On the streets of Cairo, Lamia Hamdin, an Egyptian journalist for private Egypt station ON TV, was photographed holding her baby while doing interviews. The photos went viral on social media and triggered a flurry of responses. Some praised her as an ideal mother, while others called her behavior unprofessional. Hamdin said, “I was struggling and he had to go thru this with me, it was no picnic.”
The story of Hamdin and her son has evoked many of my own childhood memories. For years, I was in the same position as Hamdin’s baby, accompanying my mother to work. And yes, it was no picnic. In an over-populated country like Egypt, with very few kindergartens, and even fewer babysitting services, mothers have always been torn between their motherhood duties and work obligations. Following the sudden death of my father, my mother faced the same dilemma; she had to work (spouse pensions were peanuts), but also had to look after me. My grandmother helped initially, but fell ill. With a limited support network, my mother opted for a bolder move; she took me with her to work when help was not available.
The details are still vivid in my memories. It always started and finished with a dreadful bus/or metro journey from home to work and back. I used to count the stations, memorize their names, and ask my mother endless questions about their meanings, which she patiently answered.
The tricky part was during working hours. It was no fun for a young child, but children can also adapt quickly. Like Hamdin’s baby who clearly did not scream or fuss during the interview, I also learned not to moan while my mother was working. In return, my mother tried everything she could to keep me entertained and occupied. She supplied me with drawing pens, paper, and many books. After she noticed that I enjoyed reading, she joined the nearby public library to secure a good supply of books. In addition, she used to give me blank paper, encouraging me to write my thoughts about every book I read, and to reflect on what I had learned.
Just as Hamdin faced criticism and harsh remarks with the circulation of her photos, some too were unkind to my mother. The blame was mainly focused on her staying single, and not finding a husband that can “save her the hassle.” My mother, however, was defiant, graceful, and always stood her ground.
The images of mothers, carrying their children to work symbolize a bold type of feminism that some do not find acceptable. The images of Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli in Strasburg parliament reflect a unique sort of defiance from a woman proud of both her baby and her career. For some, that is too much, they want to force women into an unpalatable either/or choice. That should not be the case. Our society should be supportive to its women, without bullying, criticism, or social pressure to stay at home.
Egypt has always had tenacious women that have defied stereotypes, and in particular many fought hard to support their families. Last month, Egypt honored a woman, Sisa Abu Daooh, from Upper Egypt who, after her husband died, disguised herself as a man for 43 years in order to make a living for her daughter. From street vendors to top professional jobs, women are everywhere in Egypt fighting to earn a living and support themselves and their families.
With hindsight, my days at work with my mother have shaped my life immensely and in a positive way. I gained knowledge, and learned to reflect. It has also helped me to be observant of _ frankly everything _ from nature and architecture to people and their social behavior. More importantly, it helped me to develop a sense of responsibility at a very tender age.
The newspaper, Al-Watan, has quoted Lamia Hamden as saying that she has received a supportive phone call from the presidential team. Another report suggests that the president may meet Hamdin soon. That is encouraging, however, a small social gesture is not enough to help millions of hard-working Egyptian women. More needs to be done to support working mothers, from better maternity-leave contracts to various social support programs sponsored by the government and private institutions. It is about time that Egypt invests in its working mothers, as they are tremendous assets to the society.