When Ramadan ends here Monday, Nadia Ibrahim Desouki Emam will
fold up her temporary home, a multicolored tent in the old Islamic
neighborhood of Sayyida Zeinab where she spent the past month
upholding a vanishing tradition.
Over the past 30 days, Ms. Emam has walked through these streets
every night from midnight until 4 a.m. banging on a heavy drum and
calling on people to get out of bed in time to eat and pray before
daily fasting starts.
"Wake up, all you sleepers, and acknowledge He who is immortal,"
she chanted in Arabic, just like the others who have have come
before her in Cairo and throughout the Arab world.
But the irony found in Emam's nightly ritual is that she's
helping maintain an ancient custom - replaced by alarm clocks and
mosque loudspeakers in some neighborhoods - that has long been the
province of men.
Emam is a mesaharatia (wake-up woman) in a mesaharaty (wake-up
But while there is no religious problem with women working as
mesaharatia, says Soad Saleh, the highest ranking woman at Al Azhar,
Cairo's most important center of Sunni learning, her month-long job
as the neighborhood's human Ramadan alarm clock has pushed the
boundaries of this city's traditional gender roles.
"This is the last thing a woman should be doing," says Ahmed Ali,
a taxi driver breaking his fast at an open-air table with his son in
the suburb of Giza. "Does she shout loudly like a man? This is my
first time hearing this."
Emam said even her friends laughed when she first mentioned seven
years ago that she was thinking about taking over the family
profession from her father, who worked as the neighborhood wake-up
man until his death in 1980. Her brothers and sons weren't
interested; she was unemployed and needed the money.
"I thought, why not give it a try?" she says, sitting cross-
legged in her tent before her evening rounds last Thursday. Tea
boiled on a propane stove, and her possessions hung in plastic bags
Emam says she believes that she is the only female mesaharatia
working in Cairo today, and though there are no statistics on the
practice, scholars say it is extremely rare for a woman to do the
New economic realities
Many other Cairenes were shocked when they heard that a woman was
working at a task that requires her to be out all night and is
immortalized as exclusively male in popular songs and poems.
"Having a woman alone in the street banging a drum takes away
from her piety and position. It could also be dangerous for her,"
says Sheikh Abdel-Hadi, who leads prayers in the relatively upscale
Cairo neighborhood of Dokki.
But times are changing, and no one knows that better than Emam's
neighbors in crowded Sayyida Zeinab.
Rising prices and worsening economic conditions are forcing many
women to work, even if they would rather stay home. There are a now
a handful of women taxi and truck drivers in Cairo, says Amal
Mohammed, a mother of two whose apartment balcony overlooks Emam's
"Women need to help support the family. There's no shame in what
the mesaharatia is doing," she says.
In 1996, just 18 percent of Egyptian women worked outside the