Progress Elusive for Egypt’s Women

Mona Abousenna

Although this article was written prior to the political unrest in Egypt and the fall of the government of Hosni Mubarak, we are assured by the author that the situation described here has not materially changed. —Eds.


Many middle-class women in Egypt, who entered the work force after being granted the right to equal employment opportunities and pay under the Constitution of 1961, are now willingly resigning from their jobs. And their juniors—in most cases themselves the daughters of career women—are deciding not to go out to work but rather to marry and stay at home as housewives and mothers.

It is believed that today 54 percent of Egyptian families are financially supported by women. But this fact has not given women much power. Instead, they find themselves doubly exploited, forced to labor within their households and also at outside work. This situation has arisen because fifty years ago, Egyptian women entered the work force before they had the chance to reexamine and change beliefs and attitudes regarding themselves and their role in society and domestic life. The resulting strain is now driving many women to retreat from public life and voluntarily return to domestic confinement.

As in any society, women in Egypt are divided into classes and subclasses. Despite this diversity, one common denominator unifies all women in Egypt, whether they be Muslim or Christian: namely, their belief that they are ordained by God to be good wives and mothers. Because this is the core of their identity, they accept being confined to their homes and relinquishing public life.

Those who must work outside the home out of economic necessity face certain restrictions. Muslim women must cover their heads and bodies so that only their faces and hands show. This practice is rooted in the religious and intellectual legacy of Islam, especially the work of Ibn Taimiya, a thirteenth-century Islamic scholar whose influence is still felt today.

All women are subject to male domination. According to a popular Egyptian saying, “The shadow of a man is worth more than that of a wall.” It means that it is preferable for a woman to be under the shadow of a man—that is, to be married. The presence of a man in a woman’s life is necessary if social norms and customs are to be obeyed. This is because the single woman, whether she has never married or is a divorcée or a widow, bears a social stigma.

A man in a woman’s life is deemed to be better protection than a wall (that is, living as a single woman in the parents’ house). A man’s involvement shields a woman from the slander of other women and from other men’s sexual harassment. Even women who are economically independent choose to accept this system. Women who do not earn their own living have no such choice.

Why are women now succumbing to the stresses of the clash between modernity and tradition? The pressure of Islamic fundamentalism, emergent since the 1970s, plays some role. But the larger reason for women’s regression and withdrawal is twofold.

One reason is that Egypt, unlike Western countries, has not experienced two major historic movements—religious reformation and enlightenment. In this it is like any other third-world society. The first movement, which occurred in Europe during the sixteenth century, liberated scripture from ecclesiastical authority, thus enabling scripture’s free examination and interpretation for all believers. (Allegorical interpretation of sacred texts in Egypt is still discouraged, as is secularization, in all circles—even in academia.) The second movement, the Enlightenment—which occurred in Europe during the eighteenth century—liberated people from all authority save that of reason itself, in all fields of knowledge.

The second reason is that Egypt has never experienced a genuine women’s liberation movement, rooted in the prior movements of reformation and enlightenment, simply because those were totally absent in Arabic and Islamic cultures. The absence of this essential philosophic and intellectual infrastructure is, in my view, responsible for the backward situation of women in Arab and Islamic societies in general and in Egypt in particular. It means that women will continue to fall victim to the only truly dynamic ideological trend in those societies: Islamic fundamentalism, which holds women’s subordination to men to be part of a divine order based on a literal understanding of the Qur’an. Islamic fundamentalism uses the subordination of women as a stepping stone to political power not only regionally but also globally.

There is no secular countertrend to Islamic fundamentalism in Arab and Muslim societies. So impoverished is the concept of secularization that the word secular is widely considered to be the equivalent of atheism. In my view, secularization is the alternative to fundamentalism. The essence of secularization is the relativization of absolutist modes of thinking through interpretation. Secularization, in this sense, could form the foundation of a secular culture in the Muslim world. One way that this could be accomplished is by implementing the ideas of Ibn Rushd (1126–1198), also known as Averröes, the medieval Muslim philosopher and founder of the theory of allegorical interpretation of sacred texts that was the basis of the sixteenth-century European movement toward religious reformation. Only a secular culture will offer full equality to all Egyptian women.

Mona Abousenna

Mona Abousenna is professor emerita of English at the Faculty of Education–Ain Shams University and cofounder and secretary general of the Afro-Asian Philosophy Association and the Averröes and Enlightment International Association.


Although this article was written prior to the political unrest in Egypt and the fall of the government of Hosni Mubarak, we are assured by the author that the situation described here has not materially changed. —Eds. Many middle-class women in Egypt, who entered the work force after being granted the right to equal employment …

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