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In Egypt, a village boasts the nation's first female mayor

Eva Habil Kyrolos wears the distinction lightly as she tends to law and order and social matters in Komboha, the village her great-great-grandfather was granted in the 19th century.

March 08, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

KOMBOHA, EGYPT — Her father's chair sits beneath the window to catch the morning light, where he once held court with villagers who wanted him to discipline their sons, chase away thieves and settle land and dowry disputes on the lush fields between the Nile and the desert's edge.

She eases into the high-back chair with the worn wooden armrests. A single woman of 53 wearing faded bluejeans and a pink blouse, her dark hair uncovered, she has her late father's spirit and wisdom, though she has decided not to spank misbehaving children and, truth be told, she'd rather not know all the whispered sins and untidy dramas of her friends and neighbors in this brick-and-mud smudge of a village founded by an ancestor.

Few would have expected this place of millstones and poultry dealers to claim the "first" of anything. It's there, though, in a picture frame: Eva Habil Kyrolos smiling and standing next to President Hosni Mubarak on the day she became Egypt's first female mayor. It hangs near photographs of her grandfather, whose brow seems cut from stone, and her father, a scrubbed-faced raconteur in a turban.

"People from nearby towns used to mock us, 'Oh, you have a woman mayor now,' " said Osama Gamel, a car mechanic, mimicking the needling chirps of those who poke fun. "But you know what? She's better than a man."

Better than a man. Not a phrase one often hears in Egypt. But those words resonate in alleys where donkey carts, piled with bundles of green grass, rattle past churches and mosques, and boys hoe brown-black furrows along the river. Gossip blows from stoop to stoop and fishermen moor their battered boats in the marshes. The restless and the young peek into visiting cars, hoping for an exciting face to peek back. Everyone can point you to the mayor's office.

"I am part of history now. I am under the spotlight," said Kyrolos, sitting in her receiving room, while outside a taxi driver, a lead-footed madman who minutes earlier had sent old ladies running and ducks scurrying through the dust, washed his car near a brick wall. The mayor heard the slosh and clatter, got up and shooed him away.

"The villagers are getting used to a woman, but sometimes when they address me as mayor they use the male gender. I was once the 'mayor's daughter,' but I'm developing my own credentials. I'm a judge, but sometimes I have to be a mother to make them obey."

Step outside, walk past corner shops and schoolgirls too young to know that in the late 19th century Kyrolos' great-great-grandfather, a Coptic Christian, was granted permission by the state to lay claim to a village, providing he built a house of worship and a kiln to bake bread. He called it Komboha; family legend has it that it was named after a princess who walked with pharaohs.

Choosing a mayor is more official these days. Kyrolos, a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, was appointed by the state Interior Ministry in December. She is not married; she knows what goes through people's minds about this, but once she hit 40 her relatives quit asking. As a strict Copt, she said, divorce is forbidden, so choosing someone means choosing him for life. That's not easy, which leads to the tale of a husband who recently knocked on Kyrolos' door.

"He came to me and told me his wife was fooling around on him. I was shocked," the mayor said. "I told him to go to the church and talk to a priest. Then he told me he had told a lot of people about this. I said, 'I can't help you if you've told everybody, if it's not private.' His wife ended up solving things herself. She ran away."

Kyrolos was born here. She and her friends were the first to graduate from the new elementary school, and every summer they watched the Nile rise around their village, turning it into an island. She later studied law at Ain Shams University in Cairo and then ended up in Iraq, working in a stationery store in Baghdad before being hired in the legal department of a government office. She stayed two years during the rule of Saddam Hussein before returning to Egypt and moving to Cairo to start a law practice.

"I wanted an independent life," she said. "But my father got sick in 1990. I was the only one of his six daughters not married. I felt an obligation to take care of him. It was the toughest decision I ever made.

"He died at 85 in 2002, but while he was ill I helped him with his mayor duties and I was intrigued and grew politically active. I worked on women's rights issues to stop early marriage, female circumcision and I helped women get their voting cards."

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