“Estargel.” (Man up.)
“Enshaf.” (Be tough.)
“Mat’ayatsh.” (Don’t cry.)
These are all expressions that most men in Egypt grow up hearing. Imposing a sense of emotional paralysis, men are expected to be tough, dependable, emotionless, and strong.
A tweet asking “why do men have a hard time expressing their emotions?” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The tweet received a flood of answers agreeing to the concept and gladly willing to protest about the unfairness of society’s expectations towards them.
Between cultural norms and gender stereotypes, many Egyptian men criticized how society labels men who express any kind of emotion as childish or feminine. Others highlighted that, in Egyptian culture, vulnerability and sensitivity are traits mainly associated with women, and women are often associated with weakness.
Childhood: between upbringing and schooling
Discipline begins at home, and follows in school. In Egypt, upbringing is sometimes the root of the problem. When boys are young, many of them look up to their fathers as ideal male figures.
“I grew up in a home with no emotions. It was impacting my whole life,” says 30-year-old Assistant Producer and Project Manager Mohannad El Morsy.
“My relationship with my parents was cold-hearted. With baba (father), there were zero emotions, with mama (mother), only a little more. I don’t remember seeing my dad expressing anything positive to me or mama. I’ve never seen them hugging for example.”
Since the repression of men’s emotions is frequently encouraged in everyday life, the cycle continues from one generation on to the next. Fathers who never hug their children raise boys who are told not to show tears or verbalize vulnerability.
“Almost every male child was told that they should not cry. It was treated as a weakness. ’You’re grown up now, almost a man. And men do not cry.’ In our formative years, this encouragement to suppress some of the most basic feelings like wanting to cry leads to an inexperience or unfamiliarity with emotions which almost assuredly stunts emotional growth. This leaves men with an inability to digest and process more complex or compound feelings,” Egyptian 25-year-old pharmacist, Seif Ghanem, tells Egyptian Streets.
Meanwhile, many Egyptian households use the silent treatment to deal with conflicts and arguments. With no communication or confrontation, suppressed emotions accumulate with neither the parents nor the children coping with them the healthy way. In many cases, this causes defensiveness, stress, and anger management issues.
Omar Maged, 28-year-old brand owner, believes Egyptian culture teaches men to be aggressive in order to survive.
“In pre-school, the male teachers’ responses to boys crying were ‘man up’ , ‘don’t cry like girls’, or ‘a’yotaa’ (crybaby). Even if a boy likes a girl, if his classmates found out, they will keep shaming and making fun of him, so it’s top secret when you love a girl in elementary or middle school. You should never talk about your emotions in front of them or you will be labeled as gay or ‘tary’ (soft),” adds Maged.
In Egypt, many school boys are bullied for crying. The bullying is not intentional, but rather bullies have been raised to think that any show of emotions — namely crying— is not tolerated and can be used against them. Although crying is deemed unacceptable for young boys, anger on the other hand, which can be dangerous, is lauded as masculine in many cases.
“I was bullied by everyone, including my own family, for being the emotional kid, for easily crying, for easily getting frustrated, and for being overly affectionate with family and friends. I was even bullied by one of my exes for being overly affectionate and friendly,” a source who chose to be anonymous shares.
“You grow up your whole life learning that men don’t show emotions because that is weak or unmanly or childish, or frequently go even further and say sexist things like ‘don’t be like a woman’ or [other] homophobic remarks. So in order to feel accepted, you learn from a young age to repress your emotions and that you are not to express anything but explosive anger.”
Therapy was his only solution towards a journey of emotional self-discovery.
“The process of trying to talk about my life struggles with someone allowed me to become more self-aware,” he explains.
Hampered relationships and gender roles?
As boys grow up and get into relationships, they are confronted with the opposite sex. And since communication has been hailed as key to the success of any relationship, many men struggle to reveal their emotions to their partners, in fear of being judged or looked down upon.
Nour Abouelezz, a 29-year-old teacher, describes the process of opening up to his partner about his feelings as “catastrophic”.
“I received the ‘pity’ look, not the ‘sympathy’ look,” he adds abruptly.
Similarly, Ghanem recalls suffering from anxiety attacks during his university years, and not finding the strength to share them out of the fear that they would be labeled as “irrationality or weakness”.
“I couldn’t discuss them [the attacks] with anyone close to me of either gender. To men, I knew that this would be a point taken against me in every argument, that my opinion would always be invalid because they’d have ‘proof’ that I can be irrational. To women, it just felt like once that information is out, you’ll be looked at in a different light,” Ghanem elaborates.
In June, an Egyptian girl’s tweet about healthy expressions of emotions from men went viral. In the tweet, she described her happiness when her partner discards his ego and expresses his feelings openly with her. A tsunami of negative replies from Egyptian men followed her tweet, describing what she said as “a trap”, and advising fellow men not to “fall for this”. These men’s replies maintained that women were part of the problem since they see men’s tears as weakness, rather than candor.
Navigating societal pressure
Replacing sadness with dark humor is another way of hiding unpleasant emotions. Although humor is a form of expression, many men use it to hide how they truly feel or how they are being affected by an experience. This phenomenon has been portrayed in various Egyptian movies.
In 2002, Egyptian comedy movie ‘El Lemby’ hit theaters. After the character of Nousa (Hala Shiha) breaks up with El Lemby (Mohamed Saad), he is heartbroken. Instead of dealing with the breakup, he decides to join ‘Am Bakh (the late Hasan Hosny) self-abasement, poking fun at the situation he finds himself in, and smoking hashish (weed). By the end of the scene, his heavy laughter turns to uncontrollable tears.
In addition to movies, television commercials of certain brands top the list of sexism and gender discrimination in Egypt. “Estargel” (Man up) is the main slogan for the non-alcoholic beer company, Birell, which reached the Egyptian market in 1986. Although the company has been repeatedly criticized for its sexist advertisements and for promoting gender discrimination, it continues to run in the same direction until today. According to its company overview, Birell has a strong and bitter taste that can “only be handled by men”.
Nevertheless, there have been efforts to change perceptions in mainstream media and promote men’s mental health and exhibiting emotions. Released in 2022, Netflix’s six-series Egyptian dramedy ‘Finding Ola’ addresses the idea of opening up between fathers and their sons and daughters. In one episode, a camp is organized for fathers and children only; one of the activities is for the father and child to each write a letter to the latter, expressing their emotions.
Between financial burdens, grief, failed relationships, and career struggles, Egyptian men are often expected to swallow their pride and show no sign of weakness.
Although many complain that Egyptian society pressurizes women, it is also a main cause of toxicity and trauma for men. Our society is a source of pressure for both genders. Fortunately, with increasing awareness on the importance of therapy, many men have started to reach out for help to learn to express themselves and be comfortable in communicating their inner feelings.
Subscribe to the Egyptian Streets’ weekly newsletter! Catch up on the latest news, arts & culture headlines, exclusive features and more stories that matter, delivered straight to your inbox by clicking here.