A few days ago, I became aware that, very recently (October 2013), a book had been published about female street children in Egypt. I did not hesitate and immediately ordered the book. After all, I had spent a long time researching this topic, and similar published work had to date been non-existent. While ordering “Il Binait Dol – Egypt’s Hidden Shame” by Gwenllian Meredith, I felt sceptical about the title which is copied from a documentary about female street children and which gives the false impression of a connection between the two.
When the package arrived, I realised that this was not a book that went through the process of peer-reviewing and editing, and that was published by a publisher, but that the author had printed and distributed it herself. Also, the layout was terrible. So what, I thought to myself, I cared about the content. I was looking forward to learn more about street girls, and to be able to refer to a new piece of (semi-academic) literature.
The author, Gwenllian Meredith, is a former assistant professor who used to teach history and gender studies at the American University of Cairo (AUC). She spent a few years in Egypt, and with the aid of an Egyptian colleague at AUC, she interviewed several former street girls and a few boys to gather enough information for a book about Egypt’s female street children. She refers to her research as her “activism, to help give the attention, voice, and help […] to Il Binait Dol [those girls] , Egypt’s Hidden Shame” (p. 313).
I read the book the same night and unfortunately, it was a disappointment through and through. Here are seven reasons why.
1. The book lacks (scientific) accuracy
First of all, Meredith does not seem to have done any research exceeding her own field visits. Throughout the 322 pages of her book, she does not refer once to an academic or, for that matter, any source. She even claims that “[t]here are no readings about Il Binait Dol [those girls] because no one has cared enough to investigate and write about the situation facing these girls” (p. 320). This is plain wrong. Although there has not been any published academic work focused exclusively on female street children in Egypt, there are a great deal of academic and non-academic sources about male and female street children wordwide, also in Egypt.
This lack of research means that the author makes claims without backing them up with any sources. For instance, she makes statements about the number of street children in Egypt, saying that “[s]ome estimate the number as low as 50,000, but the reality is closer to 200,000, although an accurate count has never been made” (p. 13). It is merely her opinion that there are 200,000 street children in Egypt, an opinion she does not ground on any source whatsoever.
In addition to the lack of research, Meredith deals very freely with the rules of citing her interviewees. The author obviously shortens, amends and summarises quotes of her respondents without stating that she does. For instance, she asks a girl “What is your name?” and receives the following answer: “It’s Hamda. I’m fifteen now but I’ve been here since I was eight. My mother brought me here because my father divorced her and I have too many brothers and sisters. She couldn’t feed me and because I was the oldest, she brought me here. She told me that I would be better off here and she’d come and visit me all the time” (p. 46). It would be astonishing if Hamda answered a simple question in such a lengthy way, with so much detail, without knowing what further questions the researcher would ask. It is more likely that Meredith collected several quotes and presented them as one, without clearly highlighting what changes she made and why.
2. The interviews conducted with street children are not analysed
A big part of the book consists of stories of street girls and boys. The author presents these stories in the form of (clearly modified) interviews. What is missing, however, is one of the main tasks of any researcher: Meredith does not analyse the accounts of the girls. The interviews already give an insight into the backgrounds of the girls, their experiences in the street as well as in governmental institutions and, occasionally, into their emotions. The next thing any reader would expect is an instructive analysis of the gathered data by the researcher. This is, unfortunately, entirely missing. Instead, Meredith ends each story with a short paragraph about the respective girl’s misery, and how she will never get a chance to do anything in life. As a reader, one would expect something more sophisticated from 322 pages written and published by a professor.
3. The author’s language is patronising
Throughout the course of the book, Meredith uses a consistently patronising language when referring to the street girls. For instance, she describes them as “homeless, helpless and starving” (p. 8) people who “waste the minutes, hours, days, months and years wishing their lives away” (p. 69). To her, street girls lead “tragically lonely lives” (p. 138).
The author depicts girls as the passive and grateful recipients of benevolent action. For instance, there are two photos printed next to each other, one titled “A DEO [German Evangelical School in Cairo] volunteer giving a good wash with lice shampoo” (p. 167) and a second one with a smiling girl with foam in her face stating “Happy to be clean – happy that somebody cares” (p. 168).
Meredith’s tone gives the impression of street girls as miserable victims leading equally miserable lives, only waiting for (in this case Western) benevolent people to administer to their needs, a perspective that is not only patronising and one-dimensional, but also insulting to the girls’ strength and their agency.
4. The views on gender are far from being nuanced
Given that the author used to teach gender studies, it is astonishing how she describes gender-specific differences between street girls and boys. Without really going into depth with regard to the experiences of either gender, Meredith views boys in the street categorically as better off. She describes the facilities in boys’ shelters as much cleaner, better equipped and more homely. Although she has only visited one facility for boys, and one for girls, she concludes that more attention and care is given to male street children in general. When describing the realities of boys and girls in the two shelters, she draws absurd conclusions. Since both boys and girls are physically abused on a regular basis but boys are not locked up as often as girls, they must have a better life.
Meredith also makes a great effort to argue that street girls are much more marginalised than street boys. This is a claim that one can indeed make, however, hers is grounded in one poorly researched explanation: The street boys she interviewed are unwilling to ever marry a street girl because this would hinder them from proceeding on their “way up” (p. 65), whatever this may mean. Meredith does not, however, ask the same question to street girls. This makes clear that she chooses to show how street girls are rejected by street boys, but neglects to examine the possible refusal of street girls to marry street boys.
5. The author claims expertise on ‘Egyptian culture’
In the book, there are numerous statements on ‘Egyptian culture’, e.g. with regard to family values and marriage. Meredith states for instance, that “[f]amily life in the Middle East means everything” and that “[t]hose considered without this family identity are incomplete” (p. 201). She writes about the “Arab society” (p. 201) and “Arab cultures” (p. 203) with a nonchalance that communicates great knowledge about these terms. These terms and their use are already very debatable but Meredith does not even attempt to support her claims and opinions in any way. In fact, when she does quote Egyptians, they are without exceptions her own students from the American University in Cairo (AUC), a very small segment of Egyptian society and thus not sufficient to support claims regarding the ‘Egyptian culture’ (if such things exists anyway).
6. The book is riddled with bias and inaccuracies about political events
Although Meredith’s book is focused on the lives of female street children in the streets and in governmental institutions in Egypt, she insists to add her own perspective of Egyptian history, especially since January 25, 2011. She refers to the “revolutions of 2011 and 2013” (p. 311) gives an account of both events, followed by her opinion on the present interim government: “[T]hese men [Adli Mansour, General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi and Hazem el-Beblawi] attempt to reorganize Egypt into a government acceptable to the people” (p. 313). She describes the Muslim Brotherhood as the sources of chaos and turmoil, “often inciting violence” (p. 11), and any clashes as the battle between those whose “purpose it is to carve […] an Egypt built on a foundation of democratic principles” (ibid.) and the Islamists. Meredith clearly has a strong opinion which is not backed up by anything, except her opinion.
I do not claim to be an expert on Egyptian political affairs but I cannot help but notice a strong bias of the author towards a very specific way of narrating Egypt’s most recent history and the ongoing events. Her bias is all the more apparent because it does not add or refer to the actual content of the book.
7. There is this chapter about this one woman
A whole chapter of the book is dedicated to the efforts of one single woman, Hanna Hartmann-Hosni. Meredith refers to her as “Egypt’s unsung hero” (p. 82) who, singlehandedly and relentlessly, fights for street girls. Although Hanna Hartmann-Hosni might do wonderful and very important work, her depiction as the only person in the whole country caring about female street children is simply wrong, as one can see for example here or here. Despite the fact that Hartmann-Hosni is not the only advocate for or person volunteering with street children, her efforts and projects are named and listed one by one, including her fundraising activities and the exact amounts raised from specific donors. In a book that intends to give information about street children, there should be no room for such quasi-advertisements. Nonetheless, the book is dominated by praising Hartmann-Hosni and her work.
Meredith even reports about Hartmann-Hosni’s projects in entirely unrelated fields, such as a “leper community” (p. 99) outside of Cairo as well as her “crusade to aid the hundreds of Syrian refugees crowding into Cairo” (p. 88). This is all very interesting and Hartmann-Hosni’s work is impressive but it is of no relevance to the topic of the book, nor does it really add to one’s understanding of the lives of female street children.
It is a pity that the first book about female street children in Egypt is of such poor quality. Unfortunately, neither researchers on street children nor other interested readers will be able to benefit from its content. One remains hopeful that some better work about the topic will be published soon. This work, unlike Meredith’s book, would substantially add to the body of existing street children literature.