Dear Mansoura Ez-Eldin,
We're going to be chatting on here for a while – isn't that great!
But who are "we"? Two women, for sure, but that's not all, of course. We've both studied (you journalism, me education and sociology), and we both write, although you write more beautifully than I do. Language is for both of us a means of grappling with the world. Now the differences. The first is obvious: We come from two different cultural spheres. The second difference is revealed upon sight of our photos: We come from two different generations, I'm 22 years older than you (but please keep it to yourself!).
Does age matter? I think it does, but not necessarily in the sense that it has to divide us. My age means I can personally look back on a longer phase of the ongoing fight for women's rights, in particular the fight in the West, and that sometimes guards me against hypocrisy and presumptuousness in dealings with non-Western societies.
So that you understand what I mean by that, I'd like to tell you a short personal story: In my secondary school class I was the first girl ever to come to school in trousers. I went to a girls' school, and all the girls wore skirts, the teachers did as well of course. When I was 11 years old, I nagged my mother so much she eventually had to buy me a pair of trousers. They were flared and made out of a thick brown material, with a severe crease; sort of like men's trousers. I've never forgotten the first time I wore them to school. Because the material was so stiff, I walked like a solider on parade – and I was terribly proud.
That was in the 1960s; these days, many people have no idea how conservative customs were in the "liberal West". Not that a pair of trousers was that revolutionary. But smalltown girls back then simply didn't show what was shamefully referred to in German as the "Schritt", or "crotch". So actually it wasn't that long ago that we had a dress code here that it was taboo to break. This dress code didn't have anything to do with religion, but with social perceptions of what a woman was allowed to do.
Forgive me if this little foray into the past has gone on a little too long and I've bored you. To give you a more rounded impression of who I am, I'd like to add that I lived in Malaysia for several years and then, as a journalist, visited a whole series of Islamic countries, from Iran to Mali. I published two books during this time, and I'm currently working on a third, which grapples with the Eurocentric view of the world in consideration of my own experience within various cultures. What interests me most is the psychological aspect and the question of to what extent we can emancipate ourselves from our individual influences. But that's enough about me!
Dear Mansura, you certainly won't have time to write books at the moment, what with all the dramatic events happening in Egypt right now. I'm following the news with bated breath. As my first letter will hopefully reach you before the presidential elections, I'd like to ask you: Where are the women, the female candidates everyone was talking about a few months ago? Just like you, I don't subscribe to the illusory view that a woman could become president in Egypt at the present time. But standing for election was indeed an encouraging sign that some women are beginning to question what has up to now been taken for granted. What do you think?
With warm greetings from Berlin,
[Excerpt—See accompanying URL for the full original dialogue]