Is Egypt really so bad for women?

Last month, the Thomson Reuters Foundation announced that Egypt was the worst in the Arab World for women, which is quite something given that no Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.  Last year, the influential Egyptian-American, Mona Eltahawy asked “Why do they hate us?“, implying a generalised Arab misogyny which ran throughout the region, yet having been in Egypt for nearly a month, I seem to be missing something.

I can’t possibly claim to be an expert on Egypt or the situation of Egyptian women; my experience of the country is mainly confined to village and small town life ,with a single trip to the big smoke of Cairo …but if Egypt is the worst place to be a woman in the Arab world, then Europe could learn a great deal from the region.  With the reports of sexual harassment occurring throughout the country and even acid attacks occurring in Cairo, and a year of living with the daily sexual harrassment of Athens, I was bracing myself for an ongoing onslaught of pain in the arse men.    Being white in particular, I felt that I would be more at risk for marginalisation, harassment and sexualisation, but in fact, its been a welcome relief.

As I’ve written about before, in Athens, men outnumber women on the streets by a massive factor, and by the evening outwith popular hangout areas, a woman on the streets is a relatively rare sight, yet in the village, the opposite is the case – women dominate.  The women run most of the small shops, almost completely run the market place and provide a physical background hum of women on doorsteps and chatting on corners.  In fact the streets of the village are so disproportionately full of women that you start to question where the men are.

The answer it would seem is on construction sites and on the roads.  Health and safety Egyptian-style would give a British standards inspector a heart attack within 15 minutes of arrival.  Transport and construction in particular seem to be astoundingly dangerous.    Very few women seem to drive here, preferring the semi-public transport of taxi-buses, almost all of the drivers are men, which goes some way to explaining the shockingly bad driving.  Construction and mechanical labour is, as far as I can see, exclusively done by men, under possibly the most dangerous working conditions I have ever seen in my life.  Whenever I raise the dangerous driving and working conditions with anyone, they just shrug and tell me that “In Egypt, the people are many“, which I’m starting to interpret as a generalised feminine conspiracy to kill off teh menz.

Gender norms are heavy here, and gendered dress well defined.  In the village I have seen no woman without a scarf, and even in the local town, women in full niquab outnumber unveiled women by a factor of around 3 to 1.  Few women wear trousers, and only then teamed them with knee length dresses.  Even in the recent unseasonably wet weather hasn’t seen women abandoning their (truly beautiful) full length dresses, although tucked into wellies and with a woolly hat the effect is rather strange.  In Cairo, there are certainly far more unveiled women, but still probably only slightly more than women wearing niquab.  The dresses commonly worn also have the advantage of being remarkably flattering to those who are less than skinny – I find it very hard to believe that there is such a concept as “a diet” in the whole of Egypt, given the rate at which my figure (which registers at just on the brink of the “overweight” category on the UK height-weight charts) is commented upon, as women appear determined to fatten me up.

For all of the reports of sexual harassment and assault being a major problem in Egypt, I’ve experienced none of it.  I do get stared at by both men and women – even wearing a scarf my white skin stands out a country mile – but the stares are more curiosity rather than the leers of the men of Athens.  Transport is crowded, yet men are noticeably modest, changing seats to allow women to sit together, and travelling on the subway in Cairo in the general subway car rather than in the women only carriage, I noticed only concern for women being caught in the scrum of entrance and exit as men cleared space around the women travelling in the mixed carriages.

This is not to deny that there is a problem with sexual harassment, the reports are too numerous and too frequent to ignore, but in Egypt the people are many, and proportionately, it certainly doesn’t seem nearly on the same scale as Athens.  The sexual assaults and even rapes at protests have been a particular focus of concern,  as the sexual violence in Egypt, both during protests and institutional in the cases of the women protesters who were raped by the military during detention attests to.  Having not experienced an Egyptian protest I cannot compare, however having seen the reaction to the gang rape at Occupy Glasgow and having been sexually assaulted in Syntagma Square, I can personally attest that sexual abuse of women and a lack of concern for their sexual safety is by no means confined to Egypt.

One thing which does stand out is the lack of sexualisation of women in public space.  There are no billboards of scantily dressed women in provocative poses, no pornography on open sale, no sex shops touting their wares, nor lap dancing clubs advertised on the sides of taxis.  No lap dancing clubs at all as far as I can see, with belly dancing for the tourists about as rique as it gets.  All in all Egypt seems remarkably innocent in this respect.  The most sexualised advert that I have seen on Egyptian television is an advert for Coca-cola, featuring a modestly dressed (albeit unveiled) Lebanese actress drinking a glass of cola.  Its is undoubtably erotic, but in possibly the most innocent way imaginable.

A male Egyptian friend, who admired dancing, showed me a range of videos, all quite amazing, but interestingly among them was a pole dance.  Featuring a woman dressed in sports wear, it was clearly taken at a fitness studio, rather than a seedy club and it was clear that, along with the other videos of shadow dancing and a woman dancing with hula hoop, it was an innocent admiration of physical art without even the association of the sex industry behind it.

There is no question that under the regime of the Brotherhood that things did become significantly worse for women.  Something  which even a twelve year old boy could see, yet following on from the second revolution there does appear to be an attempt to start to protect the rights of women – with Mansour repeatedly announcing that in the new constitution to be voted on on the 14th and 15th of January, that men and women are to be treated as equals

The state shall ensure the achievement of equality between women and men in all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in accordance with the provisions of the constitution.

Article 11, Proposed Egyptian Constitution

A direct contrast to the 2012 constitution which restricted women’s rights to that of under their own particular interpretation of sharia law, which impacted on women’s ability to inherit property, to pass on citizenship to their children, to earn equal pay for equal work and even to make decisions independently of male family members.

Egypt does however have a long way to go – with women comprising only 2% of current parliamentarians, the new constitution bans political parties formed on the basis of sex, however reserves the position of Defense Minister for a man, drawn and chosen from the Special Council of the Armed Forces – a body entirely made up of men.  No seats are exclusively reserved for women.  Abortion is difficult to access, as can be contraception and the rate of FGM is still shockingly high, despite  its illegal status and condemnation from all religious authorities.

All in all, the collective misogyny of the West appears lacking in Egypt: Arab men may hate women, but Western men certainly hate their women more and the society appears less patriarchal than paternalistic.  With a level of deference to women wrapped up in a veil of protective angst.  The family is central and it is assumed that women are central within it, protected from external threats by male family members.  Women, although numerous in employment within public services and commerce still earn only 82% of the wages  of men, only marginally better than the 79.1% of men’s wages that women earn in the UK.

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