The long and bumpy road to gender equality

Alexandra Kinias was denied a job as a site engineer in an oil company because of her gender. The rejection letter clearly stated that the company would rather offer its jobs to male engineers. Women in Egypt have come a long way since then, she says

By Alexandra Kinias

Earlier this year, Instrumentation and Control Engineer Sara Mansour won the "Nex-Gen Female of the Year", an award that recognises the contributions of young female professionals with the potential to be future business and industry leaders. Mansour, who works at the Egyptian Natural Gas Company Gasco, received the award at the Women in Energy Awards and Conference during Egypt Petroleum Show 2019. She is among many young female engineers who are moving into this male-dominated industry.

In 2007, Sara Mansour received a scholarship from the Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum and PETRONAS to study at PETRONAS University of Technology UTP, where she received her Bachelor's Degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering with honours. Exactly three decades earlier, I was denied a job as a site engineer in an oil company because of my gender. The rejection letter clearly stated that the company would rather offer its jobs to male engineers. Women in Egypt have come a long way since then.

The number of Egyptian women entering this field and other male-dominated fields continues to grow. The image of female engineers in overalls and safety hats working on oil rigs is a sight that people are slowly growing used to. Stories similar to Mansour's are great accomplishments for women on all fronts. They are silver linings in the clouds.

Women who are venturing into male-dominated jobs are breaking social taboos. They are taking the first bullets. They are fought, criticised, ridiculed and stigmatised. Men look down on them and doubt their capacities. They don't consider them peers, but adversaries who are after their jobs.

It is important to put all that in perspective to understand that in spite of all that, women have strived hard to excel and have succeeded and proved themselves as equals.

Regression in women's status in Egypt

While we are elated over women's success stories like Mansour's, let's not ignore the fact that over the last few decades, there has been a noticeable regression in women status in Egypt. The regression was caused by the increasing influence of Islamists in society, which reached its apex after the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power.

The Islamist Parliament formed in January 2012 had already started taking action to repeal both the kuli' law that allowed women to divorce and the law that criminalised female genital mutilation. Moreover, dropping the age of marriage to 16 was also on the agenda of the issues discussed in that parliament. The future of Egyptian women became even bleaker when the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement in March 2013 denouncing the UN Declaration to End Violence against Women on the basis that this declaration would destroy the family and lead to a complete disintegration of society. Plans had been brewing in society for decades before the Brotherhood's rise to power, aiming to strip the meagre rights women had fought hard to achieve, not only glorifying the roles of stay-at-home wives and mothers, but intentionally dropping out of history books the female role models and the stories of the pioneer women of the Egyptian suffragettes who fought hard to advance the rights of women.

Moreover, contemporary women's advocates have been vilified, and their causes and mental states discredited. It is no surprise that these women are a threat to the voices trying to hinder women's achievements. As a result, women have not only lost their role models, but also some of their rights, and their status has reached a point of stagnation.

Fortunately, multiple factors have helped to slow down the growth and momentum of anti-women's rights movements. They have not come to a complete stop yet, as the struggle between the forces of light and darkness will continue until education for women, social empowerment and financial independence prevail. However, putting the brakes on anti-women's rights movements was a stepping stone on the road to reversing their influence.

Recent history as an important factor of social change

While the January 2011 revolution may have changed the lives of many, it was in fact an important factor of social change for Egyptian women. As women marched through the streets alongside men, they crossed a barrier and their voices became louder. When Mubarak stepped down, they discovered the power of their participation and the tangible role they played in the success of the revolution and in shaping the fate of the country. The belief in their power and effectiveness was reinforced and augmented when they took back the streets in July 2013 to change another regime that worked against their rights.  

Webcomic Qahera image created by Deena Mohamed (©qaherathesuperhero/Deena Mohamed)
Deena Mohamed is an Egyptian illustrator and designer. She started making comics at 18 with her webcomic Qahera, about a female visibly Muslim superhero who addresses social issues. Her debut graphic novel, "Shubeik Lubeik", won the Grand Prize at the Cairo Comix Festival and is currently published in Arabic by Dar el-Mahrousa

Taking down two political giants within a period of two years broke their fear barrier, and they started their own personal revolution to bring change to themselves.

Since then, a clear change has been happening to women across the country, in both the social and professional fields. Even in the most conservative rural areas, women are standing up for their rights. In 2018, a 22-year old woman from the conservative city of Qena in Upper Egypt, sued her sexual harasser, and sent him to jail for three years, refusing to reconcile, even after receiving threats from his family. CCTV images showed the girl beating him up after he touched her while she was walking, and insisted on not letting him go. Not too long ago, girls not only didn't dare report such incidents, but were also ashamed to, as the police wouldn't even pay attention to them, or worse, they would blame them for inciting such incidents because of their mannerisms or dress.

On the professional level, we are witnessing young women in rural areas breaking social taboos; launching fashion blogs or YouTube channels with a variety of content about issues of interest to them and their causes.

Social media: an important tool for advancement

The second factor that has contributed to the advancement of women in the last decade was the economic hardships the country went through prior to and especially after the two revolutions and their subsequent impact on the economy. Women who took to the streets for 18 days in January 2011 and revolted back in June 2013 found no shame in rolling up their sleeves and working, venturing into fields that were until recently male-dominated.It no longer raises eyebrows to see women working as carpenters, plumbers, electricians or car mechanics. Not only that, but social media has also widened women's horizons and helped them realise that nothing is unachievable.

Social media and tutorial videos on YouTube helped women across the country, especially in conservative communities that limit their mobility and often hindered their dreams, to start small home businesses. With a click of a button, women across the country learn crafts online and market their products on social media, generating income for themselves and their families. Home businesses like catering, baking, jewellery-making and handmade gifts are among the top businesses created by women, which brings them economic independence.

Realising the power of women

However, nothing would have worked without a strong support system that believed in women rights and equality and one that became the driving force to bring change to them. Realising the power of women, the current administration has been working from day one to empower women on the social, economic and political level. The efforts by the Egyptian government since 2013 cannot be overlooked or overshadowed as it has been a while since Egypt had a government that is fully embracing women, on all sectors and levels.

The road to achieving overall development is long and challenging, with hurdles at every corner. The damage that was done over decades cannot be overturned overnight, but very slow steps are being taken, and every positive change is a change in the right direction. With the global and local attention on women and their issues, we are witnessing the birth of new initiatives every day that try to bring positive changes and help women realise their power and strength. The Women of Egypt (WoE) Initiative is such an example.

[embed:render:embedded:node:28319]Founded in January 2016, WoE's main mission is to empower Egyptian women by bringing into focus important issues hindering their growth, shedding light on the problems of gender inequality and by effecting positive social, cultural and professional change. Through its social media platforms and online publications, WoE offers Egyptian women an online support platform where they can be inspired, encouraged and empowered. It also monitors the news, exposes violations against women or their issues and updates them with laws issued in, or against, their favour. Moreover, it offers them a safe medium to voice their concerns and express their thoughts and motivate them to stand up for their rights and demand change.

Leading women's movements in misogynistic and patriarchal societies is challenging. To maintain the status quo and their superiority over women, which they inherited from their predecessors, men would fight tooth and nail not to surrender any of the rights they are unjustly basking in.

The road to gender equality is long and bumpy. Advocacy to bring positive change to women's lives is challenging, but in the long run, it works as people are eager to change for the better if guided in the right direction. And big changes are the culmination of small continuous and persistent efforts, even if it means improving the life of one woman at a time. Advocates are a force for change, and people fear change, even those who will benefit from it. Changing mindsets is hard, but hard work and persistence are powerful tools for the betterment of humanity when used wisely to improve the lives of others.

Alexandra Kinias

© Goethe-Institut 2020