Why Women's Rights in Egypt Are a Class Issue
In a country segregated by economic inequalities, gender equality is a privilege. Everywhere you go, you hear inspiring stories about Egyptian women who have risen to the top of their respective fields and they all have one thing in common: Privilege.
In a perfect world, Yasmine would be president; a straight-A university student by day, a cleaner by night. The 21-year-old has been working since middle school, tirelessly charging through life to shatter the glass ceiling of her socioeconomic status. “Umm Saleh [her mother] has been both parents in the household, she has worked every day of her life to support us, she taught me to fend for myself,” Yasmine says fondly of the matriarch – a fondness she doesn’t seem to have for her father whom she describes as ‘a deadbeat dad.’
Shortly after her parents separated, Yasmine, her mother, her sister, and her two brothers moved to Cairo from Aswan in search of better opportunities. An uneducated woman, Umm Saleh had no choice but to take up a job as an office cleaner and that is how she has provided for her four children ever since, but her greatest achievement is having put her two daughters through university. “In Upper Egypt, there are no employment opportunities for women, which is why people don’t bother sending their daughters to school,” Yasmine says wryly. “Once they turn 15 or 16, they’re shipped off to some husband only to come back home a year later divorced with a child in tow.”
Having been brought up by a strong female figure like Umm Saleh, Yasmine has been spared the same fate as her cousins back in her hometown of Gaafra in Aswan, yet the worker bee remains very much within the reaches of patriarchy and phallocentrism. “After high school, I wanted to join the military as a nurse, but they [her family] said I couldn’t because I would have to work overnight and it wouldn’t be appropriate,” she says resignedly. When asked if she regrets not having resisted her family’s decision, she shrugged her shoulders as she fiddled with the hem of her headscarf and said, “No, I believe that people are predestined.”
Ironically, however, other people’s free will has dictated the course of Yasmine’s life more than she realises. In her book, Egypt’s Political Economy: Power Relations in Development, AUC professor and scholar Nadia Farah argues that conservative religious institutions have actively obstructed all efforts to reform the country’s male-skewed personal status laws – which upholds patriarchal values like male polygamy – to maintain “the last vestiges of their power over society and the traditional patriarchal culture that did not even allow fair implementation of some, if not much of the traditional system.”
As male superiority became enshrined in Egyptian law, women’s role in society began to shrink. In Upper Egypt, where Yasmine originates, girls are denied education, inheritance, employment, and are subject to barbaric bodily integrity violations such as female genital mutilation and marital rape, with no legal recourse. Over time, female subjugation became accepted by Egyptian women; most of them acquiesced to concede their basic freedoms for the sake of social conformity which necessitates piousness and modesty.
Aided by institutional corruption and inspired by fundamental interpretations of Islam, Islamism – which prospered under former presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak – further propagated patriarchy and phallocentrism in Egyptian society. However, a 2007 Pew survey found wealthier countries to be less religious, so the economics behind the populace’s shift from miniskirts to headscarves prove more compelling than religion.
But in a country where society is segregated by class barriers, 45-55% poverty, and economic inequalities – putting Egypt in the top 25 most economically unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank, even women’s rights can be a privilege that only money can afford. “I want to do something better with my life, that’s why I must learn English, because my [public] education is subpar and lacking, but language acquisition classes are so expensive,” Yasmine laments. “I think women raised in comfortable families have better economic opportunities because they receive better education in private schools that their parents can afford.”
Several UNDP Human Development Reports have found that the correlation between gender inequalities and per capita income is an inverse one – or as women’s rights advocate Soraya Bahgat succinctly articulates it, “the higher up the ladder you go, the more opportunities you get.”
A prime example of the socioeconomic divide among Egyptian women is domestic labour; female domestic workers serve at the pleasure of women who are free to pursue careers of their choosing. And although domestic work is a pillar of Egypt’s informal economy and one on which legions of people subsist, it is a sector in which underprivileged women are concentrated and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse due, in equal parts, to lack of regulation and government oversight as well as illiteracy and unawareness.
This unawareness is rooted in subjugation, which, in turn, is rooted in poverty that resulted in a male-skewed social structure. According to Farah, low income families’ little investment in human capital – the main constituent of which being education and health care – goes to their male children. These socioeconomic conditions are then perpetuated due to illiteracy among women, rendering them unequipped to make well-informed reproductive decisions such as the use of family planning methods, which translates to higher fertility rates, higher dependency burden, and even less investment in human capital.
Despite her academic achievements and hard work, Yasmine will never be president, she will likely never be CEO of a company, she will not attain her full potential. People often chalk up women’s political woes to patriarchy, but they forget that this male penchant to subdue the ‘fair’ sex predates civilisation and the world as we know it and that the only antidote is for the state to ensure that both halves of society are provided with the same opportunities.
In Egypt, the state has ceded that role to non-state actors – when national identity was left to traditionalists to fashion to their liking and policymakers saw it fit to cut education and healthcare expenditure for an ever-growing population, while at the same time, increasing peacetime defence spending, leaving women at the mercy of their male guardians’ caprice as vital services like healthcare and education became enterprises for corporations to generate profit.
This International Women’s Day, you will hear inspiring flowery stories about Egyptian women who have broken gender barriers, challenged the status quo, and shattered the glass ceilings of their respective fields. These women all have one thing in common: A good education. Yasmine is not one of them, and not for lack of trying. So as you read the stories of women breaking patriarchy, thinking of how far we've come while you sit on your personal computer, think on the fact that more than two thirds of the world's poor are women.
Main photo credit: UNFPA.