Rural Women, The Heroes Behind Every Village

My mother was 11 years old when she had me, as was her mother when her first child was born.  Both gave everything for us to have a better future. 

I was born in a small village in the south of Egypt almost 30 minutes’ drive from the Valley of the Kings and Queens. My mother, like most of the women of her generation in our village, left school early to marry. As was traditional, her husband - my father - was a relative. 

However, the traditional way of life was disappearing as the population boomed. The farmland could no longer provide a decent life for villages like ours. Fathers had to travel to the Gulf States or Libya or Sudan to work and send money to the mothers back home, raising the children. They became the family executives, responsible for distributing the money, managing land, and being the children’s only mentors. 

In Egypt, the general belief is that no matter who has official ownership of the land, it belongs to the whole family and the father and mother do whatever it takes to provide for everyone. However, this depends on whether the father is responsible and carries out his duties well. If he does not, his wife has few acceptable options for earning a living to provide for her family, and will probably have few life skills and no qualifications to manage a business. This is largely because in Upper Egypt low incomes make parents keen to see their daughters married as soon as possible. But early marriage has adverse effects on a girl’s personal growth, lessens her opportunity to form independent opinions, and makes her implicitly obedient to her husband.

My family was an exception. I was lucky to have a responsible father and grandfather. Even so, my mother and grandmother were both illiterate and my family understood that without education a rural woman has limited opportunities to lift herself and her family out of the spiral of deprivation. So my family invested everything in our education in the hope that we would have good careers. I graduated from New York University and now work for UN Women; among my uncles are a doctor, an accountant, and teachers.   

Seven years ago my grandmother decided to join an evening literacy class. Not an easy task for a mother with seven kids and big household to look after, but she was so persistent. Every night she used to sit on the floor by the winter fire drawing the Arabic alphabet and her name. My grandmother listens to the BBC Arabic Service and Reuters every morning, and in the afternoon she sits with our neighbours analyzing and debating the news and stories she has heard. 

Before my first day at university, my mother talked to me about how she wanted me to live by the same principles by which she and my father have lived. She took a long breath and looked me in the eye and said: “Son, my older son. Do not be a hero! I prefer to see you a coward and alive than brave and a memory. “Your father is good in painting but not in life; he brings enough bread and a few apples in season. We enjoy the flowers we see but we don’t buy them. We do not lie; we do not steal, my son. We live on the edge day by day but never turn down someone in need. You are our older son, the pride of our life: go learn what we missed, fall in love, and come visit us when your heart is broken or indifferent.” 

We do not often hug in our family, and I thought this is a special day. Instead, she handed me a lot of money, smiled through her tears, and left the room.

Photographer & Videographer Credit: Emad Karim

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  • Ria San Gabriel
    Who would have thought that a successful person like you would have this kind of story? The past really does not define the future. Very inspirational, empowering and motivating, especially for families who thrive in a culture with a very patriarchal environment. And look at you taking on full responsibility in giving back to the community! I congratulate your family for upholding the right principles, for valuing education despite difficulties and for shaping the person that you are today.
  • Avabe Initiative
    Very inspiring and motivating story. This is almost the same true story i have that committed me into my little efforts towards humanitarian services today. Honestly, it is a herculean task that not only require financial supports but also needs a lot of self discipline to achieve. I will always be proud to know and be associated with people like you. Well-done to you and all like minds!
  • Dr. Jack Abebe
    That was an inspiring story Emad....it teaches us that no matter your family backgrounds, our destiny could still be bright so long us we live by the great principles of life. I would say that your parents were informally schooled. Informal schooling is as important especially in holding the values of life and in managing key issues in a family. Thanks for sharing.
  • PRITI BHANDARI
    Very inspirational and motivating story of mother and grandmother who seems to be very strong character. My salute to both of them especially zeal of the grandma and your mother to be literate and keeping know how about the world through Reuters and BBC news in the best possible way in circumstances around. The very core of the story once again establish that women enthusiasm and knowledge seep down directly to offspring and generations thereafter. Thanks Emad for Sharing Your Story.
  • John Emmanuel
    The story is touching and inspirational. We do not lie; we do not steal, my son. We live on the edge day by day but never turn down someone in need. . i think your mother built into you the value that is so hard to find today, and what can transform the entire world if everyone is willing to key in. thanks for the story and God bless your mother.
  • Sandra Lombardo
    An amazing and inspirational story Emad, to encourage all women to lead their households with such high values, hard work and dedication. Proud of your mother and you!
  • Caroline Nyadiero
    waaw so touching............, people come from far and such an inspiring advise from your mother."Go learn what we missed" just reminded me of my late mum who once told me " live to make my dream come true on you and never let your children live the life you lived as a child Make a difference"
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