Umm el-Saad (mother of happiness)

by Laura Boushnak


Umm el-Saad’s husband told her he was going to stop her attending the classes where she was finally learning to read and write. That’s what she answered, with a big smile on her face, when I asked how she was getting on in the literacy programme.

When I first met Umm el-Saad, who guessed her age to be 23 or 24, she was seven months pregnant with her fourth child. The only thing she was able to write was her name. She was taking part in a nine-month literacy programme organised by an NGO in the suburbs of Cairo. Five months later I visited her class for a second time. There she was, still smiling, and now holding her two-month-old baby girl. She and her classmates giggled when I asked her how her studies were going.

She said her husband wasn’t happy with her newly acquired skill. She continued laughing and shyly covering her mouth. “He threatened to keep me home if I don’t stop.”

I thought this must be an example of what the NGO director had told me about. They’d had a few incidents were women were forced to quit the programme after they had picked up the basics of reading and writing, as their husbands were starting to feel threatened by their spouses’ new ability.

It turned out that this was not the case for Umm el-Saad. Her husband was simply upset because she was now going through his mobile phone text messages.