultry greet you as you first set foot therein. Abandoned schools litter the village, with teachers and students having long since deserted.
Um Mohamed, one of the women who benefited from the ministry’s project, sits under a wicker umbrella. The 62-year-old came to the village from Aswan after her husband died, leaving four children under her care, the eldest in preparatory school. She had no means of income when she applied to the project and to her surprise, she was granted six whole feddans, and has been working them since, growing rice and wheat, as well as hibiscus. One Egyptian feddan is the equivalent of 1.038 acres.
In the next house, 59-year-old Hanem Hussein shepherds her only cow. She had been worried at first about living in this desert, but life had not given them the “luxury of choosing,” as she said. She was afraid that, without a local police station and access to transport, that she could not live or protect herself and her children in this village, which was completely empty at the time, forcing her to rebuild her life from nothing.
Forced to deal with such challenges, these women took it upon themselves to defy tough circumstances and forge a life for themselves and their families encouraged by each other. Some felt more confident in their decision to rebuild their lives in the village in that they felt able to protect and provide for their children, Hussein explained.
Saadeya, 65 years old, takes a seat near a little pond, and reflects on her journey. She came to the village more than 20 years ago and back then, when she paid EGP 35,000 to the government for the land, it was a desolate patch of land, so empty they did not have shelter from the burning sun until they completed the construction of their houses. The current government has not announced that any land or homes are for sale in the village, meaning no one has joined the village in some time.
“Each [one of us] paid the required money to the government. Some women could not afford to so they borrowed from each other or sold whatever they owned, cattle or jewellery,” she clarified.
Many challenges faced the residents of the village over time, with perseverance and patience getting them through. Not only did they need to build the village from scratch, they were situated in an area that was at constant risk of flooding.
According to Karima, who has been a resident of the village for 14 years, women and children do not have adequate means of transportation. It can be difficult to get to Edfu, especially if they require access to health facilities or need to do any shopping.
She added that since they acquired the lands in the late 90s, 339 divorced and widowed women have joined the village, living there with their children.
Work can range from farming and shepherding to running small businesses such as grocery shops, with the village building a reputation for cultivating Hibiscus, which is then sold in Edfu.
There are now more than 100 children who are growing up in the village, helping their mothers with the farming and harvesting the Hibiscus crops. However, they have no access to education or healthcare, mainly due to their social conditions and inability to travel long distances to attend schools outside of the village.
Mahmoud Ali, a 16-year-old student, has to make a daily trip of 35 km to go to school because the one that was built in the village has been closed due to the irregularity of teachers’ availability, once again due to lack of transportation.
Most of the teachers live at least 30 km from the village and earn insufficient wages. Ali said his family has been obliged to pay for his education, increasing the financial burden on his mother since his father abandoned them. Eventually the family needed him to work again, forcing him to abandon his education to contribute to a daily family income which barely reaches EGP 30 or $1.68.
As for 60-year-old Fatma, she came to the village 17 years ago with two sons and a daughter. Her eldest son, she said, married and left the village with his family because of the low quality of services there. Her second son has been depressed, given difficult circumstances. To pay for his mental health, he has been working in the field with wheat and hibiscus.
“We will never be able to cover our needs in food and drinks decently due to problems in accessing irrigation water, which is affecting our agricultural crops,” Fatma said, adding that they are facing further difficulty in sourcing clean water for drinking and showering.
A changing political scenario
Samaha was the first village in which the ministry decided to implement a project to encourage women’s work in agriculture, in 1997. The ministry allocated nearly 303 divorced or widowed woman a total of 1,818 feddans (1,887 acres), with an average of 6 feddans (6.2 acres) for each. This comes amid a project for 5,000 other villages which include Al Shahama, Amr Ibn Alas, Al Iman, Al Ishraf and Al Nemuw villages.
The women’s project in the village of Samaha was part of the Agriculture Ministry’s allocation of lands under the Wadi Al Sayyadeh’s program for young graduates, with the purpose of cultivating 24,000 feddans (24,912 acres) in the area.
Although the government has subsidised the Samaha village women’s one-floor houses and enabled them to pay back small loans, they are at risk of losing their land and homes if they remarry, as they would have violated the conditions of living in the village, making it difficult to see a way out for some.
Although the Egyptian Government initially had good intentions with the project, it has become a trap for the women currently feeling stuck there. Hindered by government negligence, such as in the lack of clean drinking water, healthcare, sanitation and access to transport and education, the village has pushed the women into an exile of sorts. They are now seeking to escape whenever they have a chance.