In May 2015, the BBC did a special report where they interviewed an elderly Egyptian woman called Sessa who earned a living as a shoe shiner in Luxor. The woman was originally from the Upper Egyptian Governorate of Qena, and her early life was largely traditional in many respects. She got married, became pregnant soon afterwards and was preparing to live her life as a stay at home mother, something that was expected of her in Conservative rural Egypt. However, while she was pregnant with her daughter, her husband passed away. In order to provide for her daughter, she would have to find work. But Sessa’s mother warned her that she would find it difficult to find work as woman, as such she advised her to dress and act as a man in order to have better luck in the job market.
From there, Sessa would spend the next 42 years masquerading as a man, and she would earn money doing various labour jobs mostly reserved for men such as building. Even her current line of work as a street shoe shiner is seen as a man’s job in Egypt. Sessa remarked that neither her father nor brother in her family would give her any financial help after her husband died, and the only person who would help was her late mother. Faced with such difficult circumstances, Sessa had to do what she could for her daughter. Although female employment in formal sectors existed in the 1970s, those jobs were reserved for women who usually had a university diploma and not working class women with little to no formal education. While Sessa might not have sought work had her husband not died, her story, with the exception of the masquerading as a man, resonates with many women in Egyptian society today.
According to a figures provided by Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), women are the main or sole breadwinner for around 14 per cent of Egyptian households. It should be noted that other independent figures estimate that the percentage of female-headed households might actually be as high as 30 per cent. While official figures might be considered low, it is progress considering the fact that Egyptian society is still interlocked in a conservative patriarchal hierarchy that dictates that men should and must be the main breadwinners of the family. Furthermore, men who do not fulfil this role of being the main provider of the family are often emasculated and seen as less of a man. Even in households where both the husband and the wife work, many women are reluctant to take up positions which would ensure a higher wage than that of their husbands in order to maintain their spouse’s position as the head of the household.
While the number of women who are the main providers of the family are on the rise, not enough studies have indicated why that is. Some speculate that rising divorce rates in Egypt have encouraged female divorcees to seek greater job opportunities to provide more for their children, rather than relying on their ex-husbands. Additionally, there are women who are forced into becoming the main breadwinners through no fault of their own, for example women whose husbands abandoned them and their children, or women who have become widowers. Finally, the rising numbers of young male drug addicts has rendered many fathers unable and unwilling to work, as such their wives (or in many cases ex-wives) became the sole provider for their children.
THE INFORMAL ECONOMY AND PUBLIC SECTOR EMPLOYMENT
According to CAPMAS, around 35 per cent of female breadwinners work in the informal sector of the economy. One clear example of an informal sector job that is female dominated is house cleaning. In urban Egyptian cities, well off households will often hire maids or cleaners providing opportunity for women who lack formal education access to a steady income. An advantage of this kind of work is the fact that women can work in multiple households a week, increasing their earnings. Furthermore, house cleaners who are seen as proficient and trustworthy will often get recommended to other households seeking maids, thus giving these women the opportunity to gain access to multiple sources of income. However, jobs in the informal sector have many drawbacks among them is the lack of insurance, social security, health care and pension. Women who work in the informal sector can also be susceptible to abuse, which can often go unchecked due to a lack institutions that are made to protect employees from such incidences. There is also the issue pertaining to those who wish to shift their line of work from the informal to the formal sector. For example, a woman who works as a house cleaner who wishes to transition as a janitor in an office building will face competition from men. Unlike, domestic housekeeping jobs, which are female dominated, formal janitorial positions with fixed salaries and employee benefits are jobs that men regularly apply to. While competition for jobs is not an inherently negative aspect, statistics have shown that hiring managers in Egypt tend to have preconceived notions when it comes to potential female employees. In a 2010 study published by the World Bank, when respondents were asked on the disadvantages of hiring women, around 49 per cent answered with domestic duties and marriage, while 43 per cent answered family responsibilities. When asked what could be done to break down these obstacles, 40 per cent said that there was no solution, while others were a bit more optimistic as 23 per cent suggested more flexible working hours, and 13 per cent said the services of nurseries would help. This shows that in Egyptian society, most people think that domestic duties and childcare should be a woman’s utmost priority.
Another sector that many Egyptian women usually flock to is the public sector. There are multiple reasons why most women prefer working for the public sector, rather than the private sector. First and foremost, they prefer the more egalitarian nature they face in public sector employment. For example, a World Bank study indicated that private sector employers tend to display a bias against female employees since they view hiring women will be more costly rather than beneficial. The reason for such bias paradigms again goes back to the idea that a woman’s first duty should and will be her domestic duty, as such they think all female employees will be unwilling to put in the same number of hours as their male counterparts and moreover employers will factor in the time periods in which female employees will be off for maternity leave. Women’s dependence on the public sector is shown in the fact that one in every two women who live in urban areas are employed by the public sector, while only one in five men in urban areas work in the same sector.
WOMEN STILL LAGGING BEHIND
Although, the number of female headed households is on the rise, Egyptian women by large still lag behind men in labour force. According to the Global Economy only around 22 per cent of women participated in the labour force in 2019, this number is dwarfed by the percentage of Egyptian men who participate in the labour force, which in 2019 amounted to about 71 per cent. One of the keys that can narrow down this gap is creating more opportunities for young girls and women in education. The rate of female illiteracy needs to drop, as CAPMAS recently reported that around 31 per cent of Egyptian women are illiterate as opposed to 21 per cent of Egyptian men.
It should be noted that progress has been made in terms of increased female participation in education.
According to one statistic, in 1996 only around 67 per cent of girls were literate, but in 2013 that number increased to 90.3 per cent. Moreover, fewer girls are dropping out of primary school, as recent studies have shown that more girls than boys are enrolled in primary schools and more young women than young men are enrolled in university. While more needs to be done, Egypt seems to be moving in the right direction. However, more work needs to be done to address the biases against women in the workplace and the discrimination they tend to face from employers as well as potential employers.