The iron lady of Egypt

Ms Ebtesam Mohamed irons clothes using her feet.
Ms Ebtesam Mohamed irons clothes using her feet.PHOTO: REUTERS

CAIRO • In a narrow alleyway in the heart of Egypt's coastal city of Alexandria, Ms Ebtesam Mohamed is busy working on a decades-old Egyptian tradition of ironing clothes - by using her feet.

Unlike in regular ironing, she smooths out creases by sliding a large hot metal slab - that weighs nearly 40kg - back and forth with her foot.

A piece of wood protects her foot from the iron's heat.

The 45-year-old single mother has been doing the job for the past 35 years. She inherited the trade from her mother and grandfather.

"I was 10 when I started ironing and I couldn't even lift the iron from the oven to the table," she said.

"We call this little oven the 'house of fire'. It has not changed since we started, but (new) heating methods have been developed from kerosene to gas-filled canisters to what we use now, which is natural gas.

"This is probably the only thing that has changed in the shop."

Hand-held electric and steam irons may pose stiff competition now, but Ms Mohamed said her technique is more effective than that of regular ironing because of the increased pressure and weight applied to the clothes.

It usually takes her up to 20 minutes to iron a single piece of clothing, moving her leg back and forth several times to ensure the garment is crease-free.

"I heat the iron depending on the amount of work I have.

"If I have to iron three or four pieces of clothing, that would require the iron to be at a certain temperature, and if I have to iron one piece, it would require a different temperature.

"So it all depends on the workload," she said.

Her loyal customers said they prefer her method to the standard one. And some are surprised to see a woman taking up a trade that is usually the preserve of ironing men or "makwagi".

For her ironclad guarantee of perfection, she charges from two to five Egyptian pounds (15 to 38 Singapore cents) a piece.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'The iron lady of Egypt'. Print Edition | Subscribe