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Do Egyptian Women Still Have to Choose Between a Career and Motherhood?

For the 30% Egyptian households fended for by women, the choice between employment and motherhood is not an option.

As she rushed through traffic to catch that long-anticipated job interview, 26-year-old Hannah* kept skimming through the internet in vain hope to stumble upon last-minute tips to make a lasting impression. She NEEDS this to work. As she glanced at her screen, shortly before arriving to her destination, she spotted what would have been the biggest mistake she could make in a job interview; her engagement ring. She quickly slipped it off her finger and prayed to the almighty that the very visible mark it left behind will go unnoticed. You see, Hannah has learnt through countless rejections that the prospect of her happily ever after is not particularly attractive to employers, and she's anything but alone.

"I think it's pretty normal for employers to not want to hire someone they know could possibly soon be taking a fully-paid 3-months maternity leave. Why would they do that when they can just hire a man or a woman who's not planning to marry soon?" is the logical justification Hannah has landed on after a year of job-searching and interview hopping, echoing what some may view as the greedy materialistic notion Egyptian employers have simply come to view as efficient HR strategies.

I think it's pretty normal for employers to not want to hire someone they know could possibly soon be taking a fully-paid 3-months maternity leave.

According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics(CAPMAS), Egyptian women still rank on the lower end of things in terms of fair chances for education and employment. In 2015, 33.5% of Egyptian women were still considered illiterate, double the figure of men at 18.5%, meaning that Egyptian men already have a head start when it comes to opportunities in finding stable employment. Add that to the fact that 30% of Egyptian families are fended for by women, and the picture of the reality of the struggles they need to go through to merely survive becomes even clearer.  

Hannah was, unlike many others in her situation, in luck. The HR manager at the prestigious corporation failed to notice the mark on her finger. He didn't, however, fail to ask her if she plans to wed soon, to which her answer was a strategic no; a lie. Soon, she signed a contract guaranteeing her the right to a 3-month paid maternity leave should she choose to practice her god-given right of becoming a mother. Such a privilege is not shared by most women in Egypt, as obtaining legal work contracts remains only an elusive dream to many women in informal jobs, one of whom is Manal*, a 35-year-old divorcee and breadwinner of a household consisting of 3 children, the oldest of which is 13.

After six years of working my heart out at that company, I'm simply just let go of in my true hour of need like that? I left feeling hopeless and just wanted to end my life then and there

"I used to work as a cleaner in a big company. Because of the workload and the below average pay, the turnover rate was rather high, so they didn't sign a contract with most service workers," explains Manal. "At first, I didn't really mind, I was only working to support my husband anyway. After I gave birth to two children and while pregnant with the third, my husband and I reached a low in our relationship which we couldn't recover from. Soon, I found myself a divorcee with huge burdens to bare by myself."

As her due date approached, Manal sought to have a discussion with an HR executive at her company. She explained her situation and asked for a paid 1-month maternity leave so she could fend for her children and unborn baby until she's physically able to make it back to work. According to her plan, she would send her two children to school every day before leaving her newborn with her mother for the day so she could make it to work. The HR executive politely apologised for his inability to help with her situation, and further informed her - with a polite smile as she recalls - that he had meant to inform her earlier that her services will no longer be needed after she gives birth, as they had been planning for a while to hire a cleaning company. On hearing those words, Manal's entire world came crumbling down.

"Can you imagine that? After six years of working my heart out at that company, I'm simply just let go of in my true hour of need like that? I left feeling hopeless and just wanted to end my life there and then, but even that wasn't an option, because I still had mouths to feed. I eventually found no way out but to start working as a maid, which is something no woman in my family has ever done before," she sadly recounted.

Manal's story is in no way unique.  According to recent government stats, 30% of Egyptian families have single mothers as the sole breadwinners. The recently-approved labour law gives Egyptian women the right to a 4-month fully paid leave and outlaws dismissal of women while on said leave. But with employers actively avoiding hiring soon-to-be wed women, and the informal sector employing as much as 18% of Egypt's female workforce, what choices are women left with if a dignified life and a stable job is what they're after?

30% of Egyptian families have single mothers as the sole breadwinners.

"We have to make a distinction between those employed by the formal sector and those in the informal one," explained prominent economist, Omar Elshenety. "The informal sector of the economy, naturally, puts everyone working within it at a disadvantage and with a loss of basic rights such medical and social insurance. In that context, whatever is applicable to men is also applicable to women. That being said, it's also hard to blame corporations and employers for their stance on maternity leave; they are simply applying the system and seeking, like any business, to make the optimum financial benefit. The problem is, however, that the system itself is not very supportive."

Sharing the burden of motherhood, in Elshenety's view, shouldn't lie solely on women. At his multinational agency, the management took the initiative of establishing a nursery for new mothers. This, of course, remains a distant dream to most Egyptian working mothers who have to resort to other options. "Women should have a strong support network when they decide to get pregnant. Their mothers and family could be of great help at such stage and after they give birth and seek to head back to leading a busy career. As a basic rule, however, women should take into consideration how much of a responsibility will lie upon them when they give birth, especially considering that the phenomenon of early marriages is predominant in Egypt. Having a supportive husband could prove to be of crucial importance. That's why my advice to the Egyptian woman is make sure you're married to the right person before getting pregnant."

*Names of the interviewees have been changed at their own requests

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