When women are fearful of walking in Egypt’s streets because of increasing rates of sexual harassment, physical assault and rape, then we have a very serious social and behavioral problem.
I am not talking about a novel phenomenon that’s taking shape in post-revolution Egypt, nor am I speaking of increasing incidents that are due to a lack of police forces. I am speaking about a fact of life that has existed way before revolution, specifically from around the mid-1980s, when I personally began to feel the weight of harassment and the limitations it puts on freedom of movement – a basic tenet of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13-(1).
Sexual harassment on the streets of Egypt is where I chose to begin my wider topic of “gender inequality” in Egypt.
When women are judged by their clothes and appearance instead of being valued for their true moral and intellectual value, this gives me great cause for concern and disdain. In patriarchal societies, such as that plaguing Egypt and perhaps the entire MENA region, women are generally considered to be means of human reproduction with their primary, if not sole “raison d’être” being to produce babies and to nurture their offspring. This is an extremely admirable objective. But, I am totally against this being the sole goal of a young girl’s upbringing and her “cultural socialization” in Egypt.
UNICEF defines gender equality as “leveling the playing field for girls and women by ensuring that all children have equal opportunity to develop their talents.” Do girls and boys in Egypt have equal opportunities in developing their talents and skills? To illustrate my point, I would like to cite this personal account of a rural woman by the name of Nesma from Fayyoum: “Reading doesn’t make a woman socially acceptable or useful”, she said. “Here, in the villages, we women grow up to marry and have children. That is our role in life. Anything else is a luxury” (Cairo, March 8, 2006, IRIN. IRIN, is a Service of the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).
What is even more noteworthy is the fact that according to a Human Development Report for Egypt, 85% of female rural household heads are illiterate! This is a fact which has further social and health-related implications for these women and for the Egyptian rural social fabric as a whole. The fact that women in rural areas don’t get the compulsory primary school education stipulated by Egyptian Law, allows parents to never bother obtaining birth certificates for their girls, which in turn means that the girls become invisible, i.e. “off the population and hence human rights radar.”
What does this mean for post-revolution Egypt? It means that a huge portion of eligible female voters will be essentially “kept in the dark” and denied their constitutional and human right to vote. Moreover, even if females get registered for a National Identity Card, if uneducated, as voters they will be easy targets for manipulation. Therefore, the right to education is my first and foremost concern as it is the foundation for social progress on all levels.
Without proper education, women in Egypt will not become aware of their immensely vital and critical role in their country’s post-revolution society. This new role for women is the real stimulus for pushing the wheel of economic, social and scientific progress forward and to bringing Egypt into the 21st century as a hub of economic development for the MENA region. An educated mother makes for a more controlled birth rate, lower prenatal death rates, better health indicators for mother and child, and an educated male and female population. In short, once a mother knows the path to self-determination that education brings, she will not obstruct or prevent her children from attaining the same rights.
Ladies and gentlemen, the path to gender equality is a long one…but once we overcome the stumbling block of denying girls their right to education, we will be over the hill and on our way…
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Ranya Khalifa is an Egyptian blogger, social activist and poet. She holds an M.A in Middle East Studies from American University in Cairo, and focuses mainly on women's rights, human rights in general and advocacy.