Women are vital to the success of all nations. No country can rise to the upper rungs of the developed world without its women. Countries that recognize this fact race ahead of other states that allow patriarchal arrogance to slow down growth and progress. After three and a half years of political and economic instability, Egypt cannot afford to ignore how social attitudes toward women have contributed to its faltering renaissance.
Egypt is a society, in which sexism is so ingrained in the economic, social, and political system that 50% of the population has, for the most part, been excluded. To appreciate the potential of an inclusive Egyptian society, it is necessary to understand the obstacles that currently stand in the way of this inclusivity.
Traditional Views, Limited Opportunities
Tradition, cultural morays, and family expectations have been the primary constraints on women’s advancement in Egyptian society. Social pressures on women push them toward family life, child rearing, and the fulfillment of maternal instincts, instead of toward higher education and professional careers. When women are able to further their education and careers, they are often relegated to traditionally, female-oriented fields of study and work. Traditionally, women’s career opportunities have been limited to nursing, teaching, andpositions that are similarly aligned to fit an image of women as nurturing, maternal figures. While there are female architects, doctors, engineers, and business leaders, they are a minority.
Although they exist for all women, social pressures are especially prevalent outside large urban centers, like Cairo and Alexandria. According to the European Training Foundation’s 2009 report on female participation in Egypt’s various industries, in rural areas, “women are largely constrained, whereas in [cities], they enjoy wider opportunities that allow them to participate in roles other than reproduction and farm labor.”
Even with the greater opportunities present in urban areas, women still face strong and persistent gender inequality in the work place. Most female professionals in Egypt have experienced or witnessed a lack of equal opportunity for jobs, systematic sexual harassment, and the sublimation of their careers in favor of child rearing. Family members who know nothing other than a male-oriented social order and who are unsupportive ofcareer-oriented women only add to these societal obstacles. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights notes that “the perception of women as fragile, weak under stress, untrustworthy, and disloyal adds to the isolation of career women.”
The Revolution as a Catalyst for Change
For many years during President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, First Lady Suzanne Mubarak championed women’s causes, including controversial reforms to Egypt’s personal status laws. Despite the progress this may have brought for women, many Egyptians began to associate women’s rights with Mubarak’s repressive, disconnected regime. In the aftermath of the January 25 Revolution, there were calls for the repeal of many of the policies supported by Suzanne Mubarak’s advocacy. For some observers, these calls brought fear of backsliding on women’s legal rights.
But other observers point to different benchmarks for tracking progress on women’s issues in post-revolutionary Egypt. “We are in a much better situation [now] for a few reasons,” argues prominent Egyptian children’s rights activist, Nelly Ali, who is currently finishing her PhD at the University of London. Ali’s belief in women and what they can accomplish in a post-revolutionary landscape is clear. As she describes it, “The role women have played during the protests, the incredible courage and skills they displayed… [and] being useful outside the home and work spheres” have all permanently changed the societal equation.
Ali points to international perceptions about Egyptian women as a major gain. In November 2013, she and six other prominent female, Egyptian activists were invited to a conference in Germany. As Ali explained it, by the end of the conference, the German participants were in awe of their Egyptian counterparts. “They were so impressed at what we do compared to them: we did it without money, without funding, without training, without government support.”
But women in Egypt face a very different set of circumstances inside the country. Despite their vital role (or perhaps because of it) in the January 25 Revolution, there has been a significant increase in both sexual harassment and sexual assaults against women. The United Nations Information Center in Cairo notes that, since 2011, Egypt has become the second worst country worldwide when it comes to sexual harassment. According to the Center, “harassment is ‘indiscriminate’: it happens to anyone and anywhere.”
Egypt’s government has taken steps to curb this epidemic, with former interim President Adly Mansour passing an anti-harassment law just before leaving office. Questions remain, however, as to whether such legal measures can stem the tide of violence. While recent 20 plus-year sentences for perpetrators of sexual harassment are a promising sign, it will be a long time before shifts in societal attitudes toward sexual harassment and assault occur.
Political Successes and Setbacks
On the political front, circumstances have been just as mixed since January 25. Many analysts were overjoyed when Dr. Hala Shukrallah became head of the Dostour Party in February 2014. As both a woman and a Christian, Dr. Shukrallah became a symbol of success for two underrepresented demographics within Egyptian society. Some commentators pointed to her appointment as a sign of meaningful changes in Egyptian attitudes toward women and a reflection of better times ahead.
But the story of Dr. Shukrallah is rare, and the number of women in Egyptian politics has remained low: out of 508 members of Egypt’s most recent parliament, only ten were women, placing Egypt near the bottom of worldwide rankings for female legislative representation. The Constituent Assembly of 2012 fared only marginally better with six women out of 100 members. In past parliaments, while the percentage of women representatives was higher, many of these women were appointed, rather than elected, to their positions. Notably, this system failed to bring about a change in Egyptian perspectives on women in positions of power.
Worse yet, women who manage to obtain political positions are more often than not part of the establishment and help further a system that oppresses, rather than lifts, women up. While it is important that successful women’s voices are heard, the presence of women such as Mervat El Tallawy, a long-serving career diplomat and now head of the National Council of Women (NCW), can impede genuine progress. In a recent statement regarding the European Union’s report on its election monitoring in Egypt, El Tallawy reprimanded the EU: “We are proud of our country, we are proud of our Egypt, we are proud of our new president of Egypt… [It’s] a new era in Egypt whether you like it or not.” By using her position as a platform to deliver the Egyptian government’s political messaging – rather than to be a voice for Egypt’s women – El Tallawy has failed to become a positive force in the struggle for women’s rights.
Despite these challenges, Sally Zohny, a leading feminist, storyteller, and founding member of the group Uprising of Women in the Arab World, feels the revolution has changed things for the better. “Women from different backgrounds are more aware now of their strength, their impact in public life regardless of their social and educational levels. Leading a chant, organizing a public event is suddenly not exclusive to the educated,” she says.
Zohny does, however, still acknowledge the setbacks in post-revolutionary Egypt. Women are “stuck politically…protecting the rights we already gained except for the newly approved law against sexual harassment.” Striking a sober tone, Zohny explains, “Gains are minimal. I would fight for more rights at the political and decision making level, more women to lead political parties, to be ministers and key decision makers, more young women especially.” But, she quickly adds, “This will not come without another fight.”
Family Life: The Key to Changing Society
In order for progress to occur, social stereotypes about women’s roles must be abandoned. But how do you help a society re-conceptualize its views on women? How do you convince a mother in a small village that her fifteen-year-old daughter is entitled to a college degree? How do you explain to a father that his family’s interests will be best served if his sixteen-year-old daughter does not become a mother at age eighteen? How do you convince men that the notion of power sharing with women will result in a society that has more wealth for all? These are questions that plague many countries, but they are particularly crucial to a nation trying to regain its footing after years of economic drudgery.
The answers to these problems must be found in the home first. If gender equality becomes a mainstay in the Egyptian household, it will have positive knock-on effects on gender disparity in the work place. If mothers and fathers treat their daughters as true equals to their sons, Egypt’s future would turn from bleak to bright.
As Nelly Ali eloquently notes, “We need to teach our daughters to fight for other people’s rights. If we get caught up fighting for our rights as women, as children, as anything else, [we will] be self-consumed and isolated.” She continues, “By fighting for others’ rights, you stumble upon your freedom.”
Fixing what ails a nation as large as Egypt is no easy task, but it is clear that no progress can be made as long as the country alienates and excludes half of its workforce. If things do not change, Egypt itself will be the biggest loser.