From The New York Times
The Female Factor
In Egypt, Women Have Burdens but No Privileges
By MONA EL-NAGGAR
Published: July 13, 2010
CAIRO — Hoda Gameel is 22 and one of the millions of women in Egypt thrust by need and circumstance into the world of work. While the act of leaving home to work may have liberated some women in the past, Egyptian women have found no recognition and are fleeing instead back toward tradition.
“I used to be ambitious, and I had dreams. Now I just want to get married and stay at home,” Ms. Gameel said. “My only hope is to be able to rest when I get married.”
She wakes at 7 a.m., makes breakfast for two younger brothers, walks them to school, returns home to iron clothes and goes to work, selling headscarfs at a booth in a glitzy mall. At night, after battling Cairo traffic on a 90-minute ride in a dilapidated bus, she has a late dinner, studies and — finally — sleeps.
It is a grind that yields barely $100 a month even with extra shifts, and a story drearily familiar in countries where tradition still deprives most women of opportunity, and poorly paid drudgery is the only choice.
Ms. Gameel has the burdens, but not the privileges, of her male counterparts. “I feel like a man,” she said. “Men are the ones who are supposed to struggle and carry the burden of their family. A woman is meant to provide love, affection and be sheltered. She shouldn’t be out and about all the time.”
The oldest of four children, Ms. Gameel, in her fourth year of accounting studies, had to provide when her father, an illiterate construction worker, retired with severe asthma at 51 and her mother grew too overweight to sew clothes in a factory for less than $50 a month.
At first, when she was 19, she worked as a secretary in a small company that sells air-conditioners. She liked the office job, and her salary was twice what she makes selling headscarfs. But her boss was a little too attentive — “he would keep dropping things on purpose so that I would have to bend down and get them.” When Ms. Gameel complained to colleagues, word got to her boss, and he fired her.
Women’s greater presence in the work force has not translated into any fundamental shift in prevailing attitudes toward women in public life.
Indeed, in a recent survey in association with the International Herald Tribune by the Pew Research Center in Washington, Egypt emerged as one country where women in the workplace clearly take a back seat to men and equal rights are a goal rather than reality. Sixty-one percent of respondents in Egypt said women should be allowed to work outside the home. But 75 percent said that when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to work.
“Yes, more women are working, but not every work is liberating,” said Iman Bibars, chairwoman of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, based in Cairo. “So in the end, a lot of the younger generation do not want to work. It is regressive and reactionary.”
“At the same time that women are out to work, and this is a modern indicator, traditions continue to have the upper hand,” noted Madiha el-Safty, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.
Egypt is ranked 120 out of 128 countries in gender equality by the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, with emphasis on its low performance in the subcategories of political empowerment and genuine female opportunity in the economy.
Things may in fact be getting worse for women. In Egypt, the government sector has traditionally proved more hospitable to women. As the economy has shifted toward the private sector, women are losing out. According to a 2010 Population Council report, the unemployment rate for women ages 15 to 29 is about 32 percent, compared with 12 percent for men the same ages.
Women in Egypt occupy only eight out of the 454 seats in Parliament — and five of those female deputies were appointed by the president. There are just three female ministers and no women among Egypt’s 29 governors.
When women applied to be judges in the State Council, Egypt’s highest administrative court, the council’s general assembly voted against, arguing that women’s emotional disposition and maternal duties rendered them unfit. The decision was overruled in March after Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif appealed to the constitutional court, but no women have been appointed.
Similarly, Parliament passed a law last year, initiated by the ruling National Democratic Party, giving women a 64-seat quota in an expanded lower house over the next two five-year terms, starting with elections this autumn.
Spheres like law and politics are scarcely open to women of Ms. Gameel’s modest background, noted Fayzah el-Tahnawy, a member of the ruling party and a former member of Parliament from the conservative region of Menya.
Only affluent women “can afford to have ambition,” while most women belong to the middle or lower classes, she noted. In addition, female illiteracy remains high: the most recent Egyptian Labor Market Survey found that 47 percent of rural women and 23 percent of urban women could not read or write.
“This is why we had to implement the quota system in order to make room for women in politics,” said Ms. Tahnawy. “It didn’t just happen on its own.”
How any of these measures would help Ms. Gameel is unclear. She doggedly pursues her degree, and English language courses in summer. She wants a job in a bank for favorable hours (work ending at 2 p.m.) that she sees as her only shot at a dignified career and happy marriage.
“I work like a machine,” said Ms. Gameel. “There are no promotions, my salary doesn’t increase, and there is no mercy. Where is the sense of fulfillment in that?”
It is 11 p.m. Ms. Gameel totals sales for the day, calls in to the owner and shutters the booth. She is carrying frozen okra, which her mother will cook for dinner. She shuffles to the bus. She gazes out the window. Halfway home, she finally speaks. “This bumpy ride alone is bound to kill me.”