Unni Wikan, Life among the Poor in Cairo, Tavistock 1980, Price £4.95 (paperback) pp 167.

Unni Wikan’s book is about the effects of poverty on interpersonal relations among the slumdwellers of Cairo and its specific effects on women. It is based on eight months’ fieldwork in one neighbourhood during which the author, an anthropologist, was able to get to know and carefully observe seventeen households linked through ties of community, kinship and reciprocity. The result is a rich fabric of detail about domestic life in a Muslim country which will be of interest to many; but it will disappoint those who argue that a kind of spontaneous feminism characterises the sexually segregated societies of the Middle East, and those who view poverty as a radicalising and equalising force.

The families in Unni Wikan’s study are desperately poor although they are not the poorest of Egypt’s capital city of eight million, where over a million are homeless. They at least have somewhere to live other than cemeteries and sewers, and they have a wage earner in the family. But they live in cramped and unhygienic conditions, whole families often residing in one room. No family has an income sufficient to meet its needs; people are so poor they are afraid to accept hospitality because they are unable to repay it. Miserable though they are, their dreams are not of radical social change, but of advance within the existing system.

In 1972, when the study was completed, the neighbourhood had little good to say about Nasser, the former nationalist leader, or for his brand of socialism. His government like all others was regarded as corrupt and bureaucratic and the slum dwellers rarely availed themselves of the benefits of his public welfare programme: nobody believed that anything cheap or free could be trusted. They longed instead for what they saw as the stability and relative prosperity of life under British rule.

But the focus of the book is not upon this – it is upon the lives of the women in these families. The slum areas with their narrow streets and decaying buildings are the women’s territory and their flats are their domain. The men keep away, spending their time at work or in the cafes. It is unmanly to sit in the home with the women and children. The women are all, in the conventional sense of the term ‘housewives’, dependent on a male wage earner and with little or no income generating activity of their own. Their mornings are spent on housework; the rest of the day and much of the evening is taken up with sustaining, forming or breaking the complex web of alliance with other women which is an integral part of the daily struggle to make ends meet.

In most cases the only wage earners are husbands and fathers, as children generally leave home when they begin to work. For women to enter wage work represents a loss of family honour and reflects badly on the men in the household. The women’s feelings are ambivalent: they do not want to be seen to be forced into wage work by dilatory husbands, yet many complained of being stopped from earning by family pressure. Yet these families live on the brink; every illness, marriage or religious celebration requires additional expenditure and creates a domestic crisis. While it is the men’s responsibility to provide the income, it is the women’s to make sure that what they are given for the housekeeping goes far enough to meet even unexpected additional expenditures.

Survival in these conditions is only possible through borrowing from friends or through finely tuned relations of reciprocity established between friends and relatives. Women’s savings clubs organised by themselves also provide a cushion in situations where the domestic economy is threatened. Most of these arrangements are concealed from the men and the women also try to conceal them from each other; it is shameful to borrow and to have money problems so the women constantly exaggerate the degree to which they are financially secure. But everybody knows, or suspects, the truth because they are all in the same situation.

Yet despite the fact that dire poverty is common to all the inhabitants of the neighbourhood and could conceivably draw them together, it produces the opposite effect of petty competition. Degradation and desperation turns every family into a battleground and renders every friendship precarious through instrumental economic calculation, jealousy and mistrust. The cramped conditions of the living quarters and the absence of privacy exacerbates the situation by creating a paranoid world of door sitters, window peepers and gossips who construct a pervasive system of social control, based on intolerance, suspicion and envy.

If relations between the women are competitive and instrumental, relations between men and women are equally, if not more, fraught. The men are almost guests in their own homes; they often take two jobs to earn enough money for the family’s subsistence and will then work a ten hour day. If they have any leisure time they spend it in the cafes or visiting relatives rather than in their cramped and noisy apartments. Husbands and wives fight continuously over money, the wives trying to secure a larger portion of the wage than that which is given to them. Each suspects the other of cheating, the women with some reason; men rarely disclose their earnings and most men keep a sizeable portion for their own personal use.

One man spent a third of his total monthly wage on his own consumption, £15 out of £51, while the family of eleven, including himself, had to eat, dress and live on what remained. Another man, one of the poorest, kept a family of eight on £23 per month, taking a good fifth for his own purposes. The money men spend on themselves goes on tobacco, occasionally drink, gambling, and on the cafes. It is not even indirectly spent on the family’s behalf. Yet, however much the men and women may fight, they rarely divorce unless the marriage is recent and there are no children.

Children provide both men and women with a stake in staying married. Women are often deprived of their children on divorce as well as losing their source of material support. The social sanctions against women taking independent initiatives such as working for a wage are considerable even though they are under extreme financial pressure to do so. Divorced women are the responsibility of their natal families, so great efforts are made by relatives to reconcile warring couples. From the man’s point of view, the financial penalties of divorce are considerable if there are children, as he assumes responsibility for them. If he re-marries he not only expects to have more children to support, but he must also find the money to pay for the wedding, and the bridewealth, as well as contribute to the costs of setting up a new home. So men and women tend to stay together and to find some kind of modus vivendi, however unsatisfactory.

Although it is not without sympathy and understanding, this is a harsh and unromantic view of the urban poor. It is, of course, unclear as to how far the sample of seventeen families can be seen as representative of the urban poor in Cairo or even of a particular stratum within it. We know that these were not the poorest families in Cairo but we do not know how they compared for example with others, where women were not dependent on a family wage. The extremes of individualism and competitiveness documented in this book contrast with those accounts of urban slums and shanty towns in parts of Latin America which are characterised by female support groups, communal solidarity, warm interpersonal relations and political radicalism. In most cases communal solidarity of this kind has developed through political struggles, the work of community, religious, or political activists, or through forms of rural solidarity transplanted to the towns. In other words it is not the spontaneous correlate of poverty and deprivation.

The social behaviour described by Unni Wikan is not spontaneously generated either, but why it takes the form it does is not adequately explained in her account. While she sees poverty as the main cause, she acknowledges that ‘cultural factors do play a part’; but this observation is not elaborated upon. It would have been interesting to have known more about these cultural and religio-ideological influences as they might help to account for such features as the pronounced gender hierarchy and particular family form characteristic of the households in the study. More intractable, and more worrying for feminists, is the problem of why, in the slums of Cairo, the women are more concerned with defaming each other’s morals through the vicious gossip known as ‘people’s talk’ than with how conditions can be improved through greater co-operation and collective action.