In Egypt, “Women are 50% of the community.” This is a famous Arabic saying here, and its popularity is a strong proof of the respect paid to women in this country. In general, Egyptians are a conservative people with strong emphasis on marriage and family. Mothers are heavily relied upon to shoulder the burdens of childbearing and rearing, while fathers are typically the economic providers. Commercialized day care is not an option for most families, being a luxury available in only select locations of a very few major cities. Under these circumstances, it is surprising to learn that approximately one fourth of the paid workforce in Egypt is female. Let’s take a closer look at female employment in Egyptian communities.
Islamic practices play an important role in shaping the work ethic of Egypt, as the majority of the population is Muslim. Regarding employment, it is important to note that Islam places no financial burdens on a woman. The man is solely obligated to provide all of the financial support for his wife and family. However, although she does not have to do so, a woman does have the right to work outside of the home. Furthermore, under Islamic law, she has the right to keep all of her income for herself. Naturally, as in anywhere in the world, a woman in Egypt enjoys more or less of her religious and/or cultural rights as her immediate family circumstances will tolerate. I feel it is quite encouraging to see such a large workforce of women here, in all types of positions from helping out as rural farmhands, to presiding over posh government offices.
As of 2010*, within the female workforce, about 43% of women are employed in agricultural occupations, 23% are employed in professional occupations, and 14% as technicians and professional assistants. Within the government sector alone, approximately 37% of the workforce is female, with women typically filling administrative, clerical and secretarial positions. But these are cold, dry statistics, with limited ability to inspire the imagination. Join us on a trip around my local area while Mohamed and I run some typical errands and we’ll introduce the workers we meet in the process.
On a typical Tuesday, the farmer market in our nearby city is in full swing by 7 in the morning. Stalls and tables and simple blankets laid out on the ground are overflowing with goods and produce lining the left and right sides of the street, as well as the left and right sides of the center line. Everything on earth is likely on sale here, and chances are equally likely that at least 50% of all bargaining will be made with a lady vendor. Need a chicken for dinner tonight? Pick one up here in the market. The lady chicken vendors in the first photo at the top of the page, preside like expert judges over three crates of live chickens, displaying a fine feathered bird to a lady shopping for her dinner.
Paying the electric bill is next, the bill is hand delivered to our door, and must be paid with cash in person at the electric company. Mohamed approaches a counter behind which sit the cashiers, three men and two women. He bypasses them and goes directly to the desk of Madame Office Manager, prefering her expertise after long years of dealing with the problems of maintaining local electric service during long terms of overseas living. Paying a year’s worth of electric service in advance to a cashier could be the luckiest day of a cashier’s life, and it could very easily be a year before learning it never got applied to Mohamed’s account. But Madame Office Manager clearly values her high status position, and never tolerates mistakes or cheating. We sit respectfully in the chairs facing her desk and she directs her employees very admirably with an air of grace and command.
On our way out of the electric building, we pass “Ostaza” Mona, and stop to exchange greetings. She was my personal lawyer a few years back, and assisted me with a legal case related to my Egyptian citizenship. “Ostaz” is a title of respect specifically used for high visibility professional men, teachers, and lawyers, modified to “Ostaza” for the relatively uncommon women in these positions. Mona assures me happily that there are far more women in her field now than there were only a few years back.
Finally, as we arrive back home we find a huge commotion of activity on our humble little corner of Egyptian farmland. It appears the entire Water Department has assembled with their heavy equipment, ready to undertake a new project. The dilapidated water regulating equipment on the bridge is scheduled for a complete overhaul, and everyone is taking orders from Madame “Mohandissa” Fatima. “Mohandissa” means Engineer, in this case the -a on the end of the word signifies the feminine form of the noun. It is a title of great respect, and quite a pleasant surprise to learn that the boss of all this manly commotion is a woman!
With women occupying 50% of the husband-wife relationship, it is great to learn that Egyptian women also command their right to 50% of the community in Egypt. It is clear from the average examples seen in the daily life here, that this is more than a simple platitude that people pay only lip service to. The level of respect, generally speaking, with which I have witnessed women treated in the Egyptian workplace, regardless of economic background, is quite high and it is very inspiring!
* Data according to The Social Research Center, American University in Cairo