Foreign surveys on Egypt can paint a dismal picture of spiritless and subservient Egyptian women. It is high time we held such surveys accountable and exposed their inaccuracies.
I have always been sceptical of the surveys conducted by, say, Thomson Reuters or Gallop on Egypt. Such surveys leave me perturbed and disconcerted, for neither the questions asked, the methodology applied, the experts probed, nor the results established make much sense. Today, as I examine the latest surveys, my reservations are validated.
In a 2013 Thomson Reuters survey, Egyptian women fared worst among the 22 Arab states, even as women in Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Libya were caught up in wars.
In 2015, Gallop decided Egyptians were a very unhappy people; out of 143 countries surveyed, Egypt came in at 123.
Laughably, the survey conductors asked passers-by, “did you feel well-rested yesterday? Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” I bet many Egyptians walked on, ignoring those conducting the survey.
In 2017, Thomson Reuters ranked Cairo as the most dangerous megacity for women from a list of 19. Most Cairene women will find this bizarre since we find Cairo to be very safe.
By the same token, a Mexican friend once visited me in Cairo. In an involuntary act, and because she did this elsewhere, she rolled the taxi window up in anticipation of some violent act or other. I told her Egyptian bystanders never carry out harmful acts.
Another friend, this time a Canadian one, found the fact that children were riding their tricycles on the curb at 8 pm in Heliopolis, unaccompanied, to be quite exceptional and wonderful at the same time.
In a 2018 Thomson Reuters survey, despite not appearing in the top ten countries in most categories, Egypt came in as the eighth most-dangerous country for women in terms of cultural and religious traditions or customary practices.
Granted female genital mutilation (FGM) has not been eradicated in Egypt, but the numbers are slowly inching downwards.
According to the same report, in terms of sexual violence Egypt also ranked as the tenth most-dangerous country in the world. Any Egyptian living on Egyptian soil would find such results to be inexplicable.
Sexual violence is not endemic in Egypt.
We won’t delve further into these surveys per se, but let’s turn the tables on these studies and see for ourselves what the women of Egypt have gained in recent years. First, let’s pay tribute to the women who stood their ground on 25 January 2011 and later on
30 June 2013. Standing shoulder to shoulder and side by side with their male counterparts, these women demanded change, a feat in itself, and they got it.
More recently, Egyptian women stood in solidarity with men to implement their voting rights in the 2019 referendum despite age or physical challenges.
One such Egyptian woman, who had no arms, was photographed using her toes to sign the registration sheet. Blind women were led into polling stations. These women were there to tell the world that they all have rights.
I also envision momentous transformations for the simplest Egyptian women. Sayeda, let’s call her so, lives somewhere in rural Egypt.
She suffered from FGM as a child, but she would fight tooth and nail before she let her own daughters go through a similar indignity, having learnt the lesson from TV awareness campaigns and NGOs calling for the eradication of the custom.
I know of some mothers who went along with the custom for their eldest daughters, but adamantly refused to let their younger ones go through the same ordeal.
Sayeda grew up with no electricity and a rudimentary sewage system. Today, she has both, and clean water too, as improved waste disposal and water access now reach millions. She was illiterate, but now she goes to adult education classes and can read and write. Not only does this empower her, but it also provides her with crucial information about child-rearing, birth control and healthcare for her children.
Sayeda used the government’s new Financial Inclusion Initiative and the support of NGOs to receive a loan that she invested in a cow. Its dairy products she sells for extra cash, which has raised her self-esteem and empowered her further. She’s now paid off the loan, and her next one will go towards a sewing machine.
According to Egypt’s Micro, Small and Medium-Enterprise Development Agency (MSMEDA), “rural women control 51 per cent of all MSMEDA-funded projects,” and women have become “a major driver for small and medium-sized projects in the country.” What often starts as a small individual effort later becomes a business that employs other female workers.
Like millions of other Egyptian women, Sayeda or her husband may have been cured of Hepatitis C, as have two million others, when the government made treatments available for all citizens.
She may have found out through the government’s 100 Million Healthy Lives Initiative that she suffered from Hepatitis C, and then she would have been immediately put on the proper medication for free.
By March this year, over 36 million Egyptians had been screened in total since the initiative began, in the hope that by 2022 Egypt will be free of Hepatitis C. Only a few years back, one in every ten Egyptians was affected by the disease.
On the other end of the spectrum, meet the Egyptian women who have shattered glass ceilings in all fields. As social norms change, women gain empowerment.
Women lawmakers are at the helm playing pivotal roles in Egypt’s future: there are now eight women ministers, 89 parliamentarians and two governors. Women parliamentarians will form 25 per cent of parliament after the 2019 referendum is implemented.
Egyptian women continue to gain rights and play a significant role in society. They have become airline pilots, professionals, entrepreneurs, judges and members of the police force.
Egyptian women are overcoming the stereotypes depicted in the foreign surveys. Egyptian women swimmers, weightlifters and Taekwondo and squash players rank amongst the best athletes in the world.
Opera singers known worldwide, jewellery makers that create unique Egyptian brands, or accessory producers whose bags sell for thousands all around the world are just some Egyptian women.
Yet, Thomson Reuters and other survey conductors don’t want to see the leaps and bounds Egyptian women have taken. I suggest they take a closer and better look at today’s Egyptian woman. She’s capable of doing wonders.
*The writer is a political analyst.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: All credit to Egyptian women