What silent epidemic am I talking about you ask??? Obesity!! A casual observation of Egypt will show you that more and more people are gaining weight. This is not an Egyptian problem per se... It is a world wide epidemic. Countries all over the world are working hard to reverse this epidemic, yet as Egyptians, resources are limited, and people have bigger concerns to worry about rather than their weight. A lot of people believe this is a vanity issue, and as they get older or get married, they feel that there is no reason to care about this now. They would rather concentrate on their budget, or saving for their children, or the kids schools and exams...etc. In older days, Egyptians believed that gaining weight was a sign of economic abundance and wealth. They believed that a fatter person is better looking than a thin hungry person. It was a symbol of social status. Yet sadly, things are not as simple as they seem. Being overweight is associated with a higher risk of many diseases including diabetes, heart disease, stroke,hypertension, infertility, cancer...etc. In a country where health care and the cost of many medications is subsidized by the government, this is one of the many causes of financial woes that afflict Egypt and its economy...... with millions of people being diagnosed with these diseases at younger and younger ages, the impact on the entire economy is gigantic, and if we are all not careful, it will get worse as time goes by. Besides the cost of health care, and medications, people with these diseases will die younger, or will be crippled for life by one or more of the diseases, and will be a burden to society instead of a contributing factor to economic growth. Although many Egyptians read more and realize the importance of not becoming overweight, the idea that gaining weight is a much coveted status symbol still continues in Egyptian society. If a person loses weight, friends, family , and neighbors, automatically assume he/she is sick or has a health problem. People will start asking questions about his health, and why so much weight is lost, even though it may only be a couple of kilos. When a man proposes to a slender woman, his family will constantly criticize her weight and encourage her to gain more weight, because women are "supposed" to be chubby!!This kind of peer pressure has a huge influence on the prevalence of obesity in the Egyptian community as a whole, and on women in particular. Mothers are also encouraged to "fatten up" their baby so that the baby is "mekalbaz", which is equated to being cute!!WHO data shows that in Egypt more than 25 percent of 4-year-olds are fat. The number of fat cells in the human body can increase during the first year of life. After a person is older, fat cells get bigger or smaller when weight is gained, but the number of cells remains the same. When all mothers overfeed their babies, these babies will have more fat cells than they would have otherwise had. And with that many fat cells in their body, they are more likely to gain weight as adults, and will be more predisposed to obesity than children who were not overfed.
Egyptian school age children on the other hand have a slight advantage over the rest of the population. In sporting clubs all over Cairo and Alexandria, and many other smaller cities, especially in more affluent neighborhoods, mothers spend the summers taking their children to practice, and most kids are encouraged to participate in sports. Now this is a good start that needs to be encouraged, but once kids reach their teens, boys will continue to play sports, and girls are not. With the onset of puberty the frank discrimination against women begins. If a girl is a swimmer she is told that she is getting too old, , and it is no longer acceptable in the community for a girl to wear a swimming suit to practice a sport the way boys are allowed to do. The same with most other sports. Girls are "protected" and discouraged from "displaying" their body by moving, which is encouraged for boys!! Girls are groomed to be future housewives, so most girls will start to have more responsibilities in the house, while the boys are encouraged to participate in sports and their triumphs are celebrated. Most girls will eventually quit sports all together. Very few girls in their late teens actually practice sports, and most go hang out with friends rather than continue a habit that would have been healthy and good for their overall well being. This brings us to the current trend in Egypt. Although obesity is a problem for all Egyptians, at the age of 15, when girls are developing into young women, and social restrictions and frank discrimination starts, the WHO show deviation from the standard model of male and female obesity. Meaning that women suddenly begin putting on much more weight than men...although as children the weight issues were comparable in both males and females.
The Body mass index is a measurement of body weight in relation to height, and is used to assess the percentage of body fat in a person. The optimal BMI of a population is around 21. 25 or more is overweight and predisposed to diseases, and 30 or more is obese... meaning severely overweight! As shown in the previous graphs, at the age of 15, half of Egyptian women are overweight, and around 10% are obese. The weight problem escalates as women get older to reach 90% of women over 45 being overweight, and out of the total female population, more than 67% are obese by the age of 45.. In short, we are turning into a country where only a quarter of the women are not predisposed to massive health risk, and early death and life long diseases!!
In Egypt, the average woman's life expectancy is 73.6 years, based on the data published in the 2007 CIA world fact book. This means that these women will live for at least 30 years while being overweight, and suffering from its consequences on their health, well being, as well as that of their family, and that of the Egyptian community as a whole.
So what has Egypt offered as a whole to these women to help control the problem, and as a society how do we band together to keep our families happy and healthy? Not enough according to the current trends. Men can participate in sports without restrictions, and among adults, young single men are the ones who participate in sports the most. Women's sports are not as important, and rarely if ever publicized or encouraged. Wouldn't it be a fair assessment to say that we need to educate Egyptians about the importance of physical exercise on their well being? Shouldn't we teach them about their body mass index and how to eat healthy to control their weight and cholesterol? Funding for preventive medicine and public health is dedicated towards children and vaccinations.. which is very important, but adult preventive medicine is never a priority. If we want to improve our economy as a whole , and our society, we need to educate adults about their own health. This would cut millions of pounds spent annually on health care.In order for this to be accomplished, we need to educate women first. Women will teach their children, and husbands, who traditionally are more resistant to change , will follow suit. The key to a healthy Egyptian community is having mothers who are educated about the methods of maintaining their family's health and well being, as well as being role models for their children, who will follow in their mothers footsteps. Women need to be encouraged to change their attitude towards physical activity. They need to learn that it is okay to move. It is not a sin to exercise, and whether they dress in hegab or not should not stop you from practicing a sport you love. They also need to learn that becoming a wife and a mother should not stop you from maintaining your health and that of your family.. in fact, it is your duty to stay healthy for your well being and for the well being of your own children..... And of course we go back to our eternal problem... our patriarchal society and the restrictions it imposes on any woman living in that society, and the ignorance of some men when it comes to physical activity of women in general, and women in sports in particular. In short, the key to all of this is Education!
A typical example of the restrictions placed on women when it comes to playing sports in Egypt is soccer...Most, if not all, Egyptian men play soccer. Soccer is the Egyptian all time favorite game. Men play soccer wherever there is an empty space, a ball, and other men. Most Egyptian households are divided into supporters of certain teams...Growing up in Egypt, it was common to be asked by kids in school if you are "ahlawy", or" zamalkawy"... you had to be one of them... there was no 3rd choice.( teams may be different for today's children) When one team wins, its supporters would storm the streets of Cairo celebrating, honking their horns screaming their team's name, holding signs out of car windows... As a child it gives you the feeling the whole world is celebrating this important event. In a nation such as this, you would expect soccer to be played by both girls and boys, and as they get older, men and women would play, and having a men's team as well as a women's team is the norm.... however this is not the case. Until recently, the only team in the public eye was the men's team. Women did not play soccer. If they try to, it would be a joke, and no one would take them seriously... they would be the laughing stock of their community.... That is until recently when some very brave Egyptian women decided to take on the system . It all started with a brave woman called Sahar Elhawary Who took it upon herself to build the first Women's soccer team in Egypt.She started recruiting players in the 90's and took it upon herself to train them and prepare them for the game. It wasn't until the new millennium that the women's soccer team was recognized by Egypt and was known as the Egyptian women's team. They even qualified for the first African women's soccer cup, and snatched the victory, however it was not widely publicized, or celebrated like any of the events involving men's soccer. Since then there have been changes in society, especially among young girls. Girls' soccer teams have popped up everywhere, and women are finally being recognized as soccer players too. However the road is not all smooth sailing, and many attitudes need to change before women's soccer can reach its full potential. Women soccer players were recently interviewed by Aljazeera in a very interesting mini documentary.
As you can see by this documentary, The women were there solely for the sport, and the one that felt that she needed to wear a headscarf, came up with a compromise and wore leggings underneath her shorts, while still maintaining her right to practice an enjoyable activity, and be a part of a national team. Younger Egyptian men had a very negative idea about women and their right to practice sports. While the women's soccer team is practicing in the background in a soccer field, a male player nearby tells the camera: “If my fiancee wanted to play football, I would forbid her. I only respect men playing. It could also distract her from her home. In Egypt we believe the woman's place is in her home.” So he actually feels the need to "forbid" his future wife excercising or participating in a sport, since he believes her sole function in life is caring for him, his kids and his house... her own well being, whether physical or mental, is not part of the equation. Another says of a female player: “She cannot wear a headscarf and play. This is against religion. Football and sports are forbidden for women.” So this young man's idea is that God has forbidden women from participating in sports... The coach , who appears to be in his 30's actually praises the girls saying they have better endurance. On the other hand, the older gentlemen who were interviewed had a more positive outlook... They have probably been young men in the 60's and 70's, before Wahabi influence infiltrated Egypt and changed its identity and culture. Their take on women's soccer is that it is good for girls to play sports to occupy their time, and that since the game is in public and she is wearing decent shorts, then it is a positive thing, and their overall impression is quite encouraging. (You will notice how these middle class men identified decent clothes by logical means, rather than thinking that any clothes that dont cover a woman from head to foot are indecent, so they were okay with wearing shorts while participating in a sport... never once saying that since they are women we should stop them from wearing the international dress code of soccer players.) By comparing what the older men and the younger men have said, we can see what Egypt was at one point of time, and what it is becoming faster than we can imagine. Whatever happened to the open minded Egyptians that were once the norm? Why are our younger generations so oblivious to the danger their new ideas pose to themselves, their society, and their country as a whole? Doesn't it make sense that we would have had so many more female athletes and champions if Egyptian women were free to practice any sport they loved?
Whether the cause of this attitude is ignorance or Wahabi infiltration deep into our society, it needs to be stopped. Egyptian men need to go back to the way they were in the 60's and 70's. They need to respect women enough to give them autonomy over what they choose to do with their time, and no one should feel the need to "force" his wife or daughter not to exercise, because housework is not the reason God created women! Women need to learn more about maintaining their physical activity as they get older, and the dangers that they impose onto themselves by giving in to ideas that require them to leave life and sit at home as servants. I am not saying women should not care for their homes, but rather, women need to have activities besides their homes and the tedious amount of work that is needed for the upkeep of their households. By not having outside activities they are harming themselves, their families, community, and country. One of the best ways to get women to begin participating in sports is encouraging our women's soccer teams. The reason I specifically state soccer is because it is already popular, and people already accept it as a sport, so the work here is half done. If women's soccer becomes as socially acceptable as men's soccer, a large number of girls will learn to play, and participate in a national pastime that is enjoyed by both men and women, young and old. With the active participation of women in soccer, active participation in other sports will eventually become the norm, and the obesity epidemic will eventually come to an end. Of course media coverage is a huge factor in deciding how popular a sport will become, but in order for this to happen, people first have to show enough interest. For all the Egyptians out there, I say support your local girl's soccer team. The girls of today are the women of tomorrow, and their health and well being is the health and well being of our community.