Over the past few years, the month of March has increasingly become the month of women, their issues, their rights, or maybe the lack of them, as well as of Egyptian Mothers’ Day.
The month of March also marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere. While spring in some countries means nicer weather, longer days, shorter nights, flowers blooming and birds singing, in others it can mean sandstorms, changeable weather and the early heat of summer.
Egypt is one country where March can mean sandstorms, together with flowers and birds singing, a contradictory combination which is similar to the situation of women in Egypt.
In March 2019, with International Women’s Day on the 8th, Egyptian Women’s Day on the 16th and Mothers’ Day on the 21st, Egyptian women are still the weakest, yet also the strongest, link in Egypt.
They are the sole bread-winners for 3.3 million families, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), the state statistics agency, yet their right to enter the public sphere is still being debated by some people belonging to the Middle Ages.
The current political age believes in the power, strength and ability of women to carry out and excel in any jobs and responsibilities for which they are qualified. However, while qualifications do not differentiate between men and women, human perceptions do.
Empowerment, equality and proper treatment for women are still issues for discussion in Egypt with a lot of differences as well as agreements. Should women major in the sciences at university or should they not? Can women work as judges, or does their “emotional nature” prevent this? Are women capable of long working hours, or were they born with limited capacities? Are women doctors as clever as male doctors? Can women drive cars properly? Are women human beings with full mental capacities?
The capacity of Egyptian society to deal with absurdities, and sometimes get used to them, can be quite amazing. Back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Egyptian women were making significant leaps forward.
The political elite, the population and the general mood at the time allowed women to make unprecedented achievements.
The issues of equality, women’s rights, men’s fair share of household chores, raising the children, going to school and university, women taking a job, and even taking unusual jobs, were all matters that were discussed without the threat of burning in hell, roasting in life or turning into monsters.
Under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the state sponsored such open-minded attitudes and discussions. Some say that Nasser realised that if women were allowed to go out of their homes, get jobs and coexist in the public sphere together with men, this would further enhance the image of Egypt as a thriving socialist society.
The result was amazing: a society where all classes discussed openly and courageously the status of women. This was a healthy society, a society that did not classify itself as “religious by nature,” and a society that did not find itself categorised among the top five nations for harassing women.
Half a century later, one finds some people seriously discussing whether women should be allowed to go out to work, whether they would be sinners if they studied science, and whether society would be “infidel” if it allowed women to take high-ranking political positions.
At the same time, this society, where the majority of Muslim women wear head scarves as a sign of being religious and a declaration of being pious, also harasses women, despite their veils and niqabs, because it thinks it is a man’s right to harass and a woman’s mistake to go out into the public sphere where men could lose control of their hormones.
A hormone-driven street was not what Nasser had a mind when he encouraged women to lead their lives as full human beings. Islam obviously also existed as a religion in Nasser’s time, but one did not hear “religious” interpretations saying women had lesser minds according to religion.
Society as a whole was much more ethical and respectful of women than the conservative and covered-up society we see today.
This covered-up society ranks lower in gender equity indexes than many others, even those which were off the scale compared to Egypt back in the good old days.
The Global Gender Gap Index that measures disparities between men and women across the globe ranks Egypt at 136 out of 145 countries worldwide, for example.
Women have significantly lower participation in the labour force than men (26 per cent versus 79 per cent), and lower literacy rates than men (65 per cent for women and 82 per cent for men).
However, it is not all about numbers. The bigger problem lies in minds that have been distorted by the ultra-conservative views coming from the east, together with the millions of dollars that have been spent presenting the image of a pious society that categorises Muslims as being of a higher status than non-Muslims and supports a dress code differentiating the good from the bad and ugly.
Thankfully, such distortions cannot last forever, especially in nations that once had a strongly rooted culture of open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance, in addition to an ancient civilisation that impresses all inhabitants of Mother Earth.
What Egypt has been witnessing over the past few years is not the symptom of a wind of change, but rather clear-cut signs of going back to such roots.
It is not all about the unprecedented number of women ministers in the current cabinet, or the type of ministries that they head, or even the continuous and sustainable messages that are being broadcast regarding the empowerment of women.
Women’s empowerment in Egypt today is not limited to those at the top of the socio-economic pyramid. It is an empowerment that is permeating the whole of the society with no specific preferences.
All women deserve to be empowered, not because they are women, but because they are human beings.
Even this argument of equality is no longer wholly relevant, as it seems like an issue from the past. The present has to do with notions that are more progressive and practical, and they are obvious in today’s Egypt, even if they are in their early stages.
When millions of Egyptians get used to the fact that their healthcare, economy, environment, social solidarity, tourism, culture, immigration, planning and investment, and international cooperation are being managed by female ministers their mindsets will start to recover.
When more and more women professors, police, doctors, engineers, artists and workers are on the job market, societal perceptions will start recuperating.
What Egypt needs nowadays is not preaching about women’s rights or launching campaigns intended to convince people to accept women in the public sphere. What it needs is to go back to its roots and to relaunch the present and future from there.
In March, we expect sandstorms and unstable weather, but we also expect women to take extra steps towards a healthier society of which women are a natural component with men.
*The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Spring, sandstorms and women