Egypt: The Voice of Divorced Women


Mahasin Saber wants her "Radio for divorced women" to put the spotlight on the serious deficits in the male-dominated Egyptian society, and to make people aware of the discrimination suffered by women. So far, she's succeeding. Nelly Youssef visited her in Cairo. Motakalat Radio confronts social taboos and men's assumptions about women | "Welcome! You're listening to 'Radio for divorced women' in Cairo ... a new life listening to what your heart tells you … a space to speak and to listen." Those were the words with which Mahasin Saber went on air for the first time at the beginning of the year.

She founded her "Radio for divorced women" ("Motalakat Radio") as a spin-off of her blog "I want a divorce." She founded the blog two years ago after her own divorce, and used it to report on her long march through the various institutions on her way to getting her divorce.

She blogged: "When a marriage no longer offers any safety, when a feeling of security is an unattainable dream, then breaking the bonds of marriage becomes a solution for which one yearns."

How did Mahasin Saber move from her successful blog to the idea of setting up her own internet radio? "Egyptians listen more than they read," she says. And certainly now, more people listen to her radio than read her blog.

Volunteers committed to fight prejudice

Saber wants to break down prejudice by giving divorced women a voice and removing inaccurate perceptions. That way, she wants to give space to allow women who have been affected by the problem to win respect in society. She tries to overcome the usual cliché that divorced women are a "disgrace."

Even if divorce represents a personal failure, a woman has to be able to leave this negative experience behind her and take on a positive role in society.

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The station now has 23 staff, who are not all divorced women; as well as single and married women, the team includes men, since they make up part of the target audience
Mahasin Saber also wants "to promote treatment for the psychological problems of divorced women after their separation, and to use the radio to give women the opportunity to express their feelings."

Twenty-three people work for the station; not all of them are divorced, not all of them are even women. The team also includes men, since men make up part of the target audience.

Saber, a 30-year-old with a degree in history, points out that the people working on the project do so out of commitment. They don't get paid, because there isn't any money. There's no office or studio. Each presenter makes his or her programme at home and uploads it to the station's homepage. The public can respond via e-mail or on Facebook.

An affront to conservative Egyptians

In spite of Motalakat Radio's very modest finances and the fact that the station has only existed for three months, it already has proved very popular, not least because of the interest of the conventional media in the project.

In almost every Egyptian family nowadays there's a divorced woman, and so the station reaches a wide public of both sexes. The divorce rate in Egypt is at an all-time high – the official statistics say there's a divorce every six minutes – so it's no surprise that the station meets a need.

The high divorce rate may well be due to the prevalence of early marriages, which take place as a result of family pressure or of a woman's fear that she will be regarded as an "old maid" if she doesn't get married soon.

But Egyptian society is dominated by conservative views, and a station like Motalakat Radio, which is both provocative and courageous, is seen as scandalous. Some men see it as an open call to women to seek a divorce and rebel against their husbands. Women's rights activism is seen by them as sowing the seeds of a culture of family discord.

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Mahasin Saber's Motakalat Radio has met with a mainly positive response: she plans to expand its operations and open a television station
On the other side there are the station's supporters – especially those women who see the station as a chance to turn their own tragic experience into something positive. They want to create public awareness of the problem and overcome the psychological and social barriers with which divorced women have to struggle.

Saber says she's open to criticism: she has a hard task, since she wants to change things, "and you can't do that overnight."

She explains the attacks on her as an attempt to defend old traditions: "We criticise traditions and customs which Egyptians take in with their mother's milk. A divorced woman is seen here as something bad, and as a result, she hasn't got a right to say what she thinks – let alone to open a radio station!"

Broad spectrum of counselling and information

She sees the first signs of social change in the fact that men also respond to what's on the radio. "Some people believe we only let women on the air if they are complaining about their fate or wanting to overturn the men's world," she says.

For example, there's a programme called "Before you say yes to divorce," which is directed at married women, and which tries to warn them against the mistakes which divorced women have made. Another programme is called "Oh, how misunderstood we are!" which looks at how divorced women deal with the daily burdens and the daily harassment to which they are subjected as they have repeatedly to justify their position.

In addition there are programmes like "How do I bring up my children" and "Stories from under the bed" in which divorced women can find out from psychologists and sociologists how to make the best of their children's education or how to help them come to terms with their parents' divorce.

The station also deals with the psychological problems which women may have as a result of their divorce, and with ways of turning these negative experiences into something positive. There are also programmes for young people like "Girls' heart" or "Facebu'" in which a young student of medicine makes fun of the latest trends in Facebook.

Saber says that among the main reasons for divorce in Egypt are violence against women and men leaving their wives. Most of the women she has had to do with, either in court, or in connection with the station, have been physically abused or abandoned by their husbands.

Nelly Youssef

© 2010

Translation: Michael Lawton