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Hilda and Vivi

by Anne Edelstam

Excerpt from Three Ladies in Cairo

“I wanted to talk to you about Ingrid.”


“It’s just that we are both Swedes, you and I…” Hilda tried.

“So our upbringing is different from the Egyptian girls?” Vivi asked.

“Well…it seems to me that they just don’t have the same rights as we do.”

“That’s true, but it’s mostly after puberty. They see marriage very differently from us.”

“How’s that?”

“It’s more like a contract between the parents.”

“So the young Egyptians can’t choose their own spouses?” Hilda’s eyes widened.

“No, the parents choose for them.”

“How horrible!”

“Sometimes it works out very well, better than our marriages.” Vivi said, thinking of her own marriage, which had not been a success, for herself at least.

“You’re right—we do have many failed marriages, I suppose—but still!” Hilda was taken aback. “What about women working, then?”

“Look at me! I’m an example!” Vivi laughed her hearty, contagious laugh.

“It’s true, you’re thriving here!” Hilda had to laugh with her. “But that doesn’t seem to be the case with most Egyptians, though.”

“I must admit, there are some huge differences between our two countries when it comes to women.”

“I don’t want Ingrid to grow up thinking that she’s a second-rate citizen because she happened to be born a girl!”

“I understand.” Vivi was thoughtful for a long moment.

Both women fell silent, looking around at the elegant crowd surrounding them, each table’s customers happily chitchatting, oblivious of the seriousness of the Swedish women’s discussion next to them. They finished their food in silence, and Hilda asked for some more hot water to pour in the teapot.

“I still think this is a good country for a young girl to grow up in,” Vivi said at last.

“Certainly, it’s culturally so much richer than Sweden,” Hilda agreed, but she thought to herself, Vivi has no children of her own.

“Do you speak Swedish with her at home?”

“Yes, we do, and she speaks Swedish with Nan too, so that’s not a problem.”

“Could you give her some extra lessons in Swedish literature?”

“I guess that could be arranged.”

“Are you worried about the looks Egyptian men might give her, as a young, blonde woman?”

“Yes, that…and also about her losing her roots.”

“Well, that’s true,” Vivi admitted.

“But we do travel home every summer, so she gets to know her country a bit,” Hilda said. “But my main concern, really, is to find out if it’s worse for a Swedish girl to grow up here than in Sweden.”

“You know things aren’t always as they first appear to us to be,” Vivi said, indicating that Hilda should not be so judgmental before finding out more about the society she lived in.

“And anyway, we’re not Egyptian, and we live in our own cocoon,” Hilda said. “It’s not the same as being part of Egyptian society, really.”

“And there are some excellent schools here for foreigners,” Vivi said, trying to assuage at least some of Hilda’s fears.

“Maybe I should start by inquiring about schools then.”

“I think so. You can always worry about the rest later. After all, she’s still only a child.”

“Hmm…Yes, maybe, I should just take it step by step,” Hilda said, still looking concerned, but somewhat relieved.

“Well, you have two possibilities as I see it. Either keep her here or send her away. Right?”

“I suppose so. I’ve been thinking that the situation for a young girl isn’t so good here. But it was different before for Egyptian women and it can still change.”

“Why not keep her here for a while, and then you’ll see how the situation develops?”

Coming from a northern country like Sweden, where women had to cope on their own while the men were out sailing for months, if not for years, Hilda had never doubted the equal value of men and women. And her mother had certainly set her a fine example. Egyptian women were also equal to men in certain ways—at least the ones working out in the fields along with the men were—but among the aristocracy, things were somewhat different.

All the same, Huda [Shaarawi] had convinced her that women’s situation in Egypt had vastly improved already, and they were on their way to becoming as liberated as any European women.

Little did she know of the huge obstacles women in that part of the world would still have to face.


Anne Edelstam, Three Ladies in Cairo, (Stockholm: Vulkan, 2014).

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