This week a celebration dubbed "Let Us Learn" highlighted the pivotal need to improve female access to education in Egypt. A key issue in the post-revolutionary period, during which women have been marginalised further, winning only nine seats in the parliamentary elections. "Education is the key to combating gender discrimination," affirmed Mervat Tallawi, the president of the Egyptian National Council for Women.
Monday's event - held in collaboration with UNESCO, the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC), the New Women’s Union and the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute (DEDI) - brought together some 700 women from all across Egypt. A number of representatives of the presidential candidates also attended, discussing the presidential programmes as they relate to women and education.
The main objective of the initiative is to educate marginalised women in rural and slum areas in Egypt where the barriers to female education are increasingly great. According to Malak Zalouk, the director of the AUC’s Middle East Institute, "Two million women in Egypt have never attended school; moreover, the number of girls outside the educational system is double that of boys."
Zalouk suggested that the first issue that must be addressed concerns the obstacles in the way of women’s education.
In Egyptian society such obstacles are frequently tied up with misogynistic traditions, incorrectly constructed and incorporated into the religious context.
For her part Dr Khawla Matter, UNIC director, asserted, "Women must fight for their basic rights and challenge traditions, not religion."
Poverty is another fundamental issue facing women, with approximately 45 percent of the Egyptian population living in slum conditions with a daily income of less than US$2, according to UN reports.
Female education is thus viewed as a matter of secondary importance. Nevertheless many brave women have managed to cross the financial hurdle against all odds.
Aya Magdy Abdel Hamid, a heroic 14-year-old schoolgirl from the Duwaiqa slum in Manshiyyet Nasser (home to approximately one million) expressed remarkable determination. A member of a family of six living in one overcrowded room, she told Ahram Online cheerfully, "I am determined to complete my education, I want to be a cardiologist when I grow up".
Abul Ezz El-Hariri, the MP representing Alexandria - who was imprisoned under Sadat for his left-wing leanings - stressed the importance of improving women’s access to education in slums and rural areas, reflecting on his own background coming from a peasant family.
Representatives of presidential candidates Bothaina Kamel and Amr Moussa, on the other hand, used the event as an outlet for promoting their political programmes.
Kamel’s sister Azza Kamel talked about her sister’s plans for female educational reform while Moussa's representative, Ambassador Ashraf Rashid stressed the need to incorporate the principles of the 25 January revolution into all future policy: "During the revolution women of all ages, social and religious backgrounds participated. This is a vital component in the construction of the new Egypt." Rashid also discussed Moussa's plan to focus on women in the areas of education, health and economic empowerment, highlighting Moussa's famous "Egypt without illiteracy" campaign.
And redefining literacy, according to Dawlat El Meligi, a volunteer at the Hoda Shaarawi Foundation, is essential to female development. “Literacy requires a holistic approach; reading and writing is not sufficient, it must incorporate fundamental areas such as health, nutrition, politics, child-rearing and religion."
Empirical studies, according to Zalouk, further reinforce the critical nature of female education in the broader sense, given that the children of uneducated mothers are more likely to be illiterate and prone to brutish cultural practices such as FGM.
Zalouk advocated community colleges and the provision of free education for women to encourage attendance. Dr Ghada Gholam, the UNESCO Educational Specialist for Egypt, added, "It is important for women to know their human right to education. Education should not be restricted to age, social or economic status; it has no boundaries."
However, even during a festive event, those positive assertions were challenged by the all too familiar gender bias. "What is the point in educating women,” one antagonist who identified himself as Mohamed Abdallah cried out. “After all they will end up married." It was left to human rights Activist and Tahrir Lounger Product Manager Mona Shahien to respond compellingly, "We must overcome such ignorance; education is the key to development, we cannot guarantee democracy if women are not included in the transformation."
All through history Egyptian women have played a significant role in society.
The date of Egypt’s Women’s Day marks the Egyptian women’s revolution against colonialism in 1919.
Hameida Khalil, the first woman to sacrifice her life for the cause, reflects that brave struggle for independence. In 1923 the renowned Hoda Sha’arawi publicly removed her face veil and founded the first Egyptian Women’s Union to improve women’s educational level and to ensure political and social equality. Yet, regardless of such marvellous triumphs, today women have been marginalised again. Thus was the view of the president of the Egyptian National Council for Women.
The small number of women in parliament compared to previous terms is a clear indication of that, she said. "We need men to support us in our struggle for our basic right to education.”