Laila El-Sissi

Women’s rights activist speaks in Lewisboro

How Laila El-Sissi found herself in South Salem is an interesting story, but more fascinating is the one she tells of finding herself in an arranged marriage with a stranger at age 15 — and how she escaped.

El-Sissi’s recently published memoir, Out From the Shadow of Men, is not simply a tale of growing up in another culture. It is an indictment of an entire way of life, in which the role of women is completely subservient to the whims and desires of men, in ways many Americans would find difficult to believe exist today.

One such American is Lewisboro’s Robert Kesten, who first met El-Sissi on a work-related visit to Book Expo in New York. El Sissi was promoting her self-published work, and Kesten was enthralled with her story.

“I immediately recognized the memoir’s universal relevance and urgency,” he said, “and was determined to do whatever I could to make sure her story got out.”

Kesten decided to arrange for El-Sissi to come to his home for a reading and Q&A session before invited guests — who were stunned by much of what they heard.

Laila’s story

Coming of age in Egypt in the 1960s, El-Sissi said, she was first confused, then dismayed, and finally outraged by the realization that she lived in a culture where women were, she said, considered “less than human.” In a household ruled with unquestionable authority by her all-powerful father, she forged an alliance with her protective one-year-older sister, aided by some surreptitious help from their mother.

Her father was supposedly “sheltering” them from possible abuse.

“But right under the roof of my father, the very things happened to my sister that my father was protecting us from. I don’t know where I would be if not for my sister,” said El-Sissi. “She took all the abuse and protected me.”

El-Sissi did not escape entirely, however.

“My brother said he’s going to put acid water on my face,” El-Sissi told the hushed audience. “He punched me in the teeth and he broke my tooth.”

Still, her sister shielded her and absorbed much of the abuse — both physical and sexual — and El-Sissi said she was determined to remain strong. She knew no one would believe her accusations, and her brother would never be punished. The situation only got worse once she and her sister were both placed in marriages arranged by their father.

El-Sissi also shared a story about how her first husband had a court order that allowed him to lock her away in a 3-by-3 room as long as he wanted and she couldn’t do anything about it.

“All this didn’t deter me. My sister and I were so adamant to go out and get our freedom.”

El-Sissi said she could not help but recognize that there was no escape from the confines of that culture as long as she remained in Egypt.

Moving forward

With her sister’s help, El-Sissi divorced her husband and left her homeland, ultimately settling in California, where she remarried. But the painful realities of the past remained bubbling under the surface. Ultimately she joined a local writers group and began to share her experiences, which evolved into Out From the Shadow of Men. The book has elicited acclaim the world over, both from critics and from ordinary people, especially women, who have shared their own stories online.

Her sister gave her the courage to go out into the world and find something better, El-Sissi said, and she wants other girls to find that courage. “I wrote this book because I want to stand up before girls’ groups, internationally,” she said, “and just tell all the girls around the world that they are going through the same experiences as me. I want to tell them you don’t have to take it.”

El-Sissi was quick to point out that the horrors she described are not in the distant past; they are happening today.

“This is a society that needs to change,” she said. “We need to educate people about this.”

Her message

El-Sissi said she has received many messages from women in Egypt asking when she is coming to speak there, and she is considering going. “My friends look at me like I’m crazy,” El-Sissi said. “They agree with me but they are afraid. The difference is, I am not afraid. I’m going to say what I’m saying, and I have the backing of the president, so this is good!”

After she spoke in schools, El-Sissi said, “I received letters saying, ‘You have inspired me, you have touched me, I have to give the book to my mom to read.’ For me, this is better than selling a hundred books. This is what I want — to touch so many young girls, to let them know: Don’t let anybody tell you what to do with your life.

“You are born free; you go, get your freedom, get your education, and get your goals. No man should tell you what to do.”

By Jeff Morris

Le Lewisboro ledger

The News of Lewisboro, New York