While some may argue about the economic achievements of the current cabinet and how far it has delivered on promises of better economic conditions for the country, few will argue that women’s representation has witnessed a very welcome increase. After decades of near neglect, women are finally starting to acquire their deserved ministerial positions in the cabinet led by Prime Minister Sherif Ismail.
For the first time in Egypt’s history, six women have been chosen for ministerial positions that include tourism and investment, and they hold positions in ministries that include culture, international cooperation, social solidarity, immigration and planning and administration reform. Many Egyptians are looking forward to women holding portfolios in strategic ministries such as defense, the interior and foreign affairs. Nevertheless, the above-mentioned ministries still affect the lives of the entire population.
At the same time, parliament has female representation of over 15 per cent, which may seem little compared to some other countries, but is still the highest rate in Egypt’s parliamentary history. The number is expected to increase in the upcoming parliamentary elections. These numbers are not huge compared to the developed countries or even some developing ones that have blazed the trail. However, they are an encouraging start for greater things to come for Egyptian women.
There has hardly ever been a previous time when the leadership of the state actually encouraged the involvement of women in all areas such as it does at present. However, this is just a step on a long road, as part of the problem remains with many Egyptian women themselves who restrict their freedoms in order to conform to what they suppose are religious or customary social norms.
But most freedoms have to be grabbed. They are not received as gifts from others. And therefore it is time for Egyptian women to stand their ground on issues relating to their social status, employment and other matters restricted as a result of misunderstood religious or social practices over recent centuries.
The present time is also propitious, as the influence of the Islamists is receding, and their fanaticism has been exposed for what it is to the whole nation.
Liberty is part of human nature, and so women are urged to return to their natural and rightful place in the new Egyptian society.
Egyptian women already carry the burden of financing 30 to 34 per cent of Egyptian households, according to statistics. This means that women share a major proportion of maintaining the welfare of Egyptian society, and it is only natural that they should attain their rights to hold key executive positions in the country.
Furthermore, with an alarming illiteracy rate of 30.8 per cent, according to the 2017 census, Egyptian women are still behind international levels of education despite many of them having attained high-ranking positions. Thirty young women managed to acquire top positions in the high-school certificate (thanaweya amma) results this year compared to 26 young men, which is a very positive indication.
The untapped potential of educating illiterate women is also huge judging by their ability to affect their households and their community positively. Moreover, there are serious issues involving equal wages and job opportunities between men and women that it is imperative are ironed out, especially since many women are doing the same work as men in many fields.
One indication of the success of Egyptian women is in sports, where several world championships and titles have been won. A prime example is squash, which is currently dominated by Egyptians of both genders who have won trophies and championships on every continent. For the first time in the history of the game, four Egyptian women are among the top 10 ranked female players, including the first two rankings held by Nour Al-Sherbini and Raneem Al-Weleily leading the pack almost uncontested in 2017 and early 2018.
This may seem to be a new dawn for Egyptian women in general and for society to recognise their rightful place. However, it goes without saying that some conservatives in society will not let these triumphs go uncriticised, as they attempt to imprison women in older ways by falsely citing baseless religious justifications.
However, these calls are falling on deaf ears, starting from the head of the state and moving on to the average Egyptian citizen. Many people now feel that it is high time for Egyptian women to blossom and take leading roles that they have been eligible for but were forcibly held back from by social norms.
The Egyptian state has taken unprecedented steps to empower Egyptian women and activate their enormous and untapped social and economic potential for the benefit of the entire nation. While Egypt is still lagging behind on many women’s issues, it is now poised to march on the right path towards a more progressive, liberal and equal society. This also builds on the ancient Egyptian legacy as a prime example of how men and women interacted in the past and how they can create a model society for the region in the years to come.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly