EL-SAMAHA, Egypt – A two-hour drive from the center of the ancient tourist city of Aswan lies what residents call the Village of Women. Here, a group of single-story houses stand isolated in the desert – the next closest village is dozens of miles away. In these houses live families led by women who have lost their husbands, through death or divorce, and who are now rebuilding their lives together.
It’s a scenario that evokes the Amazons, the warriors of Greek myth who lived in a country where men were banned. Just like in the myth, el-Samaha village is home to warriors, but of a modern kind.
“Life is better when you live with people who care about you,” says Nazira Moustafa, one of the first women to move into el-Samaha, which gets its name from the Arabic word for tolerance.
“I was happy from the first moment I arrived. I was given a house and land. I was given a goat. I was given water. I started to feel safe and secure.”
El-Samaha was founded in 1998 by the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and the World Food Programme as a way to give widows and divorced women in Upper Egypt the chance to make their own living and raise their children in a supportive community.
Egypt’s Personal Status Law is supposed to protect the rights of wives after they lose or divorce their husbands, but activists say the law has too many loopholes that can be manipulated by ex-husbands or the families of deceased husbands to claim assets for themselves.
For families living in poverty, women are often left with nothing. And the number of women running households on their own is growing – the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics found that in 2015 there was a 10.8 percent increase in divorces in Egypt compared to the year before.
Promoting el-Samaha as a development project to empower women, the government invited applications and opened the village with a group of 303 women, each given land and a home, as well as goats, cows, buffaloes and other animals to feed their families and sell for income. Mortgages in the village are subsidized by the government and are almost 80 percent lower than in the rest of the country.
Moustafa, 52, pats her three goats as she explains how she came to the village 16 years ago. “I’m divorced. You can imagine being a single woman with two sons without any source of income. What would I do?” she tells News Deeply. She heard about the women’s community and decided to move in. Now she breeds hens, and any meat or eggs she doesn’t use for herself and her family she sells to other families in el-Samaha and nearby villages.
“In the city, life can become boring. Many people struggle with pressures, high prices, crowded streets and so many problems,” she says. “But here we live a bit better. We are few, we know each other.”
In many ways, el-Samaha is a typical Egyptian village. It has a primary and preparatory school, a mosque, a medical center, a bakery, a drinking water station, a post office and a youth center. While in most parts of the country, men would make the decisions and work to support their families, here men are in the minority, either the sons of residents or laborers who come from other villages to help build houses or facilities.
“This village represents how Upper Egyptian women are strong and can do a great job by themselves,” says Safinaz Ibrahim, head of the nonprofit Women of the South Association in Aswan. “They live in the desert, in a very hard situation, [often] without basic needs. But they can bear all this in order to raise their children.”
While Moustafa has been in the village from the start, Nora Hamed, 53, moved here only three years ago. After her husband’s death, she was left with no home and no job. So her siblings brought her from her hometown of Kom Ombo, north of Aswan, to the women’s village.
“I bought this house for 12,000 Egyptian pounds [around $680 at today’s exchange rate]. It was all the money I had. I came here hoping for a new beginning,” she says. Hamed says the women’s community already feels like home.
But the village that was conceived as a refuge is now facing issues that have forced some women to leave. El-Samaha has been suffering from sewage problems, with an irrigation system that wasn’t built to cope with the area’s high groundwater levels. The resulting floods have pushed sewage into the clean water supply and left pools of dirty water around the village and in some of the houses and buildings. Some women have left due to the infrastructure problems; others have moved on because they feel it’s too remote. And some have left to get remarried and start new families. The contract between the government and the residents states that if a woman gets remarried, her house and land can be sold on only to another divorcee or widow.
There are currently 230 of the original 303 women left in el-Samaha, says Hamdi el-Kashef of the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture, who is the project’s general supervisor. In the hope of restoring the promise the project offered these women at the start, he says the organizers and the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development are working on solving the village’s water problems. “Over time, the village will return to its previous good shape,” he says.
Unlike in the Amazon myth, there are no laws prohibiting men from entering el-Samaha village – the female residents point out that many of them have grown sons living with them, and daughters who have brought their husbands home with them.
“I believe that over time, the village will turn into a normal Egyptian village – having men and women living together,” el-Kashef says.
But for now, the village’s women relish the wider freedoms and increased independence they have, compared to women in many other parts of the country.
“I can do whatever I want – even if it is playing soccer, my passion,” says Aya, 11, who recently moved to the village with her family.
At her new home, surrounded by women who challenge stereotypes every day, Aya can dare to dream. “I want to become a physician to cure people,” she says.