Commissioned by UN Women in Egypt, a recent ad campaign entitled Finding Her highlights the vast gender disparity in the Egyptian workforce. Posters in the style of “Where’s Waldo?” depict large-scale vignettes of three male-dominated industries: politics, science, and technology, with only one woman hidden in each scene.
As viewers strain their eyes to find the hidden figure, their attention is drawn to the fact that women make up only 23 percent of the Egyptian workforce.
Championing equal representation in the workplace, the Finding Her campaign is a necessary effort in the ongoing struggle to promote women’s social and economic participation in Egypt.
Despite the obstacles to achieving this goal, Nadia Abdou Saleh, who was appointed governor of the Beheira province in the Nile Delta region last month, is hopeful that opportunities for women in business and politics are increasing.
In an interview with Xinhua, the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China, Governor Abdou Saleh observed that “women constitute half the society[,] affect the other half, and…have greater awareness of the…problems facing the society.” She sees women’s social and economic participation as crucial to Egypt’s development and believes this involvement is becoming increasingly acceptable nationwide. Abdou Saleh is the country’s first female governor, a fact that she views as a sign of positive social change.
There are other signs, as well. For example, the Ministry of Religious Endowments will begin officially appointing female preachers to the women-only sections of several mosques starting this month. As Amira Sayed Ahmed reported for Al-Monitor, these women are graduates of al-Azhar and will be the Ministry’s first ever official female appointees.
This decision to formally allow women to preach is a clear extension of the Egyptian government’s anti-terrorism efforts and attempts to guide women away from radical preachers toward a state-sanctioned-view on Islam. In this way, female preachers are being co-opted for a political agenda. By the same measure, however, the new policy also acknowledges women’s social influence and legitimizes their participation in the religious sphere.
Shifting to the economic sphere, in February, the government proposed an amendment to Inheritance Law No. 77 of 1943 to parliament’s Legislative Committee. Addressing the all too common problem of rightful inheritance shares being denied to women, the amendment categorizes these violations as criminal offenses for the first time in modern Egyptian history.
While these developments may appear limited, they must be considered against the backdrop of harassment and discrimination women face at every level of Egyptian society, which makes even minimal progress difficult to achieve.
As recently as September 2016, Egyptian MP Elhamy Agina called for all women to undergo “virginity tests” before being admitted to university. While allegedly responding to the recent rise in “urfi” or customary marriages, the proposal’s inevitable effect is to hinder women’s admission to higher education, which would, in turn, limit their job prospects and entrance into the workforce.
While MP Agina’s statements may not be representative of the mainstream, his comments speak to an increasing trend in sexual violence and gender discrimination since 2013.
Following President Mohamed Morsi’s ousting in July of that year, many women hoped that then-General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the effective head of the interim government, would be a champion for women’s rights. This expectation has failed to materialize, as evidenced by Sisi’s crackdowns on civil society organizations, including several women’s rights groups.
Sisi’s regime has also fostered an environment in which sexual violence can be used as a political tool.
As harassment has become socially acceptable, it has pervaded the workforce, making it increasingly difficult for women to feel comfortable participating at an equal level to men.
As all this suggests, the 2011 revolution did not bring parity to Egypt, and, if anything, led to a worsening in gender-based violence and discrimination. Nevertheless, in this restrictive milieu, Egyptian women are still making small gains in support of their economic and social rights.