Eva Habeil Kirollous / Egypt

NEWS – EGYPT
Mohamed Allouba
February 2009
The Queen of Coum-BoohaEgypt’s only female mayor is too busy taking charge and solving crises to worry about what people have to say about her
By Ali El-Bahnasawy

Mayor Eva Habeil Kirollous with her guard Nageh.

Asked for directions to Coum-Booha village in Assiut governorate, an old man wearing a gray galabeyya and a traditional brown hat responds in a heavy Upper Egypt accent, “the village whose mayor is mara?”


Mara is a condescending Arabic word to describe a woman. He says it in a disgusted tone, points out directions and leaves in a hurry.

The village of Coum-Booha welcomes visitors with a fairly standard sight: a few small coffee shops scattered about the village’s main entrance.

Coum-Booha residents call this place El-Gesr, or The Bridge, where village men spend their early hours together before splitting up to go harvest their fields.

This is also where men spend their evenings smoking shisha and chatting about politics and women, their favorite subjects.

This sunny January morning, they are discussing both at the same time. More specifically, they’re discussing Eva Habeil Kirollous, the new mayor of Coum-Booha and the first female mayor in the nation.

“She is a woman, but she is better than 100 men,” says Bassem Magdy, a 28-year old farmer, confidently in one of the local coffee shops. Magdy says that gender is unimportant: Letting the best take charge is the most practical approach.

The community won’t hold her back from her chance to help the people simply because she’s a woman, he says, adding that before her election she was the village lawyer who helped people for years even when they couldn’t pay.

Magdy’s uncle Gamal interjects, “We know her father too, and her grandfather. Both were mayors for Coum-Booha. We liked them because they were honest, down-to-earth people. We don’t want a mayor from outside this family.”

As the men offer their opinions, the mayor swiftly becomes the hot topic in the coffee shop, and all agree that a female mayor might be as good as a male one. Nevertheless, everyone wants his say on the matter. After staying silent a long time, the oldest man in the room nods his wrinkled head and proclaims, “I don’t mind having a female mayor, only if she is working like a man.”

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  1. Eva Habeil Kirollous / Egypt NEWS – EGYPTMohamed Allouba February 2009 The Queen of Coum-BoohaEgypt’s only female mayor is too busy taking charge and solving crises to worry about what people have to say about herBy Ali El-Bahnasawy Mayor Eva Habeil Kirollous with her guard Nageh. Asked for directions to Coum-Booha village in Assiut governorate, an old man wearing a gray galabeyya and a traditional brown hat responds in a heavy Upper Egypt accent, “the village whose mayor is mara?”Mara is a condescending Arabic word to describe a woman. He says it in a disgusted tone, points out directions and leaves in a hurry.The village of Coum-Booha welcomes visitors with a fairly standard sight: a few small coffee shops scattered about the village’s main entrance. Coum-Booha residents call this place El-Gesr, or The Bridge, where village men spend their early hours together before splitting up to go harvest their fields.This is also where men spend their evenings smoking shisha and chatting about politics and women, their favorite subjects.This sunny January morning, they are discussing both at the same time. More specifically, they’re discussing Eva Habeil Kirollous, the new mayor of Coum-Booha and the first female mayor in the nation.“She is a woman, but she is better than 100 men,” says Bassem Magdy, a 28-year old farmer, confidently in one of the local coffee shops. Magdy says that gender is unimportant: Letting the best take charge is the most practical approach.The community won’t hold her back from her chance to help the people simply because she’s a woman, he says, adding that before her election she was the village lawyer who helped people for years even when they couldn’t pay.Magdy’s uncle Gamal interjects, “We know her father too, and her grandfather. Both were mayors for Coum-Booha. We liked them because they were honest, down-to-earth people. We don’t want a mayor from outside this family.”As the men offer their opinions, the mayor swiftly becomes the hot topic in the coffee shop, and all agree that a female mayor might be as good as a male one. Nevertheless, everyone wants his say on the matter. After staying silent a long time, the oldest man in the room nods his wrinkled head and proclaims, “I don’t mind having a female mayor, only if she is working like a man.”As she makes her jokes, Kirollous does not have an Upper Egyptian accent. She speaks like a Cairene, except for a few words that she lets drop into the local style. No wonder — the 54-year-old spent more than 20 years in the capital.Pushed by her father’s desire for her to get a good education, Kirollous lived with her uncle in Cairo and went to preparatory and secondary school there. When it came time for her to choose her major in university, it was an easy choice. “I admired how my father was treating people,” Kirollous says. “There was a loving and respectful relationship between him as mayor and them. He was fair no matter what. He did the right thing. I loved that.”It was not only Habeil Kirollous who administered justice for a living. Her uncle was a military court judge and a lawyer. From a very early age, Kirollous was surrounded by stories of right and wrong, of ethics and of fairness. She entered university to study law.After finishing law school, Kirollous left her uncle’s house and convinced her father to let her live in a women’s residence supervised by the church. This was a bold move in 1980, when young women are accused even now of immoral behavior if they are out of the family home. Her father did not object at all. “I always knew that my father was ahead of his time. He always sounded and acted as if he came from the future,” Kirollous says. “Back then, shorts and tights were very common among university girls, but not in Upper Egypt. I wore them and he never commented on my attire. He was different even to his siblings; he has his own unique, bright way of thinking.”Kirollous earned local respect as the lawyer who defended the poor.This unique thinking encouraged Kirollous to ask for more. She was working as a lawyer with 18 other young lawyers, but her ambition was to start her own office and she could wait no longer. However, her salary was very small and she didn’t want to ask her father for money. But Kirollous had another bold move lined up.“One day I went to him and said ‘Dad, what would you think if I told you I want to work in Iraq? I want to achieve financial independence,’” Kirollous recalls in a theatrical tone. Her father, shocked at the request, initially refused to let her go. He was protective and didn’t like the idea that his daughter was leaving to go after money, especially as he was a wealthy man.Armed with a will of steel, she didn’t give up. Kirollous went to the church and asked the priest to convince her father. After several discussions, and much begging on Kirollous’ part, the priest did, and her father finally gave her the green light to go after her dream.It was the beginning of another chapter in Kirollous’s life — a chapter of extremely hard work. Kirollous set foot on Iraqi soil the same day President Anwar Sadat was assassinated, leaving Egypt just hours before the airport was shut down. Staying in her cousin’s home with an agreement that she would share the expenses of the house, she started searching for a job right away. The only job available was in a bookstore so Kirollous took it, as it paid well.A few months later, she found a job in the legal department at Baghdad University. She was excited to get back into law after long weeks of photocopying documents and cleaning dusty shelves. “I kept both jobs. I was spending the day in the legal department and running to take my shift at the bookstore. I needed the money, and Iraq was not full of outings anyway,” she says, laughing. Kirollous’ life in Iraq was about saving money. She never again wanted to have to ask anyone for anything.When she was back for a vacation after two years in Iraq, her father asked her to stay in Egypt.He told her it was enough, she had done what she wanted and now it was time to get back home.It was disappointing, as she was just starting to appreciate the satisfaction of having full pockets, but she could not refuse the request. She resigned from her job in Baghdad and returned to Cairo.After working at other law offices in Cairo for a few years, Kirollous finally achieved her dream. In 1988, she opened her own law firm with a colleague, making good money specializing in commercial and civil law suits.But Kirollous’ fate seemed tied to her beloved father, who became very sick in 1990. Kirollous was the best candidate to take care of the elderly man, as her five sisters and only brother were all married. Packing her belongings, Kirollous moved home to Assiut, abandoning her dream because, as she says firmly, nothing in world mattered more than her father; not money, not her career. It was still the hardest decision of her life.Habeil Kirollous made her what she is now, she says. “He never bought me anything without giving me the option to choose [what I wanted]. His advice was always given in a subtle and indirect way.He taught me how to make a decision and be responsible about it,” As she speaks, she looks at her father’s huge picture on the wall; her eyes moisten and her voice becomes quiet.After settling in Coum-Booha, Kirollous started her legal business defending village residents in their cases against the state. She earned a reputation for defending the poor, and people loved her because she was honest and kind. She was elected to the local council for the larger nearby town of Deirut and was soon elected as the women’s officer for the National Democratic Party inDeirut. Now she is a member of the Assiut governorate council.After her father’s death in 2002, she honored his memory by wearing mourning black for months, at the same time keeping her mind sharply focused on the future. She wanted the position of mayor to stay in the family.In Egypt, mayor is not an elected position. An applicant must apply to the Ministry of Interior (MoI) and the ministry will look at the applicant’s qualifications and decide if they are suitable for the job. Usually the mayor’s main responsibility is security, and the appointee acts on behalf of the MoI. By solving disputes, the mayor decreases the load on the police station and therefore the court, also keeping people out of jail.Kirollous’ brother, Essam, applied in 2002, but he was not selected. The role of the mayor requires the applicant to be familiar with the village and its people, and Essam was living in Cairo back then. None of the applicants were selected, and Coum-Booha continued without a leader.In late 2006, Kirollous went to the MoI security directorate in Assiut to pick up an application for mayor. Many of the youths she worked with in the village had encouraged her to apply for the vacant position.Kirollous was under the impression there were other female mayors in Egypt, so she said to herself “Why not? If someone else can do it, I can do it.” When she arrived at the security directorate, the employee told her that the applicant should come ‘himself’ to pick up the application. Kirollous recalls that she laughed and asked the employee, “Can’t the applicant be ‘herself’ instead of ‘himself?’” The employee handed her the application silently.After two years of slow-moving bureaucracy, Kirollous became the mayor of Coum-Booha, selected over five male candidates — one of them her own brother and two others also from her family. But with her legal background, membership in the local council and her position in the National Democratic Party, Kirollous was nearly impossible to beat, even in patriarchal rural Egypt.“Was convincing the people about a female mayor an easy thing?” she asks. “It was far from that. People were asking me: ‘What would you do if someone was killed? Would you go out in the dark?’ With respect, those are stupid questions. I will do what nurses and female physicians do if they are on a night shift. They see injured and dead people and they stay out late for their job. This is life. I will not get scared away from those situations.”Women, on the other hand, love her as mayor. Now, in a marriage dispute, they are sure the mayor will understand how they feel. Now they have an ally.After she was appointed, one of Kirollous’ colleagues in the council underestimated her ability to stand up for herself. Her colleague was mocking her, calling her ‘omdaya,’ the feminine version of ‘omda’ — Arabic for mayor — in a disparaging way. Kirollous retorted, “In case you talk to me again, it should be with respect, referring to me as “Respected Mayor.” Anything other than that, I don’t want to hear from you.”Kirollous’ strong persona made an impact after only a few days in office. The village had become accustomed to nobody enforcing the rules. The coffee shops on El-Gesr were blocking traffic, so the new mayor started off by sending messages to all the café owners: Clear the way or have all your licenses reviewed. As a member of the governorate council as well as mayor, Kirollous warned the violators that she would use her authority to take hard measures if they did not comply. A few days later El-Gesr was clear.Guided by her skills as a lawyer, Kirollous created a new way to solve disputes, including criminal offences. When any two individuals come to her to resolve a dispute, she forces them to sign a detailed incident report in the presence of two witnesses. This is understood as a warning: If it happens again, she will hand their file to the MoI and let the ministry and the police deal with the perpetrator.This technique was new. During her father’s tenure, the mayor was more of a father to the village; he could be very tough, berating, reprimanding and lecturing. Kirollous believes a more modern approach is needed.The biggest problem in Coum-Booha, as Kirollous sees it, is greed. The villagers prize money over morals, she says. When young men propose marriage, for instance, they are asked for LE 25,000 worth of gold. The issue, like many things, cannot be handled with governmental authority, she believes, noting that harsh words will not change deep-rooted beliefs about money.The solution, according to Kirollous, is in religion. There are four churches and one mosque in the 95 percent Christian community of 10,000 residents. Kirollous, never one to be conventional, is working to convince the religious leaders to emphasize during prayers the importance of living simply in contentment instead of living for money. This will take time, she believes, generations maybe, but at least the seeds will be sown.Living in contentment is what Kirollous herself is focusing on right now. She spends the early morning touring the village and receiving complaints from people. She then goes home and attends those who come to her with problems and concerns.She deals with their arguments, addresses their concerns and generally acts as the voice of wisdom, the peacemaker. At about 3pm she eats lunch and sleeps, and then wakes at around 5pm to receive more visitors.It is a busy existence. She doesn’t bother thinking about what the future may hold, be it another political position or public work; she is not concerned. “I believe that people’s miseries come from looking too much to the future,” she says. “They lose today and look for a tomorrow that may not carry what they hope for.”Kirollous finds happiness in simple things such as having a warm shower or reading a good book. Despite her years in the city and career as a lawyer, she sees herself as a fellah: a simple farmer who enjoys life and work planting seeds, watering the land and harvesting the crop — not struggling to get a bigger piece of land but content just to see life being nurtured.In a bitter voice and after a long pause, Kirollous confesses that she has much to regret in her life. Though she does not divulge the details, she says she forgives herself for past mistakes. She says that wisdom comes with time, and she was not always wise. At least, she believes now that she is living her life the way she wants, unconcerned with how others think she should live.For example, Kirollous is not married and she thinks that people should be more comfortable with the concept. For her it means freedom from commitments that might hold her back from her other responsibilities. She says that she is pro-marriage, it is just that the active life she always led did not give her a chance to settle down, as she never found the right person. Later, she elaborates, “I could not believe that I should just marry and stay home. I could not believe I was supposed to take second place in life. Deep inside I wanted to do everything I could. A voice inside me was asking me to do more, and then do more, so marriage had to be postponed.”There are always those with closed minds, despite all Kirollous has done to earn her place. Abdelmoniem Ahmed, a 25-year-old computer engineer raised in El-Ghanaym village near Coum-Booha, says derisively, “This village will not hold guns against any other village in future disputes. If they do, the other will simply scorn them as ‘the men who are ruled by a mara.’”Coum-Booha residents are not bothered by their neighbors’ scorn. They are working to better their lives and they don’t care about machine gun disputes. To a man, they are proud to be ruled by a woman, especially a woman like Eva Habeil Kirollous. etc.

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