Egypt: The importance of women's empowerment

Amina Shafik, Thursday 2 Feb 2017

It is not enough for the state to promote women to high position. What is needed is a conscious drive that energises women in the base of the societal pyramid

Women worldwide, including Egyptian, do not forget the first International Women’s Year that the UN General Assembly launched in 1975. That year, the first global conference on women’s rights to freedom and equality was held in Mexico, a developing country.

That year was a landmark and turned a new leaf in relations between societies and women’s issues. Once, these were the focus of enlightened women only. But now they became a preoccupation of all societies, governments and intellectuals.

In the past, the primary focus was women’s concerns as mothers, wives and homemakers. Now, women's rights became an issue pertinent to the very fabric of society and the march towards progress.

There is a dynamic relationship between women’s issues and social issues; women are a key factor in progress and development and a primary partner in reaping their rewards, which are inseparable. This was a new concept.

International Women’s Year in 1975 evolved into freedom for women, nations, development, social justice, equal opportunities, citizenship and political participation. It began with one conference in Mexico but extended for an entire decade in tens of thousands of small and large gatherings around the globe. It began without organisational structure, but resulted in governmental mechanisms in each country and the UN focused on studying, planning and following up on all women’s issues and presenting findings to states to aid in implementation of positive change.

Bodies such as the National Council for Women in Egypt were created, taking different forms depending on the will of each country.

Today, in 2017, social space is once again being created to study women’s issues and their progress. What are we, as women and men, seeking to achieve in terms of women’s aspirations in 2017, 42 years after the first UN International Women’s Year?

To begin with, we must remember that the calls and policies adopted by the UN and its agencies urge that women be taken as primary partners, not just in development but in running each country’s affairs. This means equal representation of women and men in national positions by 2050. This is occurring in some countries, even though it is not moving in a linear fashion.

From this starting point, we must take steps that may not be quick but must be steady and follow clear policies set by political decision makers. We must also closely note that the structure of societies often take the form of a pyramid, with a pinnacle built on a broad base that is sturdy and is able to withstand storms and volatility.

This applies to the condition of women not only in Egypt but in all countries, whether developed, developing or emerging. The question is one of women’s effectiveness in society and their contribution to its progress. This does not just rest at the summit, but must extend to the base, concerning illiteracy, reproductive health, share in GDP and growth in national income. Also, women's participation in politics, in terms of volume and quality, share in ownership, and women's participation in various economic sectors.

In other words, a broad women’s base is the criteria for measuring progress, not merely numbers at the summit of society.

When comparing the status of women in various countries, we notice there have been many gains for Egyptian women through directives from above. This is a clear expression of an authoritarian patriarchal society that cannot wait, accept or imagine that change is possible through interaction within society, or through democratic transformation.

In Egypt, women have fought for their rights in consecutive waves, but in the end they earn these rights through a decision from the top. This is natural in a society that is still struggling and fighting to achieve democracy. It applies to workers’ and farmers’ movements, movements of professionals, and in turn women’s movements.

We usually say that the general outlook of the Egyptian state on benefits to be accorded to Egyptian women came in response to the outside world beginning to hold it accountable. They were not issued out of true conviction or deep rooted belief in the value of women as an integrated element of value in our society.

We are no longer satisfied or convinced – or at least some of us – with demanding the government increase the number of female MPs or women in senior ministerial posts. We need to empower the broad base of women in the field, factory, shop and management. This year, we must reach out to women in the workforce, production and economic activity.

Yes, we must reach out where women are economically active. We want women to be an integral part of the overall production process and the democratic struggle.

When women came out on 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2013, this proved the awareness they demonstrate when they feel their country is under threat. Everyone — the state, women leaders, and civil society — must hold to the conviction that it is essential to reach out to the women’s base. If empowered, it will produce the women’s summit and, in the interim, some of our democracy will be achieved. Empowering women will always lead to societal progress.



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