CAIRO: Linguistically speaking, the Arabic word Al-Aanis is defined in three different ways in the Arabic dictionary – none of which are relevant to the way it is socially defined in Egypt
One of the correct definitions of the word is a strong female camel. However, women in Egypt need not be flattered when referred to as a “aanis, because in Egyptian culture this refers to a woman who is of a certain age and is still single – the equivalent of a spinster.
The qualifying age for the term differs from one society to another. In rural areas it could be any age between 18 to 30, yet the bar is set higher in the city. In many cases, awanis (the plural form) are the subject of rumors, suspicion and even pity from strangers as well as family and friends.
Aawanis Men Agl Al-Taghier, or Spinsters for Change, is a social group founded by Egyptian journalist Youmna Mokhtar, in an effort to combat the social stigmas attached with the label.
“I started the group to initiate a dialogue among women to discuss how we can change that social [perception], Mokhtar, 27, told Daily News Egypt.
The group is against the social labeling and ill-treatment of unmarried women and aims to change the negative social categorization of single women.
“Although the group is called Aawanis for Change, I am against the label.
Still, we used it to name the group because it is the term people use, Mokhtar explains. “First, we thought of calling it Girls for Change but it was not going to deliver the same meaning, she laughs.
“Still, there are more important things than the name, it is the pattern of behaviors that comes with it, Mokhtar said.
“The family puts a lot of pressure on the girl to get married, and then the pressure turns into insults and condescending [remarks]. Then they [accuse her of] being snobby for rejecting men, Mokhtar explained.
She added that if all else fails, the parents rely on the “fear factor, by intimidating the girl into thinking that she is going to stay single forever, and will be the last girl standing among her friends.
According to Mokhtar, the pressure is on as soon as a woman graduates.
However, some families wait for a year or two before they start to bring it up. Other families are more understanding but draw the line at the age of 30.
“They would justify it using the excuse that it is unsafe for women to get pregnant after 35, Mokhtar said.
Mokhtar cited a story of a 30-something friend of hers who turned down a lot of suitors. This, Mokhtar said, prompted a lot of men to come to her house pretending to ask for her hand in marriage, but in reality they just wanted to see the woman who is over 30 and still refuses to get married.
Those men, Mokhtar added, suspected that she was “hiding something that prevents her from getting married.
“It shows how our society looks at women as wives and baby makers. She was born to get married and give birth no matter what kind of marriage she is in. Happily married or not, the point is to wed, she added.
Fairouz Omar, the group’s educational and social advisor, said that regardless of the reasons behind the girl staying single, the label will shame her. “The group could diminish this shameful label and reach out to women and encourage them to redirect their energy towards something positive, Omar told Daily News Egypt.
Mokhtar argues that this issue comes hand in hand with other controversial matters, such as the rising divorce rates. “Some people discriminate not only against unmarried women but also against the divorced ones. Generally, anyone who doesn’t follow the accepted social patterns, she said.
The group has already drawn a large number of people, which encouraged Mokhtar and her colleagues to start reaching out to a different crowd.
“We are planning to have group meetings to share our experiences in addition to having open discussions and lectures with the public to talk about not only late marriage but the basic merits of it, Mokhtar added.
“We need to refresh our memory on why we get married in the first place.