Despite breaking through stereotypes, the image Filipinas in Egypt as a meek wife and a domestic helper persists, that it has even become an adjective.
Sometime before the COVID pandemic, I met Ibrahim in one of our company parties. He was delighted to meet me, a fellow Filipino, because he claims to have a Pinoy heart, since he is married to a Filipina. When asked when I could meet her, he said that she had a successful career back in the Philippines, while he managed his family business in Egypt. Like most modern couples nowadays, they understand that they could not live together for practical reasons, but they do get to visit each other once or twice a year. I did not ask whether they had kids. He and I became friends. He tries to see me whenever he is in Cairo, or messages me from time to time.
Once, in one of our coffee and shisha weekend meetings, he confided how much he struggled to receive his family’s blessing when he told them that he was planning to marry a Filipina. His mother, in particular, strongly resisted the idea that her son, an engineer, would end up marrying a house maid. He was ordered to have an audience with their village imam who tried to talk him out of his marriage plans.
“But she is an accountant,” Ibrahim told his mother and confessed that his girlfriend actually earned more than he did. I admire him for telling me this, as most Egyptian men, in my observation, are very sensitive when it comes to having spouses or girlfriends who earn more than they do.
The shock must have been overwhelming for him, after realizing that his mother’s, and his elders’ prejudices against Filipinos were unfounded. And If I were to venture a guess, I would believe that some negative misconceptions must have originated in the Gulf States, where overseas Filipinos and Egyptians meet each other, and develop relationships, both professional and personal.
On one hand, there are Egyptians like Ibrahim who are all praises for the hospitality, work ethic and kindness of Filipinos in Egypt, who they meet in their workplaces. On the other hand, some form negative opinions that somehow find their way back to Egypt, whether via media, viva voce, film or maybe music.
“There are three things that my mother refused to believe,” Ibrahim said. “First, she does not believe that the Philippines is not a hub for human trafficking.” He agreed that this might be true years ago, but not in recent years or decades. “Second, that the Philippines has big cities like Makati and BGC, and other places that look like Dubai.” His mother still imagined the Philippines to be completely rural. “Last, she believes that all Filipinas work as housemaids. But I told her that there are Filipina flight attendants, nurses, accountants, restaurant managers, teachers and even CEOs.”
It is like a competition
I met Mariam through a common acquaintance during a folk music club meeting in Old Cairo.
“I have an uncle who is married to a Filipina,” she said. “They met in a hospital in Dubai.” Mariam’s uncle worked as an administrative officer, and her Filipina aunt-in-law served as a head nurse. “He is crazy about her and we really think she is nice.”
“That’s good to know,” I said.
“You know,” Mariam started chuckling, “all the men in my family now want to marry Filipinas.”
I was not sure where this topic was heading, so I politely nodded along and asked why. “It’s a like a competition. And Egyptian ladies lose their men to Asian women, especially to Filipinas.”
She struggled in English, but managed to explain that this preference had nothing to do with physical beauty or religion (Mariam is a Coptic Christian, a religious minority in Egypt and I guess her Filipina aunt-in-law is Roman Catholic). Her observation is that Filipinas are too devoted to their husbands.
“What’s wrong with being too devoted?” I asked.
“There is nothing wrong with that, but I just feel that we losing to Filipinas,” she giggled in a way that made me feel very uncomfortable.
When I got home that evening from that cultural event, I completely forgot how Egyptian folk music sounded like. All that resonated in my memory was Mariam’s giggle which I thought had to be justified with some explanation. I managed to resurrect a bottled-up memory from my language class five years ago when I first arrived in Cairo.
During the lesson on grammatical gender, my teacher told me to keep in mind one term in particular: فلبينية” Filipineya,” or Filipina, in the literal sense.
“But in Egypt, the context and meaning of this word can be two different things,” she explained, “and I want you to pay attention, because there are uneducated Egyptians who think there is nothing wrong with interchanging using this word.”
“Uneducated Egyptians?” I asked.
“Maybe the correct description is unenlightened,” she corrected herself, “I mean, there are some unenlightened Egyptians.” Consolingly she said, “I think this is not going to be a problem for you, because you are a man.” Yeah, some consolation that was! NOT.
“So how is this word used locally?” I asked and braced myself.
She sighed, “in Egypt, some husbands are too lazy to do anything and just order their wives around: ‘get me this, give me that.’ Sometimes, the wife would shout back and say, ‘Do it yourself! I am not a Filipineya!”
I thought a scarab crawled down my throat. “I feel bad that this word exists in my country this way,” she said. “And I think it is important that you know this, although it is no longer used frequently.”
It took me a while to collect myself before I reacted and thanked my teacher. I wondered whether this concept was what made Mariam giggle while talking about her Filipina aunt-in-law. And if it is so, how could she not realize what was wrong with it, as a woman to a fellow woman? Again, these are just suppositions but you see a lot of yourself and your fellow Filipinos through the eyes of others.
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Dunia Mayrit lives in Cairo, Egypt for years now. A fan of culture and arts, Dunia spends time appreciating God's and man's creations.