Women of the Dam: Stories and Questions of Nubian Displacement, Menatalla Ahmed Agha

In this article, I wish to share an insight from my research about my people, and my places. In 1964, the Egyptian government opened its most significant hydroelectric project then, The High Dam. The dam has produced a lake that submerged all the Nubian land in Egypt. The state then displaced 50,000 Nubian families, far away from their beloved Nile river, to a housing project in the desert. The government called this project the new Nubian, we called it “Al Tahgeer” which is Arabic for displacement, Nubians have suffered economic, political and social disposition over a half a century of displacement.

For the past 3 years, i dedicated my investigation to answering personal questions about being a woman, being Nubian, being Muslim, and being displaced in Al tahgeer. I was born in one of the settlement villages in Al Tahgeer, among strong women telling me stories of strong women. In my inquiry, I learned that Nubians had a history of matriarchy, it is found in their oral history and the matrilineal tradition (Informally, Nubian people carry their mother’s name). Yet, my technical mapping and my life experience showed that men are the ones in power; the central public sphere, the space of economy, and the place of worship; all were dominated by men. And in contrary to the matrilineal tradition, it was worth more to give birth to a boy than it is a girl.

As a female, I fought such rhetoric and despised its religious overtone. I was averse to the practices and the gender roles imposed over myself; that was when I found comfort in the radical notion that women are equal humans. Feminism was a demonised in my community, as it is in many around the world. Now, as I am conducting my doctoral thesis in the field of architecture and urbanism, I rely on feminist epistemology to understand the intersectionality of spatial and gender issues, to find answers to questions of women’s exclusion from the public sphere in a society in which women had a very prominent role.

 igure 1: Nubian women in Qustul settlement occupying the public space, photo:  Menatalla Ahmed Agha

igure 1: Nubian women in Qustul settlement occupying the public space, photo: Menatalla Ahmed Agha

Historical evidence on Nubian women before displacement, in comparison with narratives of women after their resettlement, unveil that women had a prominent place in public life, a place that decayed in the new settlement, due to a significant loss in wealth and status. Nubian men and women suffered a great deal due to displacement. However women stood to lose the most; they had to sell their gold to refurbish the new unfinished houses, and they lost unregistered or informal ownership of land and property. Also, Nubian women had lost valuable inherited construction techniques, due to not using and teaching them in the new settlement. Moreover, they lost their space in the public sphere due to the design of these new smaller houses.

The old Nubian house was in itself a public space. In my study, I compare between the old Nubian house and the new housing units. The traditional Nubian house was between 500 to 2000 square meter, which was the space of women, it was also much more than a dwelling, it was a place of economy, social activities, and power. The new house, on the contrary, was design in as minimal and functional housing unit, reducing the place of women to the location of primary human function like sleeping and eating while evacuating the Nubian house from its powers and moving the public activities into a central area, often dominated by a mosque.

The religious institution found a void in the Nubian’s dissatisfaction with the state; many fundamentalist groups took advantage of that void and started preaching the way of Islam from their point of view, using the mosque that was central in every settlement as their platform. For Nubians, Islam began to change over the past 50 years from the spiritual and cultural system into a governing institution distant from the state. Empirical evidence showed how the mosque had become the most influential building in each settlement, how it became the constitutive power and the producer of morality. All these forces were governed by strictly male leadership, women were excluded from the religious administration and from the mosque as space.

 Project Unsettled by Menna Agha

Project Unsettled by Menna Agha

At a point in my research, I discovered that I have turned Nubian women into victims, passive beings affected by displacement and by oppressive religious discourse. In a way, my work became in line with a mainstream international discourse on Muslim and/or brown women, painting them as victims who need empowerment. As a Nubian woman myself, it was challenging to continue asking the question in the same way; a big part of my power is the belief that I had power.  It is then that I started searching for subtle and veiled resistance. Specifically looking at the other public spaces that women have created to regain their place in the public sphere.

I discovered spaces and solutions through which women could carve a space of gathering and public life. These spaces are inventions hidden within a spatial code only insiders and inhabitants could identify. For example, women occupied the streets by moving household activities to the Mastaba; a simple masonry bench attached to each house. The scene of women occupying the streets is typical for Nubian everyday life, however, when researchers -specifically male- would conduct a study on Nubian settlements, women retreat inside their houses, and these spaces wouldn’t be surveyed.

Nubian women have resisted spatial stigmas and spaces that were introduced to their life due to their displacement. The change in their built environment 50 years ago brought upon them a change of institution that had increased masculine domination within an atmosphere of economic and social disposition. With their spatial resistance, Nubian women have transformed the urban environment in the settlement and changed the land use map in a subtle and sometimes hidden manner. They have reacted to being excluded from the central public sphere and the mosque.

Throughout this research, I had always been conflicted between being a Muslim and refusing the rules of Islamic governance, that appear to have a significant role in the discounting of women’s power in Nubian displacement villages. Nevertheless, Nubian women in my life as well as those interviewed in the study still identify as Muslim women, and are unapologetically proud of their faith. They believe in the spiritual and moral resources in their faith and are vocally against the oppressive governing dogma. They think Islam is what they know and what they say it is, despite what is offered to them and despite the global image of the religion. I argue that in their belief, Nubian women claim the definition of their faith as much as they claimed the urban environment in their displacement villages.

The view of otherness often finds a bipolar story of the oppressor and the victim; the bad and the good; the strong and the weak. But relationality, and looking like an insider renders the question sensitive. Looking at the issue of Muslim displaced women as a displaced Muslim woman, I could relate to the struggle, and I could also refuse being framed in research as a passive factor, offering a new perspective on the issue. In our contemporary time, Islamophobia has become a recurrent phenomenon worldwide, in which a view of women as victimised is common; denying Muslim women the credit for their resistance and taking away the definition of their faith from them, while they as a subaltern can speak, build and resist.


Menatalla Ahmed Agha is a Doctoral Researcher at the Architecture Program, University of Antwerpen. You can find more of her work on Projectunsettled.com