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“Egyptian Made” exposes layered systems that keep women out of work

by Laurie Hays April 5, 2024

In her new book “Egyptian Made: Women, Work and the Promise of Liberation”, Leslie T. Chang uncovers the systems — some policy, some unspoken norms — that keep women out of, or under-valued in, the Egyptian workforce. With one of the lowest rates of female labor participation in the world — less than 20% — and youngest marital age averages, Chang shows how fundamentalist ideas of women’s duties clashed with the nation’s globalization efforts aimed at bolstering the economy, backfired to double down on disenfranchising women. 

“That’s not just culture at work,” Chang says. “It’s culture plus economic stagnation and poor policy decisions.”

Dovetailed with rich storytelling, detailed history and correlation to other developing nations, Chang asks: What will it take for economics to trump tradition and dismantle a patriarchal system that largely leaves women behind?

We sat down with Chang to talk about reporting this and previous work. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

(Photo courtesy of Leslie T. Chang)

What I love about “Egyptian Made” is how your narrative showed the structural and historical roots of Egyptian culture that make it so hard for women to work at all, much less reach equal footing with men. Tell us what you found.

My starting point was my experience in China, where I reported among young women who worked in the giant factories in the south near Hong Kong in the mid-2000s. Factory work gave these young women from the countryside the earnings, skills, and confidence to begin climbing the socioeconomic ladder. I met workers who moved up from the assembly line to become clerks, salespeople, purchasers, production managers, marketers, even English teachers. 

Along the way, they gained both the economic and personal clout to reject parental pressure to return home and get married. Instead, they reinvented themselves as city people. They dressed and talked differently, dated and married someone of their own choosing, and made new homes in their adopted cities. All of this could happen over the course of a year or two.

So in Egypt, I wondered: Why couldn’t the same thing happen? Why couldn’t economics trump tradition and dismantle a patriarchal system, as it has in China? Growth rates are one reason: In China, whose economy has grown at 9%per year for the past several decades, a young woman could enter a factory and immediately earn more money in a month than her parents could in an entire year through farming. This got everyone’s attention and immediately made these young women the breadwinners in their families and people who were respected in their communities.

The Egyptian economy has grown more slowly — at less than half China’s rate — and the government has repeatedly failed to build a significant and globally competitive manufacturing sector, which is what employs so many women in other parts of the world. So even if a young woman in Egypt does get a job in a factory, the money she brings home isn’t enough to make people change their minds about women’s abilities. Instead, I often heard women say: “I’m just working to pass the time,” or “I’m just in the factory to see my friends.” A common line from husbands was: “I’m just letting her work for fun,” as if laboring on an assembly line for eight or ten hours a day is some form of entertainment!

So this traditional idea that a woman’s place is in the home has remained, and it remains unchallenged. When a woman works, it’s often seen as a failure on the part of her husband to take care of his family. Egypt has one of the lowest rates of female labor participation in the world — fewer than 20% of adult women are in the workforce. But that’s not just culture at work, it’s culture plus economic stagnation and poor policy decisions.

Among other observations, this statement caught my eye: “Since the 1970s, Egypt has become deeply integrated into the international economy, but… prospects for women have gotten worse.” Why has globalization failed to lift them? How could it have gotten any worse than it was already?

We tend to think of globalization as following a certain pattern: A country opens up its borders to the outside world, imported goods flood into the market, domestic companies are forced to become more efficient, employment opportunities expand, more men and women obtain work, save money, and eventually buy apartments and cars and join the middle class. 

At the same time, people start traveling and studying abroad, where they’re exposed to new ways of thinking; they bring these ideas home, and their country becomes a more open and diverse place. This is basically what happened in China, and also in Taiwan, South Korea, India, and in conservative Muslim nations such as Malaysia and Bangladesh.

In Egypt, globalization unfolded in a very different way. In the 1960s, then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser, built a socialist industrial state that employed large numbers of men and women in civil-service jobs that provided good wages, generous benefits, and job security. His successor, Anwar Sadat, attempted to open up the economy to the outside world in the 1970s. 

Imported goods did flood into the country, driving up inflation, but because of poor economic policies, corruption, and other reasons, the other necessary things didn’t happen — the state sector didn’t shrink away, and a thriving private sector didn’t take its place. So what you have today is a moribund state sector that is still hanging on, and a stagnant economy that doesn’t offer much opportunity for jobs and entrepreneurship. People still yearn for a civil-service job even if it’s a dead-end, and the economy is sort of stuck between these two phases of development.

At the same time as these changes were happening, millions of Egyptian men migrated to the countries of the Gulf, primarily Saudi Arabia, for work — and that happens to be one of the most repressive countries in the world, in terms of women’s rights. So Egyptian men went out into the world and brought back these ultra-conservative ideas that women are inherently sinful, intellectually inferior, and unfit to travel, work, get married, or make other decisions without the approval of a male guardian. That has fed a fundamentalist wave in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. So opening to the world actually led to more repressive ideas coming in.

I witnessed these generational changes again and again. In my reporting I would meet young women in the factories who told me that their own mothers worked, even after they had children, but that they themselves would quit the workforce as soon as they got married. So this fundamentalist wave combines with a stagnating economy to convince millions of women that it’s better just to stay home, rather than endure the risk and hassle of going out to work.

Rania Saeed Mohammed, who you chose as one of the women to carry your narrative, was different from many other Egyptian women in that “unhappiness gave her freedom.” What was she unhappy about and how did that unhappiness propel her out of the system? Did her economic empowerment provide equality?

It is broadly accepted in Egyptian society that the chief purpose of a woman is to get married — from the time she’s a girl, her parents and relatives are talking about her marriage prospects, and it’s common for families to start saving money and buying items for a young women’s gihaz, or her trousseau, when she’s in her early teens. 

Girls and boys attend school in large numbers now, typically elementary and middle school and often vocational high school, but the median age of marriage for young women is still low — it’s 20 in Egypt, and 19 in rural Upper Egypt. Once they’re married, wives are expected to stay home, have kids and take care of the household. So as you can see, there’s no space for women to develop as independent adults — they basically move from being a daughter to being a wife.

When I reported in Egyptian factories, I found two kinds of women working there. Most of them were in their late teens or early twenties, and they were working in order to save money for their trousseau so they could get married. On the other side, in much smaller numbers, were women whose marriages hadn’t worked out — they were divorcees working to support themselves and often their kids as well. They were on their own, but they weren’t happy about it. Many had suffered traumatic marriages and were struggling to stay afloat economically. In my book, I write: “For a woman in this society, freedom could only be a consolation prize, the thing you got after you lost everything that really mattered.”

Rania was an extreme example of this. Inside the Delta Textile Factory, a large garment factory in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya, she was a star supervisor, the person who won the productivity prize every month, the one whom executives were hoping to promote into management. But at home, she had to endure an unhappy marriage and a husband who had married a second wife without telling her. The workplace for her was where she was respected and liked, where she could shine and develop as an employee and as a human being. All the energy that most women invested in their homes, their families, and their husbands, she put into her work.

But the striking thing is that her success at work didn’t change her home life at all. Even though Rania was the main breadwinner, at home she was still the person who cooked all the meals, cleaned the house, and put up with a second wife whom she hated. Her experiences are reflected in studies by sociologists, which have shown that for an Egyptian woman, working outside the home doesn’t bring her greater say in her own household or more equality in her marriage. For wives, authority still comes through traditional ways, which is bringing a large gihaz to the marriage or giving birth to a son.

Are there women who break out of the system for other reasons and if so, what distinguishes them from the many who accept it? Education, economics, religion, personality are all part of the picture, I am sure.

Women who are educated and wealthy, at the upper echelon of Egyptian society — I estimate they make up between 1 to 2% of the population — often have more freedom to work and travel and make their own choices. One of the women whose stories I follow, Riham Mohamed Galal Seif El-Din, was running her own small garment factory outside Alexandria. She had left her family textile company and struck out on her own, which was considered very daring and unusual in her social circle, but it was accepted. So it was a mix of education, social class, and personality that drove and allowed her to do something this unusual. But even Riham struggled with the limited expectations and social restraints that were put on young women, because almost all of her workers were working-class young women who had to obey those rules and restrictions.

I never met anyone who broke out of the system entirely — I think it’s very rare. Ties to one’s extended family and community are central to life in Egypt, and it wouldn’t make sense to turn your back on those networks. Having that kind of support is so important, for both emotional and economic reasons.

What hope do you have that Egyptian women will ever see equality? What would it take?

There needs to be a smart and coherent economic policy to build an industrial sector that can compete globally — a remake of the education system so that it teaches critical thinking and useful skills — and messaging from top leaders that women’s abilities are equal to men and they are important contributors to the economy and society. Do I expect any of these things to happen under the current military-led regime? No. I don’t see signs that any of these issues — economic policy, educational reform, and gender equality — are priorities of the current leadership.

However, it’s important to recognize that a strong leader can make a big difference, and that may be especially true in authoritarian regimes. China was traditionally a patriarchal country with rigid Confucian ideals, which prioritized men over women and the community over individuals. The Community Party, for all its failings, did overturn those ideas and put women to work in large numbers. If you look at China today, it’s still not a wealthy country in per capita terms, but educational levels for both men and women are high, illiteracy has been stamped out, and female labor participation is higher than in the U.S. or many European nations. Nasser, in Egypt in the 1960s, started to put similar efforts into motion, but his economic program was cut short because it was too expensive and unsustainable. But a visionary leader with the right message can make a big impact.

One thing I am optimistic about is Egyptian people. I met so many women who were capable, charismatic and ambitious, who were working hard to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. I think if they ever get the leadership they deserve, they can make Egypt a country that’s worthy of all its promise. As I write near the end of my book: “Egypt is a place that confounds you, that will attract you with its promise and disappoint you with all the ways it can fail. And then it will draw you back in with an optimism that this time things will work, and get better, which is the true faith held in the heart of every Egyptian.”

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